Friday, January 22, 2010

What is an Imperial IPA?

In the spirit of Hopslam, let's explore what exactly an Imperial IPA is.

First things first, lets deal with semantics and the language police. In the context of beer, Imperial means, roughly, bigger. Double and Extreme mean, roughly, the same. So an Imperial IPA is a Double IPA is an Extreme IPA. These terms are all arbitrary. Now, the language police will tell you that imperial means related to an empire and that Imperial Stouts were so called because they were prepared for the Russian Imperial Courts. This is all true but guess what else is true? The American language is a living thing and when talking about beer, Imperial means bigger. I'm in ur language, bastardizing ur adjectives.

Now that we have that out of the way, it is useful to define an Imperial IPA in terms of what it is not. Trivially, an Imperial IPA is not an IPA, it must be bigger. But what happens if you just jack up the volume on the hops and the malt? Thats an Imperial IPA, right? Well, maybe not.

A bit of history is in order. At the turn of the 20th century (about 90 years before Boulevard invented beer, or something), Bass developed a high gravity pale ale called No. 1. This beer was effectively an English IPA brewed to a higher original gravity and with a commensurate higher level of hopping. Attenuation was fairly low (as is common for bigger beers) and the beer was left rich, heavy and somewhat sweet. This beer might have been been called Imperial IPA (if it weren't that American beer geeks did not corrupt the word until many years later), but it was called Barley Wine instead.

Fast forward to 1985. Ken Grossman's Sierra Nevada Brewing Company brewed one of the first extreme beers of the craft movement in the US (apparently following in the footsteps of Boulevard's Smokestack series, or something). This beer, of course, was Bigfoot the first American Barley Wine. Bigfoot followed in the mold of English Barley Wines except it was, generally, bigger and hoppier (and featuring American hop varieties). Since then many American Barley Wines have followed and they are all characteristically full bodied, malty sweet, extremely bitter, and featuring bold American hop character (unless aged).

So what happens if you, say, double both the malt and hops in a typical IPA recipe? You get an American Barley Wine, a style already named and established before John Maier coined the name "Imperial IPA" and before Vinny Cilurzo coined the name "Double IPA".

So how do you make a beer which seems like a big IPA but is distinct from Barley Wine? Vinny Cilurzo stumbled upon the formula by accident when he added 50% too much malt to his mash and compensated with 100% extra hops, creating the now famous Blind Pig IPA. The result is a beer that is bracingly bitter with huge hop character, but lacking the heavy body and sweetness of a Barley Wine.

So this was the mold for a while (and still is on the West Coast). A beer of about 1.080, with about 8% ABV. Pale gold to light copper in color, dry in the finish, drinkable (at least to the initiated). Hop bitterness was extreme, and hop flavor and aroma were as high as possible. These beers were not balanced, that was the point.

Since then the range of beers carrying the moniker "Imperial IPA" or equivalent have taken on a broader range that include higher alcohol levels, higher finishing gravities, and more residual sweetness.

I've found that beers labeled as such fall into roughly three categories.

1. Original Intent Imperial IPAs: These are of the West Coast type described above. Members of this category are Blind Pig IPA, Pliny the Elder, I^2PA, and Hop Stoopid.

2. Midwest Maverick Imperial IPAs. These are a newer class of beers seeking to make their own mark on the style. Characterized by higher gravity and alcohol than their West Coast Rivals, these beers are a bit fuller in body and with perhaps a bit of residual sweetness. They are not full bodied, they are not cloying, and they are not syrupy. Most importantly they remain drinkable by the pint, despite their alcohol, and they clearly feature hops both in bittering and flavor. Members of this category include Hopslam, Maharaja, and Double Wide.

3. Incognito Barley Wine Imperial IPAs. These beers are characterized by, well, being Barley Wines. American Barley Wines have no limit on hopping, so it is not a style that can be out hopped. What turns an IPA into a Barley Wine is sweetness, fullness on the palette, lack of drinkability and anything vaguely resembling balance. The archtypal example of this category is Southern Tier's Unearthly. Many "triple" IPAs are candidates as well, including a thoroughly enjoyable example from Moylan's. At their best, beers in this category are excellent but have more in common with Barley Wine than Imperial IPA. At their worst, they are cloying and uninteresting. It might be useful for breweries to market these as IPAs, but it is more useful for the consumer to think of them as Barley Wines.

So have yourself a Bigfoot IPA, or a Pliny the Barley Winey or pee in glass and call it Imperial Light American Lager (only if you had rice for lunch). I don't care.

Hopefully it is at least mildly useful to understand that not all Imperial IPAs are like each other, and some of them are suspiciously like Barley Wines. At the very least if you find that the only Imperial IPAs you really love are the impostors, you may want to check out Barley Wines. Conversely, if you find yourself drinking a fresh American Barley Wine and wish it were a bit smaller and easier to drink, go get yourself a Maharaja or Hop Stoopid.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Local favorite Boulevard Brewing Company are fond of lecturing beer drinkers on what is traditional and what they are willing to do on their (apparently rarely edited) FAQ.

First, they claimed that they would never use aluminum cans as they were a "traditional brewery". This claim was removed from the FAQ shortly after Boulevard moved to the use of aluminum bottles (decidedly less traditional than aluminum cans). Savvy internet users will find slightly older versions of the FAQ on internet archiving websites if they wish.

Shockingly, they have not edited away they other two high and mighty claims they make in their FAQ which they have since violated.

