⇒ Attend the Triangle Beer Geek Winter Cage Match Dec. 8-9
Before mass travel and transportation, local beer reflected local conditions. There was no understanding of "beer styles" as we discuss them today, and most drinkers had little idea that what passed for "beer" in a neighboring country could be radically different from beer at home. The local ale that an Englishman quaffed—made from English barley and hops from the fields of Kent—was a different species of brew from that enjoyed by his counterpart in Prague, who drank crisp lager spiced with the distinctive Saaz hops of Bohemia.
But the emerging possibilities of trade shaped the manufacture of beer, as a few brewers tailored their products for foreign markets. Given that beer is the weakest of alcoholic beverages, entrepreneurs who hoped to export their beers had to offer a very distinctive product in order to justify transporting a beverage that was, after all, 99 percent water.
Beer made for export not only had to be of competitive quality, but this perishable beverage also had to withstand long periods at sea or over land, as well as changes in temperature. And the reformulation of beer recipes to cope with these conditions in turn gave drinkers new varieties of beers to enjoy.
From the 15th century onward, the hop flower, or cone, had become the preferred herb in beer for its bitterness and aroma. But hops also had preservative qualities and extended the life of beer. Alcohol is also a preservative. So beers best suited for export were more highly hopped and stronger in alcoholic content.
By the late 18th century, London brewers were sending their strong, dark beers east to markets in the Baltic countries. Many were fashionable porters, but the stars were potent, opaque stouts. Their popularity with the Russian royal court—Catherine the Great, in particular—was such that they became known as Russian imperial stouts.
The success of these winter-defying beers inspired imitators all along the trade route, with similar beers being brewed in Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Latvia.
Not surprisingly, modern American craft brewers, being partial to supersized approaches to brewing, embraced the imperial stout style. And an interesting shift occurred in terminology: "Imperial" ceased to mean royal and came to refer to an outsized interpretation of a traditional beer style.
The first innovative use of the term "imperial" came in the 1990s, when brewers reached for a name for the over-the-top India pale ales (IPA) some were producing. Ironically, IPA itself originally was a more muscular version of domestic English pale ale, again made stronger and hoppier for export, in this case to India, not Russia.
But American drinkers in the 1990s were infatuated with big, bitter flavors and big, bruising beers with budget-busting doses of hops that debuted on the market. When purists complained that these beers were too alcoholic, too teeth-peelingly bitter and too out of balance to be IPAs, there was a historical precedent: "But these are imperial IPAs."
With that, a new style was born, and more contenders were readied for coronation. Imperial pilsner probably came next: The spicy, soft, gently floral flavors of a pilsner translated into a peppery, boozy hop bomb. This is not necessarily a bad thing. And a new name was justified, since other high-alcohol lagers tend to the sweet, not herbal, side.
Next came the imperialization of red ale, which I find strange since red ales always strike me as inoffensive by design, soothing and sessionable. Amping up one of these beers is a little like taking a bike with training wheels and putting a huge engine on the back: You can do it, but it's a vehicle that can't make up its mind. Do you want safety or speed?
Imperial wit beer has more promise. The Belgian wit, or white beer—think Hoegaarden or Blue Moon—is cloudy with wheat, fresh and citrusy, with notes of banana, bubblegum or passion fruit and the addition of real spices, including coriander, curaçao, orange peel, chamomile or pepper. If the "imperializing" process is an experiment in exaggerating the profile of an existing beer, the wit is a style with lots of swirling flavors poised to bulk up.
Other styles already have their buff counterparts: bock and doppelbock, weizen and weizenbock, Scottish ale and wee heavy. There's a good argument that most styles that were ripe for imperializing already have been imperialized.
The imperials are heady companions, beers in full regalia. Some wear their status gracefully; others aren't suited to their newly elevated position. I've enjoyed many imperial beers, but I'm starting to think I'm an antiroyalist at heart.