In the diverse world of beer, the term imperial beer refers to the best of the best. Many breweries offer premium versions of their beers, marked with this label.
If you enjoy trying different beer types, you will taste some imperial stout sooner or later. Many people wonder what is an imperial beer and what makes it so unique. If you are one of them, it is the right time to find out.
Imperial Beer History
The imperial beer history wouldn’t be the same without the Russian tsar, Peter the Great. He fell in love with the taste of English beer, especially their porters, in 1698. As a result of his passion, the world can enjoy this unique beverage today.
When the time came for him to return to Russia, the tsar wasn’t ready to give up this pleasure. London brewers shipped beer to him, but the beverage spoiled during a long voyage.
The brewers urgently needed to find a way of delivering beer to the imperial court, so they created a stronger version. Thanks to high alcohol content and extra hops, this product reached the tsar and his nobility unchanged. That way, a strong, intense dark Russian Imperial Stout of complex flavor was born.
The empress Catherine the Great also enjoyed the taste of strong, dark English beer. Anchor Brewery from Southwark was brewing a stout specifically for the imperial court of the 1780s onwards.
Modern imperial beers exist thanks to the Englishman Samuel Smith, an advocate of quality craft beer. He reinvented this style in 1980 by offering Samuel Smith Imperial Stout to the market.
Imperial vs. Regular Beer
Nowadays, you can find plenty of imperial beers on the market. They differ from each other in style, strength, and tastes. What they have in common is that they present a better, improved version of regular beer.
If you enjoy red ale, for example, imperial red ale will please you even more. It has a stronger color, more intense flavor, and more hops bitterness.
However, don’t forget that breweries often use the term imperial for marketing purposes. What they actually tell their consumers with this label is that this beer is not for everyone. It is stronger! It is special! It is royal!
The terminology of the beer industry is often confusing for the average consumer. The layman often believes that the term ‘imperial’ should mean that this beer is stronger than the regular one.
However, you can also see some imperial synonyms on beer labels. For example, some breweries classify their beers as double, triple, and premium.
Therefore, you can find double or triple brown ale, double IPA, and Premium Pilsner. The point is the same. These beers have more hops, more alcohol, and more intense taste.
Imperial Beer Alcohol Content
As I have already mentioned, imperial beers tend to have more alcohol than regular ones. The original Russian Imperial Stout from the 18th century had about 10% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is still the average alcohol content for this beer.
However, exceptions exist in both directions. The already mentioned Samuel Smith Imperial Stout contained only 7% alcohol while Brewdog had a limited series of imperial stout called Tactical Nuclear Penguin with 32% ABV. In 2020, a few bottles of 1.35 ounces (40 ml) Strength in Numbers with a colossal 57.8% ABV appeared on the market.
So, the imperial version is always stronger, regardless of the beer style you choose. For instance, the average lager has 4 to 7% ABV. On the other hand, its imperial alternatives range between 6 and 9%, depending on the recipe and brand.
Imperial Beer Types
Nowadays, any brewery can introduce its imperial beer in addition to the regular kind it produces. Still, there are several beer categories or styles where imperial beers are more represented than others.
1. Double India pale ale
Imperial or Double IPA (India Pale Ale) has a light color that varies from light straw to medium amber, depending on the brand. Still, its shade is somewhat darker than for the regular IPA.
Hops flavor and aroma dominate in this beer, while it is refreshing and light at the same time. Plus, it has high bitterness and haze clarity at low temperatures.
2. Imperial red ale
This beer has a dark reddish to brown shade, unlike the regular red ale with its red amber color. Plus, the caramel taste is more intense. It belongs to the extremely bitter beers, so brewers occasionally add fruity or floral flavoring to soften the taste intensity.
3. American-style imperial stout
If you enjoy roasted malty aroma in your beer, the American Style Imperial Stout will be a perfect match for your taste. This beer is intensely black, opaque, and often enhanced with herbal or spicy aromas.
4. Russian- or British-style imperial stout
Russian and British Style Imperial Stout are synonyms for the same beer type. Its color varies from dark copper to brown, depending on its age and the hops quantity.
This beer made in England for Russian nobility contains a lot of alcohol, is highly bitter, and has coffee or caramel notes. Believe it or not, it has remained the same for centuries.
5. American-style imperial porter
Imperial porter has an intense black color, similar to an American-Style Imperial Stout. Still, it is sweeter than a stout, has a better-balanced taste, and less bitterness. However, imperial porter lacks the stout roasted aroma. Instead, mild caramel, cocoa, or floral flavors adorn it.
Special Occasion Imperial Beers
Many breweries make their imperial beers unavailable in stores. They only sell limited quantities online or on special occasions. That way, a customer has the impression of specialness.
Some craft breweries release imperial beers for sale only for a particular season or even just one day a year. For instance, Cigar City Brewing released its Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout in 2010 with 11.2% alcohol for only one day.
Brewery from Munster, Indiana that produces Dark Lord beer, organizes Dark Lord Day once a year in April and May. They turn this day into a real holiday and even sell tickets to those interested.
If you manage to buy one, you will get the opportunity to try the demonic style Russian Imperial Stout in a specially designed bottle. This beer has as much as 15% alcohol and tastes like coffee and molasses.
Some breweries go so far as to organize a lottery where you can buy a bottle of their imperial beer. An example is Perennial Artisan Ale, St. Louis, MO.
If you are a local, you can effortlessly book Barrel-Aged Abraxas beer online through their website. Otherwise, you need to enter the lottery competition for a chance to buy this beer enhanced with chili, cocoa, and cinnamon.
Imperial Beer Brewing
Although the brewing process is the same for all beer types, you will need to adjust some finesse recipes and procedures when deciding to brew an imperial beer. Novice brewer can research various recipes online, but the key difference is in grain proportions and fermentation.
By default, imperial beers contain more hops than regular ones, and the roasting process takes longer, resulting in a more intense color and stronger flavor. Additionally, the slow temperature increasing is typical for imperial beer fermentation while the temperature remains constant during the regular beer brewing.
Brewing experts recommend prolonged fermentation and a yeast variety that better uses complex residual sugars, thus creating more alcohol in beer. Finally, you can use dry hopping to intensify hops’ flavor or add coffee, herbs, and caramel aromas to your beer.
Imperial Beer Brand
Many people don’t know that imperial is not just a term that defines the beer quality but is also the name of the Costa Rican beer brand. That is an excellent product of the Florida Ice & Farm Company.
Their beer label design includes an imperial eagle, so this beer is well-known as Aguila or Aguilita in Costa Rica. It contains only 4.5% ABV with a high 16.5 IBU (International Bitterness Unit) value. This brewery offers a few more products, including Imperial Silver, Imperial Light, and Rock Ice.
Imperial Volume Measures
Another common confusion that needs to be clarified is that the term ‘imperial’ can also refer to a measurement system. One imperial pint (19.2 ounces/0.6 l) is 20% higher than the US pint (16 ounces/0.5 l).
That means you will get more beer in the UK if you order a pint than in the US, whether it is an imperial style stout or not. In this case, the word ‘imperial’ has a double meaning. It determines your beer volume but also its premium qualities or lack of them.
In the UK, breweries traditionally use these measures because their law requires draft beer and cider volumes to be expressed by the imperial system. This country still uses measures like imperial gallons, quart, and cups to determine liquid volume.
Historically, imperial beer was created in England for the Russian Imperial Court needs. Modern imperial beer is a premium version of a regular beverage with more alcohol, stronger taste, and more intense aroma. Many breweries produce imperial beers just for special occasions and sell them as a luxury, unique drink.