The word imperial refers to something from an empire, breeding thoughts of power, dominance and royalty. For beer drinkers, it means heavy ABVs and potent flavors. As the winter sets in and winds blow, higher ABVs will once again become the most sought-after drinks – and their popularity in the world of craft brewing is only rising.
“There’s nothing like it,” says Jeff Hancock, cofounder, president and brewmaster of DC Brau. “[I] still enjoy the very robust and aggressive flavors, and the ever-changing hop profiles. You want to see what brewers are doing to push boundaries of hops. Imperial IPAs are where one should start.”
According to digital food magazine The Kitchn, imperial was first used to describe stouts brewed in England in the 1800s. Those particular beers were then shipped to Russia’s imperial court. From there, the term evolved into a common phrase attached to beers that are big and bold, featuring massive quantities of hops and malts that contribute to higher ABVs.
“I think [imperial] beers excite customers in large part because they know [they’re] rarer,” says Ben Evans, head brewer at Hellbender Brewing Company. “We’re always challenging ourselves when we create new beer recipes. Imperial beers are a particularly fun challenge for us as brewers because we have to balance bolder flavors and hide the much higher alcohol levels.”
When Evans says “hide,” he means to make them taste good. And Hellbender does, most recently offering a triple IPA called Beyond the Infinite with a double IPA set for release on November 10 as part of the brewery’s fourth anniversary.
DC Brau also has a history of notable imperial releases and others on the way, such as their Sugar Leaf Hazy IPA set for a Thanksgiving debut.
Other local breweries and retail locations with memorable imperial-style beers include 3 Stars Brewing Company, The Bruery Store, District Chophouse and Old Ox Brewery, to name a few. Though you’ll commonly see folks mention hops and IPAs when talking about the style, Old Ox actually attached the phrase to this season’s pumpkin ale.
“For Oxorcist II, the imperial brown ale base allows us to showcase fall spices without overwhelming the beer or your palate,” says brewer Ian Gildea. “The body from the malts and the addition of maple syrup balance the spices in a way that would be difficult in a low ABV beer.”
The imperial category allows brewers to be more creative with limited releases, as the high ABVs encourage freedom. In a way, this style encapsulates the craft movement, allowing for funky tastes that are heavy in alcohol and attitude.
“The way you raise ABV is to use more grain, and when you do that you have a richer flavor profile,” says Hugh Sisson, owner and founder of Baltimore’s Heavy Seas Brewing. “When ABV limits were put aside, there was sort of an explosion [for imperials]. There’s no doubt about it.”
As the temperature drops, ABVs will rise and the average beer drinker’s palate will expand. For brewers, that’s a good thing as it brings fans of highbrow beers and more casual beerheads together, forming an even stronger craft beer empire.
“[Imperials] are so hop-forward, everyone can pick up on the intense aromas,” Hancock says. “[This] sparks immediate conversation about the beverage, even if they don’t know much about the style. It’s like instant common ground that everyone can talk about and dissect.”
Check out these local breweries to try new imperial-style releases.
DC Brau: 3178 Bladensburg Rd. NE, DC; www.dcbrau.com
Heavy Seas Brewing: 4615 Hollins Ferry Rd. Baltimore, MD; www.hsbeer.com
Hellbender Brewing Company: 5788 2nd St. NE, DC; www.hellbenderbeer.com
Old Ox Brewery: 44652 Guilford Dr. #114, Ashburn, VA; www.oldoxbrewery.com