Imperial IPAs: Always Original
Born during the Industrial Revolution, out of necessity and fueled by novelty, India pale ale is the subject of a 300-year-old saga that remains an unfinished book. The abridged version of British brewers sending their hoppy, fortified pale ales to troops in India is merely the veneer of this rich legacy.
IPA is currently in the midst of its third movement, in a quintessentially American and extreme fashion. As the original IPAs served to fortify an already formidable brewing industry in England, so has Imperial IPA stoked a sizzling US craft-brewing scene. In today’s envelope-pushing state of brewing, modern IIPA has no equal, and hops are its heroes. IIPAs are becoming increasingly common in the quest for explosive and innovative beers.
The pale ale brewers of 18th-century England were the first truly avant-garde practitioners of the craft. Titanic breweries made vast quantities of product and were stable enough economically to purvey the beer. Britain had emigrants, sailors, and troops all around the world—with India being one of its most important outposts. All demanded beer, but India itself was too warm to prove conducive to brewing. The commonly dark, sweet ales of London usually arrived in the subcontinent infected, bereft of carbonation, and not even remotely refreshing.
George Hodgson, brew master at The Bow Brewery in East London, seized the market by modifying his specialty—pale ale—using excessive hop dosages and elevated alcohol levels to reformulate his recipe for the voyage. Primed and dry-hopped casks kept his pale ale vital and less susceptible to microbial invaders. Later, family acrimony opened the door to the brewers of Burton-on-Trent, long known for creating outstanding darker beers.
The pale ale coming from the Trent valley tasted imminently better because its sulfate-rich water produced a clearer, paler ale―one with a pleasant and refreshing hop character. London’s carbonate water was more suitable for making darker beer. Local admiration continued but was short-lived because of other, equally innovative brewers in continental Europe.
In the latter half of the 19th century, charming pale lagers supplanted pale ales. It would be more than 100 years before pale ales would again become a preferred style of beer in England, and a little longer still before it was adopted by brewers abroad. Britain exported ales in the first half of the 19th century to the United States, following the original wave of immigrants. But, alas, as in Europe, lagers took over, ale production dissipated, and Prohibition essentially wiped out ale brewing in the United States.
But not every brewer fell quickly. Ballentine’s IPA―brewed first in 1830 by Scottish immigrant Peter Ballentine in his adopted New York―survived Prohibition and was last made in 1997. Ballentine’s was considered a venerable anachronism during the American brewing boom of the 1980s and ’90s. Called Ballentine’s Burton at one time, it was hoppy, of formidable strength, and was a rare brew, given its times. It is believed that many of the ales made in America today use a strain of yeast related to that used by Ballentine―a fitting, if serendipitous, tribute.
Recently, no one has had a more profound impact on the preservation of traditional brewing than the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in Britain. Distraught at the disappearance of pubs, cask-conditioned ale and the scuttling of traditional brewing establishments, CAMRA members became proactive. Lamenting the diminishing of that quaint British amenity―the pub and its house-brewed ales―CAMRA gained a considerable following. Thirty-five years later, it perseveres. Handcrafted beers (including IPA) reappeared. Old recipes were revived or reformulated, new ones that reflected modern preferences were introduced, and legions of new beer lovers were born.
On the heels of CAMRA, a similar movement in the United States started to gather momentum. As microbreweries cropped up in the 1970s, ales appeared on the landscape where they had been virtually forgotten decades earlier. The utilization of American ingredients, especially hops, served as nothing less than an epiphany to those who tasted them for the first time. New Albion Brewing in Sonoma, CA, was one of the first to venture into this frontier. Though they lasted only a few years, they helped sow the seeds of the American craft brewing revolution.
San Francisco’s revered Anchor Brewery was resurrected in the 1960s by Fritz Maytag, now an icon in American brewing lore. In 1975, he first made what is now known as Liberty Ale, originally calling it “Our Special Ale.” It was a classic IPA, made with American ingredients.
The Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, CA, founded in 1979, made several ales, with a pale ale as its flagship product. It was the brewery’s Celebration Ale, however, that got the attention of hopheads in 1983. Its higher gravity and massive, fresh, unmistakable West Coast hop bouquet is a pleasure to behold. Other brewers took the cue, and IPA took over as the beer that Americans came to love.
The developing American fetish for aromatic, strong IPAs rolled unfettered through the 1980s and into the ’90s. Nearly every brewery had one. Over time, as palates acclimated and brewers looked for something new, a natural progression happened.
With plenty of barley wines being brewed (almost requisite on the “left” coast), brewers started demonstrating their skill with mammoth beers whose malt backbone had massive doses of hops breathing down its neck. There was little reason to be reticent, either. America had lost its brewing personality 50 years earlier and, aside from a tradition of craftsmanship, was essentially reinventing itself with respect to beer. There were no boundaries to balk at, no guidelines to abide by, and foremost, no traditionalists to answer to. The brewers themselves were making (and breaking) the rules, smudging the styles, restrained only by the limits of their own creativity.
