The term “imperial” refers to a big beer, both flavor, and alcohol. The term is used with “double” and “strong” to refer to any style of beer brewed with an extra dose of grains and hops to produce a higher ABV.
But why “imperial?” Although not everyone agrees, the first imperial beer was a particularly strong English stout. This one satisfied the tastes of the Imperial Court of Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, in the late 18th century. Thus, the hefty Russian Imperial Stout was born from the stouts of the day. They were stronger versions of the porters that had captivated England for decades.
Nowadays anything can be an “imperial” version of itself when it’s stronger or bigger than the original. Higher ABV, larger size, hoppy, malty, more intense flavor, higher IBU, used by brewers if anything is more.
So one glance inside your local bottle shop will reveal imperial IPAs, imperial fruited goses, even imperial pilsners.
But the Germans already have a word for a strong lager: Bock. Bock beer is 6 percent alcohol by volume. And while many Americans associate bock with darker lagers, there are paler versions that go by the name of Helles bock, Maibock, or golden bock. In Germany, bock beers tend to be malt-driven but there were hoppier American interpretations.
Brewers craft strong beers with added helpings of grains and hops. The process for brewing beer is the same, no matter the size and strength of the end result. The math is plain: provide more sugar for the yeast, balance it out with more hops, and the yeast will create a proportional increase in flavor and ABV. Boom: a “bigger” beer.
When balanced, these beers are a flavor bonanza. These heavyweights of the beer world live in the double-digit ABV range and feature a heavier body and mouthfeel but with a noticeable hop bite. They can also present with a fresh booziness that can often mellow over time. This often makes them excellent candidates for cellaring.