In an American beer culture that is remarkably similar to an episode of the Sopranos, where being bigger, meaner, and packing a harder punch than the next guy is the ultimate goal, the Imperial India Pale Ale has become the golden standard of American brewing. Over the last 20 years or so, American brewers have fought tooth and nail to craft an Imperial IPA that out-hops all other offerings to capture the fancy of the growing troop of “Hop-heads”, or those beer nuts who chase after the most tongue-blisteringly hoppy beers known to man. However, while the Imperial IPA might be as American as beer gets, many beer lovers don’t know that the IPA is actually British in origin, and dates back colonial era England.
After England settled in North America, they turned their attention to the East–India in particular. After many wars and imperialistic ventures by the Crown, the British colony in India was settled. For those of you who know any British folks, you know that they are creatures of habit, to say the least. Tea time is sacred, every meal consists of some combination of meat, potatoes, and gravy, and ale is meant to be consumed in large and frequent quantities. (Because of this, most of the ales in the UK are between 2-4% ABV) In order to satisfy the creature comforts of those well-to-do Brits who resided in India, British brewers were called upon to create a beer that could sustain the six month journey from England, south through the Equator, around the Horn of Africa, north into the Indian Ocean, and finally into India. Because most beer is meant to be consumed fresh (not aged like a whiskey or wine) and requires cooler temperatures to condition, this arduous and sweltering trip from England to India left the traditional ales of Britain spoiled and unpalatable. To solve this problem, British brewers starting adding a tremendous amount of hops to their pale ales with the theory that preservative chemicals naturally occurring in hops would slowly degrade over the course of the journey, so that by the time the beer arrived on Indian soil, it was roughly the same as the fresh-out-of-the-cask ale the Brits were used to at home. Hence, the title “India Pale Ale.” Soon, however, the IPA caught on in Britain, in its un-degraded state. Thus, the hop-head was born and the IPA started to become a more mainstream style of beer.
Flash forward about 300 years to present day America. We all know that the “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” mantra is pretty much genetically coded into the American psyche. So, with his in mind and a plethora of uniquely American grown hops at their disposal, American brewers gravitated towards the IPA and have taken it to all new heights of hoppiness in pursuit of beer stardom. By adding more and different combinations of hops, and even genetically synthesizing new strains to achieve new flavors, American brewers have created one of the most distinctly American styles of beer on the market.
When considering whether to try an Imperial IPA (side note: “Imperial” in beer means double or extra, signifying a stronger version of the original style, a history I will tell in another article) or not, first ask yourself what sort of flavor profile of beer you enjoy. Do you like your beer bitter, balanced, or malty/sweet? Do you like more citrus/pine/earthy/floral or more bready/caramel/toasty aromas and flavors? If you answered bitter and citrus/pine/earthy/floral, then you may be a hop head. If not, not to worry, beer is something that should be enjoyed, not suffered through. If you’re interested in trying an Imperial IPA, give one of the selections below a try!
Beers to Try
The Alchemist Heady Topper
Without question one of the best DIPAs I’ve ever had. Very balanced and very flavorful with huge notes of citrus and biscuit balancing each other. Medium finish and drinkable body makes for an incredibly well made beer. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that it is rated the #1 beer in the world on BeerAdvocate.com…
Stone Brewing Ruination IPA
A great IPA that is nicely balanced, exhibiting great biscuit malt character that then succumbs to the piney and citrus hop flavor and gripping bitterness as any good IPA should. A great addition to any IPA oriented pick six.
Weyerbacher Brewing Company Double Simcoe IPA
Delicious and filling, a great addition to any Imperial IPA pick six. Only draw back would be the alcohol note on the finish, as some 9.0% abv imperial IPAs are able to keep all the flavor and strength but dodge the alcohol note. However, overall it is very good and exhibits one of the most flavorful hops out there.
Great Divide Brewing Company Oak Aged IPA
Oskar Blues Gubna
When considering what food to pair with any beer, always consider the bitterness-to-sweetness ratio and overall strength, intensity of flavor, and complexity. Imperial IPAs are the most bitter of all beers, very strong (typically 7-12% ABV), very intensely flavored but generally not as complex in flavor as other beers. Because of this, Imperial IPAs pair well with very rich, decadent desserts with fruity flavors, such as fruit cheesecake because the bitterness of the IPA balancing out the sweetness of the cake. Also, if you want to kick up the heat of your spicy chicken wings or pizza, the hops in the Imperial IPA will intensify the heat of any spicy food. Overall though, I tend to find that Imperial IPAs are best enjoyed by themselves, so I can enjoy the nuances of the hop flavor and, well, because Imperial IPAs just don’t play nice and don’t like to share the spotlight (cue the Sopranos theme music…)