“THE” BEST IMPERIAL IPAS

Today is IPA Day. What exactly does that mean? I have no idea. But the blogosphere is abuzz with excitement for this celebration of craft beer and the Aleheads are not above a little bandwagon-jumping.

IPA Day is the brainchild of Ashley Routson (aka: The Beer Wench) and Ryan Ross (Karl Strauss marketing maven), two influential bloggers who developed the concept as a massive, grassroots, social media-based paean to the craft beer movement. Essentially, it just means that there will be lots of tweeting and blogging about beer today. And honestly…that’s just fine with the Aleheads.

We weren’t about to let this day pass by without a big post, so we decided to use this event to unveil our Best Imperial IPAs list. Doc already told you all about the Best IPAs in America (the obvious post for IPA Day) so we decided to use this celebration to tackle Imperials instead!

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Imperial, or Double IPAs (DIPAs) are often described as “IPAs on steroids” or “IPAs cranked up to 11″. They’re the high-gravity, high-octane, hop-bombs you often hear Aleheads describing in loving detail. They’re prestige beers…jam-packed with enough malt and hops to choke a water buffalo and usually touting a hefty ABV to boot. Most Aleheads worship at the altar of Imperial IPAs and it’s one of the favorite styles of craft beer lovers all over the US. It’s a distinctly American style of brew…taking every aroma and flavor of a beer and ramping it up to extreme, often painful levels. More importantly, Imperial IPAs are flat-out delicious.

The problem with determining a “Best” Imperial IPA list is that most breweries worth their salt make a pretty solid version of the style. There are hundreds of worthy Imperials out there which can make determining a Top 10 list virtually impossible. Plus, Aleheads are VERY passionate about their favorite Imperial IPAs since flavor profiles within the style can vary tremendously. Some favor huge, citrus fruit flavors while others focus on sticky weed and pine. Colors range from pale yellow to a deep copper with varying degrees of haziness and clarity. And while malt backbones are all over the map, ALL Imperial IPAs hit you with a huge hop profile. That’s what this style is all about…a showcase for how well the brewer can handle the humble humulus lupulus.

In typical Aleheads fashion, we couldn’t decide on the guidelines for this list. At first we were going to simply stick to any beer listed as a Double/Imperial IPA on BeerAdvocate, but that raised an immediate problem: What to do about Imperial Reds? The Oskar Blues Gordon, a favorite of Aleheads everywhere, is categorized as an Imperial IPA when most of us would consider it an Imperial Red. But other obvious Imperial Reds like Terrapin’s Big Hoppy Monster and Port’s Shark Attack are in the Amber/Red Ale category. The issue is that Imperial Red isn’t considered a legitimate style yet (Why? We have no idea.). This made things eminently messy as we tried to determine which Imperial Reds should qualify as Imperial IPAs and which shouldn’t. In the end, we decided to eliminate ALL beers that “feel” most appropriate in other categories. That’s why you won’t see beers like the Gordon (Imperial Red) or He’Brew’s Lenny’s Bittersweet R.I.P.A. (Imperial Rye) on the list even though BA has them categorized as DIPAs. It was a gut call, but for the most part, I think it worked out fine.

We also had a hard time deciding whether to include multiple beers from a single brewery (something we have tried to avoid with past lists). That restriction ended up being problematic for a few people. Some of us stuck to the rules from the Best IPA list and only selected one beer from a brewery. Others couldn’t pick between two (or even three) offerings from a single brewery and included them all. In the end, our Top 10 list represents 10 different breweries, so no harm, no foul.

Finally, the Commander threw in a little wrinkle by only listing 10 beers while the rest of us listed 20. I upped the number to 20 since there are just SO many good Imperial IPAs out there. But the Commander hates following directions almost as much as he hates listening, so his list is half as long as everyone else. I just left the last 10 slots blank on his list while tallying the results.

Add all that up and you’ve got a total clusterfuck of tabulation. Nevertheless, I forged ahead with the calculations. We had 7 lists to work with and I ran the numbers roughly the same way I did for the Best IPA list. I assigned 20 points to each #1 on everyone’s list, 19 points for each #2, and so on down the line. Then I totaled up the points for each beer, divided by the number of times the beer was mentioned overall, and got an average for each. I had to pick a cut-off number, so I decided that with 7 participants, a beer had to be mentioned 3 times to be eligible for the Top 10. Of the 55 beers listed, 17 of them made the cut.

With that mind-numbing introduction out of the way, here are the Top 10 Imperial IPAs in all the land:

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10. Victory Hop Wallop: Doc’s #1 and the first of four beers with the word “hop” in the title (I told you Imperial IPAs were all about the hoppage), the Hop Wallop is a classic Imperial IPA. Redolent of both citrus AND pine aromas, this is a highly drinkable, very rewarding beer. A sturdy malt backbone plays second fiddle to the hops but easily prevents this big beer from becoming astringent (though some find the Hop Wallop to be a touch more bitter than other well-regarded DIPAs). The Victory offering was listed 4 times by the Aleheads and averaged a 10.75 on our list.

