One of the best Southeastern brews on the market today is the Big Hoppy Monster from Terrapin. The label shows a bad-ass turtle driving a souped-up roadster with flame decals through a field of hops. And on the bottom of the label, in big, bold yellow letters, are the words “Imperial Red Ale”.
Imperial Red Ales are perhaps my favorite American style of beer. But there’s one minor problem with that claim: According to the BJCP Style Guidelines (and other less “official”, but equally comprehensive sources such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer), there’s no such thing as an Imperial Red Ale.
Beers that “should” fall under that title are instead categorized as stronger-than-normal Red Ales, darker-than-normal Imperial IPAs, or hoppier-than-normal American Strong Ales. There’s no appropriate category for these brews, so beers that most Aleheads would consider Imperial Reds get scattered to the stylistic winds.
I’m not knocking the folks who make up the BJCP style selection committees. For one thing, beer styles are an impossibly fluid designation and each year it seems like more and more categories pop up. Imperial Reds are a fairly new concept and, until the past few years, there really weren’t more than a handful on the market. For another thing, they ARE pretty similar to Imperial IPAs…but as I wrote about in my New Approach to Beer Styles, there’s nothing more frustrating for Aleheads (or confusing to newbies) than calling something an Imperial India PALE Ale when the beer is, in fact, quite dark.
Many folks (OK…most) would argue that I should just shut up and enjoy my beer. Who gives a damn if it falls under the perfect style heading? If I like the beer, complaining about its categorical designation smacks of pure wankery. That’s a fair point, but here’s my rebuttal: If I know I like a certain flavor profile in a beer, I want to be able to easily search for similar beers. It’s like music…the endless breakdown of musical genres and sub-genres can sometimes feel like mental masturbation to the nth degree, but it DOES occasionally help people discover bands that have a similar sound to groups they know they like. Maybe you really like Interpol…wouldn’t you want to know that The Editors and She Wants Revenge both have a very similar sound?*
*Though if you like any of those bands, you should probably just listen to Joy Division.
I love Imperial Red Ales…and it would be a LOT easier for me to find representations of the style if it was actually considered a type of beer. But what separates an Imperial Red from other similar styles? Well…as the name implies it has the toasted malt backbone and color of a traditional Amber or Red Ale, but it’s far stronger and hoppier. It has a similar hop profile and gravity as an Imperial IPA, but with a much sweeter, fuller malt profile and a richer, darker hue. How does it compare to American Strong Ales? To be honest, I’ve always considered that a bit of a catch-all category, but I don’t tend to consider American Strongs to be particularly hoppy. I think of them as more akin to Old Ales or slightly weaker barleywines.
To sum up, an Imperial Red Ale is a beer ranging from amber to deep crimson in color, with a robust, sweet, toasted malt character that is balanced by a bold, pronounced hop profile. Alcohol content should be fairly high (above 7%) and neither the malt nor hop profiles should dominate the flavor. In other words, “balance” is the watchword of the day. If that sounds like the perfect beer to you…well…it does to me too.
Enough jibber-jabber, Barley…let’s make with the Top Ten list. I hear you, reader. As always, we’re just looking at American brews (no surprises there since Imperial Reds are a distinctly American creation). Obviously my list is populated by beers that other beer websites would categorize as some other style (for reasons elucidated above), but I’m 100% certain that if the Imperial Red Ale style DID exist, the following beers would all fall squarely under that category.*
*I think it’s only a matter of time before Imperial Reds are added to the BJCP Guidelines. Now that “American-Style Black Ales” (aka Cascadian Dark Ales) are an official category, I think the floodgates will soon be open.
BROTHER BARLEY’S TOP TEN IMPERIAL RED ALES
10. Southern Tier Big Red: Probably the quintessential American Imperial Red Ale and perhaps the easiest drinking brew on this list. It’s a little muted compared to the rest of the top ten, but what it lacks in boldness, it makes up for in sessionability. A great-looking beer to boot.
9. Port Shark Attack Double Red: An impressive “big” beer that leans towards the uber-malty, barleywine-esque range of the Imperial Red spectrum. It’s arguably the least “drinkable” brew on this list, but it’s amazingly complex and tasty. A bigger hop profile to challenge the massive malt sweetness, and this would be a beer to be reckoned with.
