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101 // Fit For A King

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A brief history of imperial beer and an examination of America’s love affair with extreme flavors

Story by Adrienne So // Photograph by Rebecca hartness

Oh, America. Can’t we ever leave well enough alone? We can’t have an order of fries without super sizing it, and we can’t serve a shot of vodka without slinging a Red Bull right next to it. It was inevitable: The minute that craft brewing began edging its way into the mainstream, fans began clamoring for more intense flavors. In recent years, that intensity has been connoted by a particular style: imperial.

“If we have an imperial IPA and a regular IPA on the shelf, nine times out of ten the customer will pick the imperial,” said Neil Yandow, general manager at Portland, Oregon bottle shop Belmont Station. “Customers want beer that will push their limits.”

But what exactly is an imperial beer? Its origins lie in the 18th century when Peter the Great of Russia’s Romanov dynasty—you may know him as the forefather of Catherine the Great and the head of a family that fizzled out with the Russian Revolution and the lost princess Anastasia—opened Russia’s borders to the West. London brewers sensed an opportunity in Russia’s
hard-drinking aristocratic elite, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that brewhouses, like Thrale’s and Courage, perfected the formula for imperial beers.

They tailored English porters and stouts to Russia’s vodka-loving royalty and made them dark, syrupy, and highly alcoholic. They were also packed full of preservative hops to make the journey to Russia intact and, much like the India pale ales traveling towards Bombay around the same time, to quench the thirst of colonial troops.

Some recipes of the time survive today, like Courage’s iconic Russian imperial stout. Commercially speaking, venerable British brewery Samuel Smith still makes an easily-found imperial stout that approximates that experience—rich and smoky, 11 percent ABV, with the consistency of molasses. However, the style’s most eager drinkers are not to be found in Britain or the land of the now defunct Russian court. For a country that touts its willingness to go to war to defend democracy, Americans have a love affair with imperialism—in beer form, at least.

One of imperial stout’s first incarnations on these shores was from brewing pioneer Burt Grant. Grant created one at Grant’s Brewery Pub in Yakima, Washington—closed since 2006, sadly—and served it at one of the first American craft brewer’s conferences, in Portland, Oregon, in 1986.

It made such an impression on Mark Ruedrich, the president and brewmaster of North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg, California, that he resolved to create one of his own. That beer is known as Old Rasputin, a Russian imperial stout that has won a bevy of beer championship awards and attracted a cult following since its inception in the mid-90s.

Old Rasputin is intense. It pours out of the bottle like a café mocha, and takes almost as long to drink. But as Ruedrich points out, it was made to be easy-going as well as big and bold—perhaps a little less impactful than the punchy porters and stouts that Catherine the Great would have sipped. “When we first made Old Rasputin, there was no way of knowing what the original imperial stouts would’ve tasted like. It was more intended to be a reflection of the spirit of the new American sensibility in brewing, and all the possibilities were for that style of beer,” Ruedrich said.

Of course, American creativity being what it is, imperial stouts were only the first step in what is now a big-beer explosion. India pale ales were the natural next step, coming as they did with an imperial history as well—that of the British Empire.
One of the best-known, and most delicious, examples of this style is Hop Czar of Portland’s Bridgeport brewery. The beer pays tribute to the Russian court with its name, and to American sensibilities by being chock full of Nugget, Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial hops.

The hops serve a different function than preserving the beer as it makes the arduous journey from Bridgeport’s brewery to my glass fifteen feet away at the bar. Rather, as Bridgeport’s plant engineer and
jack-of-all-trades Bob Wallace explains, the extra hops balance out the sweetness from the extra malt used to make the Hop Czar a bigger-profile beer. As with the Old Rasputin, creating a bigger beer necessitates a bit of fine-tuning. “Our Hop Czar has a distinct malt signature and body but also has that perfect hop counterpoint to give it the ideal balance,” says Wallace.

Just to be clear: Even if a beer has the word imperial in its name, it’s highly unlikely that it was served to Nicholas of the Romanovs as a vodka chaser. The imperial style of beer is now generally taken to mean “extreme,” whether it be a double or triple version of that particular style. Moreover, “double” and “triple” don’t, in and of themselves, mean double or triple of anything in particular. Some breweries take it to mean that the beer has twice the alcohol of the original style—jumping, for example, from 3 percent ABV to 6 percent ABV. Other breweries bend the definition to mean triple the gravity, or twice the hops, or simply any beer that’s bigger and bolder than you’d normally expect.

Even the late Michael Jackson, the great arbiter of beer styling, defines a “triple” simply as, “the strongest beer in the house,” which is a definition that’s likely to fall by the wayside with more and more common 18, 25, or even 32 percent ABV brews. You’d probably be safe guessing that an
American-brewed double has an ABV of 7–9 percent and a triple between 9–12, but it’s probably best to check the label if a mouth full of hops would be an unpleasant surprise.

For example, Karl Strauss Brewing’s Whistler imperial pilsner is distinguished from a regular pilsner by having a higher alcohol content, more hops, and more malt. “Imperial” and “double” are often used interchangeably. A double IPA and an imperial IPA are the same thing,” says Melody Daversa, the public relations manager for Karl Strauss. “That being said, we make a double IPA [the Big Barrel Double IPA], so we wanted to distinguish Whistler by calling it an imperial pils. It’s more of a name preference.”

Few would argue that pushing the limits on what an imperial beer can be may have reached absurd proportions. Earlier this year, Alameda Brewhouse in Portland, Oregon, came out with a—admittedly delightful—limited edition imperial cream ale called Bad Bunny. Similarly, imperial hefeweizens by Pyramid Brewery in Seattle and Berkeley are impinging on the territory formerly claimed by venerable German styles like weizenbocks. Is there anything Americans won’t imperialize?

And yet, American brewers’ impulsive need to stretch the limits of what each style of beer can be might be part of the reason why craft brewing is so vibrant in the United States, versus how static the industry is in Germany or elsewhere. American breweries have taken centuries-old styles and given them a unique, American twist—and if it doesn’t really resemble its original incarnation, so what?

Perhaps it’s for that reason that the West Coast, with its proximity to a glorious abundance of hop varieties, is particularly in love with the imperial style. “I wanted to introduce a bigger hop component…partly to take advantage of the great aromatic hops that were available around then to improve the complexity of the beer,” says Ruedrich. Daversa agrees: “With so many hop varieties, you can choose what flavors you’re going for, and because hops are aggressive, the higher alcohol in imperialized versions allows you to up the bitterness while still keeping the flavors in balance.”

Beer consumer’s love affair with pushing the boundaries of their palates ensures that imperials and other extreme beers will probably stick around for a while. But if that regal term sits uncomfortably on your tongue, there are many other choices made in the imperial style but without the name. For example, Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss or Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout are both just as intense. And as for the rest of us die-hard monarchists, we are still impatiently waiting for another round of Bad Bunny.

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