russian Imperial Family sitting for a photograph in black and white

The Royal Beginnings of Imperial Beer

Imperial Ales have been popping up on beer menus across the U.S. with more and more frequency. One question we get asked a lot here at Thorn Street is, “What’s an imperial beer?” Whether you are ordering an imperial stout, an imperial IPA or an imperial red ale, it all means one thing: more. More hops, more malt and more ABV. Before we get into exactly what this beer style is, let’s take a look at where it all began.

Peter The Great Big Lush

Imperial style beers came into this world after a trip that Russian Czar, Peter the Great, took to England in 1698. He fell in love with the roasted, malty quality of the Porters that were popular in London at the time and decided he couldn’t live without it. After he returned to Russia, he sent for some porter to be shipped to the Russian Imperial Court, but by the time the beer arrived, it had spoiled. Never ones to give up, London brewers decided to up the hops and ABV in the next barrels of beer they sent over in the hopes that they would keep over the 1000 mile voyage.

Thankfully, it worked and the beer arrived in Russia in all its dark and complex glory. The beer was an immediate sensation in the Russian Imperial Court, which is how it became known as ‘Imperial Russian Stout.’ Stout, at the time, was just a stronger style of porter, hence the use of the term in the naming of this style of beer.

San Diego-Style Imperials

While the imperial style started out as a porter, the craft brew renaissance has brought about imperial versions of almost every style. Perhaps the most common style here in San Diego is the imperial IPA. From Green Flash’s West Coast IIPA to Alpine’s Pure Hoppiness, San Diego breweries have helped to define what an imperial IPA is.  Here at TSB, we have our own imperial IPA called The Menace, which truly is a menace in that it’s an incredibly easy to drink 10% beer. We also have a Russian Imperial Stout, called Dark Tsar that is 10.4% and Alpenglow, an Imperial red ale which won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup in 2016.

Imperials vs. Doubles

Another question we get a lot here at TSB is, “Are imperial ales and doubles the same thing?” The answer is yes, double and even triple IPAs are simply ways to say “more hops, more malts, and more alcohol.” The terms are pretty interchangeable, though double/triple is most often used in terms of IPAs here in the states. Furthermore, the U.S. craft beer movement is heavily influenced by Belgian beer where there are dubbels, trippels, and quads. They also refer to the beer being a bigger version itself, with more hops, malts, and increased ABV. Their origins, like most beer history, are somewhat murky but one theory is that it has to do with Trappist Monks marking two, three and four X’s on a bottle of beer to denote how strong it was and what number of beer it was that they made of a series.

So now you guys don’t have to wonder! Imperial IPAs are the same as double IPAs and it’s all thanks to Peter the Great…or is it the Trappist Monks? One thing is for certain, beer has a rich and complex history, much like the taste of a delicious Russian Imperial Stout.

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