Imperial is a term normally applied to beers that were brewed in Britain, then shipped to the court—the Imperial court—of the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Imperial pale ale is an obscure but delicious style has nothing to do with that bit of history.
Imperial pale ale is a testament to the genius of American brewers of old.
Instead, Imperial pale ale is a testament to the genius of American brewers of old, and also to American beer marketers, which, like it or not, are the most successful in the world. This willingness to inventively bend beer recipes and names to fit the times continues to this day, evidenced by the vitality of the craft beer scene.
I became intrigued by the style from an old book I picked up recently, a privately published paean to Albany, NY, brewer John Taylor, printed shortly after his death in 1863. One section, entitled “A Runlet of Ale,” is a long-winded rhymed piece about the joys of Taylor’s ale. Here’s a snippet:
Among the ales most famed in story,
From Adam’s down—or old or new—
There’s none possessing half the glory,
Or half the life of Taylor’s brew.
Their amber brand is light and cheery,
Their XX is strong though pale,
But give to me, when dull and weary,
Their cream, imperial Astor ale.
John Taylor was born in England in 1790, and shortly thereafter, his family immigrated to Albany. Settled first as Beveryck by the Dutch, Albany was an important early US brewing center, with its first brewery founded in 1661 by Arendt Von Curler.
Taylor founded his brewery in 1822; by 1903, the business passed out of the Taylor family’s control. Taylor was a respected and prominent citizen, serving as mayor and in several other offices, reflecting the importance of the brewing industry to the community in those days.
It was said about him, by way of an obituary, “Full of years, in the sunset of his life, he was gathered to his fathers, bequeathing to his children the priceless legacy of a spotless name.”
The book describes the brewery pretty thoroughly, but details about the beers are maddeningly sketchy, typical of these old publications. It does describe some interesting brewing practices, including a three-hour boil in kettles fitted with a rotating chain to keep the hops from sticking and burning on what must have been a direct-fired vessel.
Interestingly, at the time of the Civil War, Taylor was using large (600- and 1000-barrel) pressure kettles, similar to those currently employed at Coors, which, like a pressure cooker, could boil at an elevated temperature. Those were some thoroughly boiled worts!
Variation on Stock Ale
Imperial pale ale is a variation of an American ale style called stock ale—strong, hoppy beers designed to be stored (stocked) some time before drinking. The Wahl Henius American Handy Book (1901) lists these at somewhere between 16 and 19 degrees Plato, or 1066 to 1079 original gravity (OG).
Hopping was high at 2 to 3 pounds per barrel, or 1 to 1.5 ounces per gallon, not including the dry hops. This calculates out at about 70 to 100 IBUs—lip-peelingly bitter. As a warped point of reference, British Burton ales of the day were hoppier still, at an astonishing 3.5 to 4 pounds per barrel!
The addition of up to 25 percent sugar was the rule with stock ales. Dumped in the kettle with the last hop addition, sugar reduced the flavor intensity as well as the bottom line. This is a good thing, as some sugar in the recipe keeps strong beers from being overwhelmingly rich and malty, making them lighter on the palate, and reasonably quaffable.
Fermentation of stock ale was with ale yeast, at a fairly high 70 degrees F, which would have produced a beer with some seriously fruity aromatics.
Similar beers were routinely brewed in England during the 19th century, but I have seen no reference in any book or piece of breweriana that the Imperial designation was ever applied to anything but stouts and porters there. British beer names to this day tend to be a bit understated—quaint, even—lacking the brash hyperbole for which we Americans are so infamous. I mean, only in America could even a lowly corn-oil margarine be crowned with such a majestic title.
Of late, this style has been re-crafted by at least a couple of small breweries in this country. Rogue, in Salem, OR, brews an Imperial India pale ale. Big, at 20 degrees Plato/1083 OG, and satisfyingly hoppy at 53 IBUs, it’s aged nine months before leaving the brewery. Rogue’s I2PA is brewed with two-row Pipkin pale malt and Saaz, Cascade and Northwest Golding hops.
Three Floyds, in Munster, IN (outside Chicago), brews a take-no-prisoners Imperial IPA called Dreadnaught. At 1096-1100, with 95 IBUs of bitterness, this beer could survive the journey to India and back again, oh, maybe 500 times. The malt bill is pale ale with just a whisper of brown malt for color and complexity. Brew master Nick Floyd cooked this one up on his own without being historically inspired. It just seemed to be the logical thing to do.
Our beer will be at the top end of the old stock ale range, the kind of first-class beer American brewers proudly showcased over a century ago, that moved their lettered friends to heartfelt verse.
Imperial Pale Ale
5 gallons at 1074 OG (calculated at 80 percent efficiency), 85 IBUs
7 pounds American 2-row lager malt
4 pounds British pale ale malt
1.5 pounds unrefined sugar (turbinado or demerara), added to the kettle with the last hop addition
Mash at 150 degrees F for an hour. Raise to mash-out, 170 to 175 degrees F, then sparge. Boil 1.5 hours, following the hop additions shown below. These quantities are calculated for pellets, so increase by 20 percent if you’re using whole hops.
1.25 ounces Cluster 1.5 hours
.5 ounce Cluster .5 hour
1 ounce Goldings (preferably US grown) .5 hour
1.25 ounces Goldings (preferably US grown) 10 minutes
2/3 ounce Goldings (US or East Kent), added to secondary. You may dampen and heat them in the microwave before adding if you feel the need for total sanitation control.
For an extract version, use 10 pounds of the palest American malt extract you can find, with a half pound of pale crystal steeped in the kettle as it comes up to a boil. You can skip the sugar, as extracts often have a somewhat thin character, compared to mashed grains.
Ferment at 65 to 70 degrees with your favorite British-style yeast, and add the dry hops when you rack to the secondary, or into your keg. If at all possible, try to age this beer for six months or more before consuming. A beer like this will age very gracefully and turn into something genuinely royal by about its fifth birthday.