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9. Avery Maharaja: The Commander’s overall winner, the Maharaja is a big, rich, very well-balanced Imperial IPA. It’s quite a bit maltier than the other DIPAs on this list and it drinks very heavy, but that doesn’t take away from the massive, bold, complex flavors and perfectly incorporated kick of boozy bitterness in the finish. The Maharaja is just a beast. It was listed on all 7 lists (only our overall #1 matched that feat) and averaged 11.43. While its presence on every Alehead’s list may speak mostly to the ease of finding Avery products, I think it’s pretty telling that not a single one of us left off the rock-solid Maharaja.

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8. Bear Republic Racer X: Bear Republic wins my award for most underrated brewery in the country. We talk about them so little at Aleheads, and yet with every Top Ten list we write…there they are. The Racer X is a little bit of a cheat since it’s a draft-only brew, but it’s actually fairly easy to find despite not being bottled. Plus, it’s the kind of Imperial IPA I absolutely love. The aroma is over-the-top with juicy citrus fruits and a bracing hop presence, but the flavor is smooth, well-balanced, and as easy-drinking as any 9% ABV brew has a right to be. That’s the magic trick that the best Imperial IPAs manage to pull off…they hit you with a nose that implies your tongue is about to be absolutely hop-blasted and then they let you down easy with a well-caramelized malt backbone that keeps everything in perfect harmony. The Racer X was listed 4 times and averaged a 12.0 on our list.*

*Bear Republic’s Racer 5, a standard IPA, also made our Best IPA list. As a general rule of thumb, if Bear Republic makes a beer with the word “Racer” in it, you should try it. I followed this rule during a recent trip to the Hub when I noticed the rare Racer 15 on tap at American Craft in Brookline. It was one of the best beers I’ve ever had.

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7. Moylan’s Hopsickle: So I just explained that the “best” Imperial IPAs have a fairly well-balanced malt/hop ratio (though obviously leaning towards the hoppy end of the spectrum). And now here comes the Hopsickle to utterly destroy that theory. The Hopsickle is the very definition of a hop-bomb. It’s a tongue-crushing, mouth-puckering, bitter beauty that leave you begging for more. Moylan’s calls this their “Triple IPA” (other brews that use this gimmick include Founders’ Devil Dancer and Hoppin’ Frog’s Hop Dam) and it’s easy to see why. The Hopsickle will give you no quarter (though I suspect for most Aleheads, none was asked for). It was named on 6 out of 7 lists and just edged out the Racer X with a 12.17 average.

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6. Port Mongo:You knew Port was going to show up on this list somewhere. For me, they’re on par with Lagunitas and Russian River in terms of what they’re capable of doing with hoppy beers (See Also: Hop 15). The Mongo tastes like an Imperialized version of the best-in-class Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. It has a stunning “bowl of citrus fruit” nose off-set by a perfectly drinkable, nicely malty body. Port actually labels this one a straight-up IPA, but at 8.5%, it’s clearly in the DIPA camp. The very definition of a SoCal Imperial, the Mongo was listed 4 times and averaged 13.25.

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5. Founders Double Trouble: Shocked, I am! Shocked that Founders snuck their way onto an Aleheads Top 10 list! Any Alehead who doesn’t list Founders amongst their favorite breweries is either lying or hasn’t had a chance to sample the wares from this sensational Michigan ale factory. They’re best known for their outrageously tasty KBS, but the Double Trouble is an incredible brew in its own right (the awesome label certainly helps its case). Like the Centennial IPA, the Double Trouble doesn’t mess around with the hop aroma and hits you upside the head with a giant bag of grapefruits. It’s second only to the Hopsickle on this list in terms of outright bitterness, and like every Founders beer, it seems perfectly constructed. The Double Trouble made the cut on 6 of 7 lists and averaged a whopping 14.17.

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4. Three Floyds Dreadnaught: Very happy to see a Three Floyds entry make the cut since so few of us have access to their best-in-class brews. The Dreadnaught is probably second only to the Dark Lord in terms of “prestige” amongst Three Floyds brews (but unlike the Dark Lord, it’s pretty easy to find this beauty). An overwhelmingly hop-forward nose leads to a smooth, rich, well-malted flavor that finishes clean and bitter. This is probably the fullest-bodied brew on the list (maybe on par with the Maharaja) and it drinks like the 9.5% ABV beast that it is. One sip of the Dreadnaught and you’ll realize why Three Floyds is always hovering at or near the top on most “Best American Breweries” lists. The Dreadnaught only made 3 lists (the fewest of our Top 10), but I’m sure that’s due to Three Floyds’ limited distribution range. It averaged a big 15.33 overall.

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3. Lagunitas Hop Stoopid: I challenge anyone to put together a Best Imperial IPA list and not have at least one Lagunitas offering on there. Between the Maximus, Little Sumpin’ Extra, and Sneak Release Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, Lagunitas seems to have figured this DIPA thing out pretty well, thank you very much. But it’s their Hop Stoopid that generally tops most lists thanks to a gorgeous, tropical fruit-bowl aroma and a subtle pale malt backbone that accentuates the hops without detracting from them. Lagunitas somewhat famously uses hop oil and hop extract instead of whole hops when brewing the Hop Stoopid and that bitter sharpness is immediately noticeable after one sip. It’s the quintessential DIPA…the kind you would purchase for a friend to help explain the style to them. The Hop Stoopid made 6 of 7 lists and averaged a huge 16.67 across the board.