IPA was a natural target for that take-no-prisoners attitude. Soon enough, as the public dictated, hops won the battle for supremacy. The United States, primarily in the Pacific Northwest, grows a greater variety of hops than anywhere else does. American hops run the gamut from soft and citrusy, to rough and resiny, and even fruity. In combination, and used with finesse, they can produce an IPA with unimaginable hop complexity.
Though its real pioneers resided on the West Coast, Imperial IPA is no longer a regional phenomenon. Imperial IPAs are now as common in middle America and the East Coast as they are on the West―reigning as the undisputed heavyweight champ of hoppy expression, muscle and deftness―all rolled into one.
Building the Beast
Skill is required to brew any beer competently, but when boundaries are toppled in the name of exploration, experimental aptitude and intuition may be even more important. Beyond being just a beefier version of IPA, Imperial versions are incrementally more complex by design. Grain bills remain relatively similar to those of IPA, with pale ale malt and 2-row as the base. To that, small amounts of caramel and the malty Munich variety round out the mouthfeel and inject a bit of creaminess. More importantly, however, this gussets the hop onslaught. Generally light amber to bronze in color, Imperial IPA makes use of a relatively simple malt bill to showcase the hops. And showcased they are.
These beers practically introduce themselves, as their aromatics fairly lunge from the bottle or glass. Even for experienced IPA lovers, Imperials are a world apart. The IBU (international bittering unit) ratings are lofty, often exceeding 100 units, and more generally, around 80. In comparison, an IPA would come in a relatively modest 60 or so units, with a pale ale registering around 35 to 40 units. This is only a measure of the actual bitterness, however; the real backbone of the brew is its flavor and aromatic hops.
It’s evident to anyone with an appreciation for American IPA that these Imperials present the familiar bouquet of northwestern hops. Grapefruit and other citrus, as well as cherry, pine resin, and a general floral presentation exemplify a well-made IIPA. And, as if the burst of aroma wasn’t enough to take your breath away, they generally pack a roundhouse punch of 8 or more percent alcohol by volume. Brash and powerful, IIPA is a worthy companion to any feisty style of cuisine.
If ever a beer style symbolized the rambunctious, independent nature of American microbrewers, the Imperial IPA does. Its blueprint for success was well established and needed only some adventurous and restless souls to take the plunge. Imperial IPA has spawned a movement of its own, with the imperialization of porters, brown ales, pilsners, and almost any other style becoming commonplace. For now, though, brawny IIPA is the most palate-tested and awe-inspiring of them all.
Three Floyds DreadnaughtABV: 9.5
Tasting Notes: Located in Munster, IN, Three Floyds is easily one of the most original and hard-working breweries in the US, with flourish being part of the gig. The Dreadnaught is a deep copper, lacy brew whose aroma itches to get out of the bottle—full of grapefruit, pine needles, peach, and mown grass in the nose. The palate is unyielding with a full mouthfeel and malty, caramel, flavors. Allowing the beer to warm really liberates the character. Noticeably strong with some volatile alcohol warming. In a word, impressive.
Victory Brewing Hop WallopABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Downingtown, PA, Victory Hop Wallop is made with German malt and American hops. Pale orange in color, the aroma is malty with a mixture of citrus and resinous pine. Creamy on the palate with substantial body. The hops are a bit more reserved than those of some other Imperial IPAs, but nevertheless suitably defining. Very easy drinking and deceptive. While Pennsylvania may be more famous for its German-style brews, Victory Brewing is both eclectic and distinguished. Hop Wallop is testament to that.
Terrapin Big Hoppy MonsterABV: 8.0
Tasting Notes: From Athens, GA, Big Hoppy Monster demonstrates well the breadth of the American infatuation with the style. Rich and deep copper in color, the aroma is a balanced mixture of floral, orange, malt, and caramel. The flavor is chewy and robust, and has a bit more malt accent than others in the style. It finishes rich and complex without being overbearing. This brew is in its infancy, here's hoping it enjoys a long life.
Avery The MaharajaABV: 9.7
Tasting Notes: This summer seasonal from Avery Brewing in Boulder, CO, is as majestic as its name implies. Glistening copper when poured, the cream-colored head gives way to a wonderful lace. The cornucopia of citrus in the aroma is backed by a caramel-candy-and-malt background. The flavor is a continuous flow of malt and hops and very smooth. The "Great King" is fitting enough for an Imperial beer, but the beer itself must past muster among the subjects. Maharaja has no problem doing so.
K. Florian Klemp
K Florian Klemp is a research analyst in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.
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