the pumpkin empire and the imperial debate
Okay, it isn’t quite Halloween. But we are getting to the end of pumpkin beer season and it’s time I thought more about imperial pumpkin beers. I get a lot of questions along these lines: “what makes a beer imperial?” / “why does this imperial beer cost twice as much?” which culminate with “does the term imperial really mean anything?”
The imperial style is historic, arising from shipping in the 17th century – not unlike India Pale Ales. Imperial beers were originally high gravity, high hop versions of English porters and stouts to be shipped to the Baltic region. The modifications led to a well-preserved, high ABV beer that could withstand the trip. And so was born the Russian Imperial Stout, originally credited to the Barclay Brewery. Most often, these beers were provided to the Czar of Russia and his court.
Today the term “imperial” is used to describe beers of nearly any style that are amped up – higher grain bill, higher ABV, and more intense flavor. And these aren’t just dark beers…there are some imperial pilsners out there, actually. Of note, however, the Russian Imperial Stout is the only “imperial” version of a style that is recognized by the BJCP as distinct.
This season I have noticed a swell in the number of imperial pumpkin beers on the market, and while I don’t think the “imperial” modification works for every style, it works for pumpkin.
In my area alone there have been many to try – Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Lakefront 25th Anniversary Imperial Pumpkin, Southern Tier Pumpkin (a more divisive beer I have yet to find) plus countless others that never see Minnesota.
I recently sampled the Weyerbacher, and while I enjoyed it, nothing screamed “imperial”.
There were several outstanding flavors including clove and cardamom with a distinct spiciness that added to the palate and cut the sweetness, too. The mouthfeel was slightly thin and the body less substantial for an “imperial” beer, but the flavors were rich and lingering.
I’ll quote one Rhode Island drinker: “It’s not a bad beer. It’s just a run-of-the-mill pumpkin beer that happens to be 8% ABV.” –BA
Ringing in at the exact same ABV – 8% – The Lakefront 25th Anniversary Pumpkin, on the other hand, shouts “imperial” from start to finish. The depth of malt and robust flavors are met by an accompanying slickness on the tonuge and medium+ body. An impressive feat for a pumpkin lager. I actually expected the ABV to be higher after taking a sip (which is the opposite of the Weyerbacher).
For my 8% alcohol by volume, I will definitely take Wisconsin’s Lakefront 25th Anniversary series.
Of course, the final word on “imperial” beers is yet to come. Many experienced drinkers would like to see an enforced cut-off of what the word means – 8%, double the ingredients, or something else. At the same time, these styles are not recognized as their own category aside from stouts, leading to further confusion.
Mull it over and tell me what you think (I suggest sipping your favorite imperial pumpkin beer in the process).