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2. Bell’s HopSlam: Only one Alehead (Beerford) didn’t list the HopSlam on his Top 20 list and that’s because he’s never had it. Otherwise it was ranked 2nd on three lists, 3rd on another, and 1st overall on Slouch’s rankings. Only the Commander had it ranked lower than 3rd which is odd since he champions Bell’s more than any other Alehead. The man’s a contrarian…what can I say? The HopSlam has, indisputably, the most gorgeous aroma of any DIPA on the market. It’s a massive bouquet of tropical fruits, weed, pine resin, and the floral scent of honey which takes the HopSlam to another level. It’s a big, lush, beautiful beer that causes stampedes at bottle shops and will sell out on draft at your local alehouse in minutes. Simply a perfect Imperial IPA. As noted, it made 6 of 7 lists and averaged an outlandish 18.5.

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1. Russian River Pliny the Elder: No surprise here. The Pliny the Elder is impossible to rank objectively. It has been the primary object of desire amongst hop-lovers for years and has been ranked as one of the best beers on Earth for as long as it’s been brewed. You simply can’t sample the beer without being weighed down by the baggage of its prestigious name…and yet, it completely lives up to its reputation. The Pliny made every list…topping an amazing 4 out of 7, ranking 2nd on one, and 3rd on another. Only Doc seems immune to its charms and even he had it ranked 6th overall. I suspect that’s because the Pliny favors uber-resinous pine flavors over Doc’s beloved grapefruit/citrus (although there are PLENTY of those flavors in the Pliny as well). No beer straddles the fence between smoothly drinkable and bitter hoppiness quite like the Pliny. A perfect mouthfeel and finish are the cherry on top of the best DIPA in the world. Besides making every Alehead’s list, the Pliny averaged 18.86…absolutely crushing its competition.

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*For those curious, the brews that made the “listed 3 or more times” cut but weren’t in the Top 10 were, in order: Firestone Double Jack, Weyerbacher Double Simcoe, Stone Ruination, Hoppin’ Frog Mean Manalashi, Southern Tier Unearthly, Port Hop 15, and Dogfish Head 90 Minute. If you want to know which beers “won” in terms of total points, not averages, they were, in order: Pliny the Elder, HopSlam, Hop Stoopid, Double Trouble, Maharaja, Hopsickle, Mongo, Racer X, Dreadnaught, and Hop Wallop (so the list doesn’t change, just the order of a few beers).

If you’re in the mood for a hop-bomb or just want to explore the wild and wonderful world of Imperial IPAs, grab any one of the beers listed above. You won’t be disappointed.

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16 comments

  1. Had the Hop Stoopid last Thursday night alongside a Red Rocket Ale. Gotta admit… I loved that Hop Stoopid beer! Was expecting it to be just a hop bomb, but instead I enjoyed a well rounded and just plain delicious Imperial IPA. Great stuff!

    Happy #IPAday!

    Cheers!
    G-LO

  2. The Red Rocket is pretty incredible too. That was my go-to beer during a quick trip to Monterey two weeks ago. Happy IPA Day to you too, G-LO. May your day be bitter and filled with hoppiness.

  3. Thanks Sir McHops! May yours be hoppy as well!

  4. beersoaked · ·

    Thanks for this list. I’ve seen half of them available at my favorite local bottle shops, and I plan on hunting down the others, although that may require some travel. I started off #IPADay last night at 12:01 with a Port Brewing Mongo and am hoping to finish strong with Russian River Pliny this evening. In between I’ve got several single IPA’s lined up. Cheers!

  5. I like the idea of starting at 12:01- now that’s commitment.

  6. Anonymous · ·

    No Odell Myrcenary?

  7. I had it on my list, but Odell’s distribution is VERY limited so it didn’t make the cut. One of my favorite breweries. And easily the best old-timey labels in the biz…

  8. One of these days, Three Floyds will distribute to MA.

    Right now, you can buy their beers in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Wisconsin, Denmark, and Holland.

    Seriously, they skip over Boston and go directly to Denmark?

  9. Pennsylvania is closer. Take a number, Mashtun. But I agree, screw Denmark. I suspect it’s due to their collaborations and cozy relationship with Mikkeller.

  10. And my list has already changed. Southern Tier Oak Aged Unearthly would have easily supplanted Southern Tier 2XIPA.

  11. [...] “The” Best Imperial Ipas (aleheads.com) [...]

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  14. [...] two biggest “prestige” beer styles in the craft world these days are DIPAs and Imperial Stouts. Imperial Red Ales split the difference between those two on the malt-hop [...]

  15. [...] it is highly respected by many Craft Beer connoisseurs, and that it is consistently ranked in the top 3 of anyone’s list of Best Imperial IPAs. So the question is, with all of that hype, would I too be blown away by Pliny The Elder, or would [...]

  16. had three floyds draughnat last nite its terrific

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