What Makes A Beer Imperial/Double?

For some reason a lot of people are confused these days with what the moniker “Imperial” or “Double” signifies before a beer’s name.  Even the internet can’t seem to give a solid and unanimous answer past “A bigger beer with more stuff in it.”

For those who have read my last post, you might know that Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Imperial Pilsner #43 has made this moniker even more difficult to place.  Because of this, I feel it is high time that someone sits down with the brewers and decides what can be called Imperial and what can’t.  Of course, some might argue that the style guidelines provided by the BJCP and other officiating bodies is enough, but I personally feel that the term “Imperial” or “Double” should have a unanimous definition, and not be subject to each individual style of beer.  For these reasons I am suggesting from here on and forthwith, the monikers of “Imperial” and “Double” will only be applied to beers that are 7% or higher, and whose style traditionally holds beers beneath the 7% line (i.e. there will be no imperial barleywines, that is just silly) (Also, I really don’t care if the beer is 6.9% or anything similar to that, at that point it is a matter of semantics and the beer can be called whatever the brewery pleases).

“Why 7%?”  Some might ask.  To put it simply, that’s actually what I thought the definition was for quite some time.  If you look at beer’s that have the “Imperial” and “Double” monikers, they traditionally are 7% or higher.  In fact, until last week I had never seen a beer below that line defined as imperial (though I was aware that such a thing occasionally happened). It is only because Sierra Nevada decided to go and call a beer below that line imperial that I am now suggesting that such a distinction be set in stone.

          For those unaware of the history, the moniker “Imperial” came about in the 1800’s when English brewers tailor-made beers to travel all the way to the Russian court without spoiling.  They originally sent their standard stout, which Peter the Great had requested be shipped to him after he sampled it in England and liked it.  The beer, as might be suspected, did not handle the journey well, and so, to save face, the Barclay Brewery that had sent the stout quickly whipped up another batch with more hops, and more fermentable sugars to make alcohol, so that the beer would last over the long journey.  The style worked, the beer became popular, and the Russian Imperial Stout was born in the (presumably) Imperial Court of Russia.  Since then, breweries have picked up the imperial name to simply signify any bigger, bolder, and more flavorful beer of a particular style that they brew.  (Note: a Russian Imperial Stout is actually a specific style of beer; it is only the imperial in its name that was carried over into simply being a term for beer)

Brewer’s have since then picked up the “Double” moniker as a way to signify the exact same thing, presumably since the beer has double the ingredients or something.  I actually don’t like this term as much however, since using “Double” invariably allows there to be a “Triple” which will lead to a “Quadruple” and then, suddenly we’re naming beers like the Belgians and confusing styles even further.

The idea of signifying that a beer is bigger and heavier in ingredients than the average beer in the style is a nice signifier for consumers, and helps us to understand why a beer costs more than other beers.  What isn’t alright is when breweries start abusing the term and referring to beers as “Imperial” or “Double” when in fact they have a more average ingredient list.   This invariably leads the consumer to think that they are purchasing something more potent than they are purchasing, which is an underhanded trick of semantics that everyone in the American Mass Market uses, I just personally always thought of the “craft beer world” as a little different from the American Mass Market.

To end this, I would like to state the obvious and say that I do not think that the Imperial Pilsner from Beer Camp should be called an Imperial Pilsner.  I’m sure that Sierra Nevada can come up with a slew of reasons as to why they disagree, and I understand that such an opinion is just that and they are welcome to their own, but it leads me to desire some more credibility and safety as a craft beer consumer, which is something I very rarely feel myself thinking about craft beer.  In fact, one of the things I really like about craft beer is the anarchic state that it sometimes is in.  I love how every style is kind of open ended, and I love how everyone is friendly, open, and is completely willing to share their recipes with homebrewers and competitors alike.  I don’t know of any other industry in America that has that mentality.  Everywhere else I look it’s all about the individual company and all the other companies suck and can’t know anything.  I can’t even think of another industry where the “collaboration system” is practiced! (I’m sure there is one, I am just unaware of it at this point…)

Really, when it comes down to it, I am a little disappointed in Sierra Nevada.  I’m sure other breweries have done it, and it really is an in-the-moment thing, but Sierra Nevada is such a big figurehead in the craft beer movement, and I’ve always looked at them as a very friendly business, both for their community, the environment, and for their consumers, and to see them using a silly underhanded trick such as mislabeling a beer disappoints me a little.  Perhaps they are trying to start a discussion on labeling things as “Imperial,” or maybe Sierra Nevada is trying to make a statement on how silly it is that everything is called “Imperial” these days, but whatever their reasoning, I’m saddened to see such a tactic in play in the craft beer world.

Am I being silly, though? Perhaps.  And am I over reacting?  Of course I am, I’m talking about beer, and I’m a blogger that practically no one reads, but regardless, I felt like I should rant, so I did.  Do you have a different opinion?  I hope so, and I’d love to hear it so please comment to this rant!  If I don’t get too many (which really isn’t likely, and I’m just saying this to make myself feel better) I will gladly post all of your responses on this blog.  What say you people of the Tumblsphere on the subject of the Imperial and Double monikers in beer styles?  Should it be standardized?  Does anyone else have a better suggestion than my proposed 7% ABV as the criteria?  Does anyone actually read this blog?  Discuss.

(Research for this rant was briefly done here: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f39/what-makes-imperial-276451/  here: http://www.thekitchn.com/beer-labeling-what-does-imperi-112370  and here: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/wiki/index.php/Imperial.  Thank you to the owners and contributors at those sites for your insights, history, and general information)

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