8. Troeg’s Nugget Nectar: The label calls it an “Imperial Amber”, but that’s just splitting hairs. The Nugget Nectar is insanely delicious with a massive hop profile chock-full of tropical fruit flavors. It’s a bit more bitter and drying than the other brews on this list, and on the Hop-Malt Meter the arrow is definitely skewed towards the hop side. Nevertheless, this is a masterpiece by Troeg’s.
7. Bear Republic Red Rocket: At 6.8%, the Red Rocket is the lowest-strength beer on this list and probably falls just under my aforementioned cut-off point for the style. But fake rules are meant to be broken and this brew smells and tastes like an Imperial Red through and through. A big, brash, Cascade-dominated hop profile melds perfectly with caramel and toasted malt sweetness to create another stellar offering from Bear Republic.
6. Ninkasi Believer: Ninkasi made a believer out of me with the Believer. This “Double Red” isn’t the hoppiest offering on the list, but it’s a gorgeous brew with a super-smooth, creamy body and a nutty, toffee-ish malt backbone. Very different than the rest of the brews on here, but equally awesome in its own right.
5. Clown Shoes Eagle Claw Fist: A hop-bomb that smells like an Imperial IPA but has enough rich, brown sugar sweetness to keep it firmly in the Imperial Red camp. The Aleheads are Clown Shoes fanboys and for my money, this is Gregg Berman’s best.
4. Lagunitas Lucky 13 Mondo Large Red Ale: While it’s only #4 on my list, this “might” be the best representation of the style in the US. The Lucky 13 hits your mouth with a decadently sweet toffee and toasted nut flavor and then scours it away with a huge citrus and pine hop spiciness. Honestly, if there are hops involved, Lagunitas is probably going to knock it out of the park.
3. Oskar Blues Gordon: Technically this beer no longer exists since Gordon Biersch has forced Oskar Blues to change this brew’s name to the G’Knight. Hopefully the name change won’t effect this pungent, dark red ale. The Gordon is one of those beers that amps every flavor up to 11 but somehow manages to keep it all in perfect symphony. This delicate balancing act makes the Gordon one of the best Imperial Reds you’ll ever try. It’s also pretty fun slamming one of these things straight from the can.
2. Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster: Well, I opened the post with this brew, so it should come as no surprise to see it this high on the list. My predilection for all things Terrapin is well-known and this is perhaps my favorite brew they produce. It’s a simply brilliant beer that amazes me every time I grab a bottle. Bold, complex, perfectly executed, and exquisitely drinkable. A must-try.
1. AleSmith YuleSmith (Winter): AleSmith releases two YuleSmith’s a year. Their Summer version is a nigh-perfect Imperial IPA that Doc glowingly reviewed a few months back. But their Winter ups the ante even further by ramping up the malt profile to create the ultimate Imperial Red Ale. Every sip reveals a dizzying cavalcade of flavors and the aroma will leave you breathless. The YuleSmith Winter is the kind of brew that slaps you across the face, slams your head into a table, and forces you to recognize the ungodly power of the Imperial Red Ale.
What got me thinking about Imperial Reds in the first place was my recent trip to California in which I was able to sample, in rapid succession, the Ballast Point Tongue Buckler, the Mad River Double Dread, and the Drake’s Jolly Roger. All were similar, but uniquely inspiring beers and it made me realize that a ton of the best breweries in the country seem to be trying their hand at producing Imperial Reds. It’s no longer just a novelty, it’s a full-fledged style. I didn’t include any of those three brews in my Top Ten list mostly due to the fact that I can’t even remember which one I liked the best. Such are the perils of sampling waaaaaay too many new beers in a short period of time. Also excluded are the Rogue XS Imperial Red and the Harpoon Leviathan Imperial Red…both excellent choices if they’re available in your neck of the woods, but definitely not my favorite representations of the style.
I’d also like to give a quick nod to the Great Lakes Nosferatu which the Commander raves about. I haven’t had it myself, but the Commander is not one to mince words when he finds a great brew, so I have full faith that it is indeed a kick-ass beer. I hope he sends one my way in the near future so I can see if it’s worthy of listhood!