In response to the question "Will Boulevard ever make fruit beer...?", Boulevard answers a terse "No". Boulevard has been making a seasonal beer with fruit added for over a year now.

Two other answers detail why Boulevard will not expand outside of the Midwest, but it has long been courting the West Coast with a substantial portion of its sales and market resources (while distribution mishap after distribution mishap plague the loyal Kansas City market).

Now there is nothing wrong with Boulevard using Aluminum bottles, putting fruit in beer, and answering the siren call of the lucrative West Coast market per se. This does all raise several questions in my mind.

1. Did Boulevard ever truly hold the snooty values communicated on its FAQ?
2. If they did, why are these values so easy to abandon?
3. Does Boulevard truly value the craft beer ethos many see in its Smokestack series?
4. If so, how easily will Boulevard abandon that apparent value?

And as you may have asked yourself today as you stumbled over piles of 6 month old Seeyoulator and 10 month old Two Jokers (both highly regarded on the internet, but is nobody buying it?) to buy some Bell's Hopslam in the fleeting moments that your local liquor store had it available:

5. Is the Emperor wearing any clothes?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Beer, Please

I've been anxiously awaiting packaged Free State beer for at least a year now and it sounds like this spring it'll finally happen. Around the same time, they're going to start distributing to Missouri. The new brewing facility is finally in operation, freeing up the smaller brew house for small-batch beers - which explains why we're seeing so many wonderful, different beers on tap these days. I'm excited to see them doing so well and can't wait to see Free State in more places, both in bottle and draft form.

Boulevard is growing as well; they just added three more fermentation tanks as part of a production expansion plan from 150,000 to 190,000 barrels annually. Compare that to Sierra Nevada's 680,000 or New Belgium's 437,000. Or, perhaps to Schlafly's 30,000 barrels of beer produced each year. Yes, Boulevard is adding more annual production capacity than the Schlafly brewery makes in a year. Crazy.

Speaking of the ol' Schlafly gang, I was excited to see Schlafly's Reserve series while in Oregon the past few days. Boulevard made its appearance there last summer with some Smokestack beers (both in bottles and kegs), so it's fun to see yet another Missouri beer make it over to the west coast. It'll be interesting to see how well they fare there given the competition, but I know at least Boulevard has a great reputation there.

And speaking of Oregon and Boulevard... It's no secret that Saison-Brett has long been my favorite Boulevard beer. I've never been a huge fan of Saisons (DuPont being my #1 exception), but adding Brettanomyces completely changes the style in a direction I highly enjoy. I was out in Portland this past week and picked up a bottle of The Bruery's Saison Rue. It's a Saison made with rye and Brettanomyces. Loved it; it's a bit drier than Boulevard's and has a tinge of spice from the rye. If you are in one of their distribution areas and you enjoy Saison-Brett, Saison Rue is another fantastic beer to try. I'd also like to just toss out a distribution request.

You know, because we can always do with more beer.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Friday at the Foundry

I'll try to keep this short. We went to The Foundry tonight (new website, by the way) and noticed something significant:  they've moved the McCoy's taps from the wall to the center bar island, opening all of the wall taps to third-party brews (finally!!). One of the biggest wishes we've had about The Foundry is that they'd open up more of their taps to non-McCoy's brews, because the McCoy's brews are on tap about 30 feet away. They had a better idea:  add more taps.

I sampled their 10th anniversary and Rye of the Tiger beers tonight (but closed out the evening with the always-favorite Maudite). The 10th anniversary was really good, but I wasn't in the mood for such a strong beer (Yes, I know, I got a Maudite. It's different. Honest.) The 10th is actually 3 years old and is quite boozy, warming, and a bit hoppy with lots of bread and caramel in flavor. There are some fruity esters, but they're not overwhelming. If you're looking for a balanced American Barleywine, I would recommend this one. It was served on tap at a good carbonation level and just a wee bit on the chilly side. Let it warm up before fully enjoying.

I tend to find McCoy's beers to be middle-of-the-road, but the Rye of the Tiger ale was also very good. No detectable off-flavors and a nice pale ale with the spiciness and mouthfeel you'd expect from rye. I do think this would have been better for the early-spring days of late March or early April, but it's a nice change from the heavy, malty brews of winter.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

Oh Charles Duell, how wrong you were.

I love the Internet. Communication, information, music, sharing pictures, blogging, lolcats (come on, they're funny)... and, of course, social networking (anyone else tired of that term yet?). But as much as I now enjoy social sites, it took me forever to figure out what to do with them. I absolutely hated anything MySpace (annoying backgrounds + auto-playing music = instant blacklisting), I still have yet to figure out what on earth LinkedIn is good for, and Twitter seemed stupid. (Why on earth would I want to pore through hundreds of tweets about stupid crap that people are doing?) And then I signed up for it.

I like using Twitter to stay on top of local goings-on and - of course - what's on tap & in stores locally. Freestate, Boulevard, McCoy's, Flying Saucer, Westside Local - they all tweet (some more than others). Create a list and you've got a constantly-updated tally of what's going on. But unless you stay on top of tweets every day (or hour even), it's easy to miss something of interest.

Enter Location-Based Networking.

I'd seen an upsurge in this Foursquare thing on Facebook, but largely ignored it thinking it was some sort of Farmville or "Do Your Friends Like You?! Take the Quiz! LOL!!" game or app. After seeing several references to it on Twitter (online wonderland of no annoying apps), I finally looked into it. It's a location-based way of sending information out to the interwebs, but a bit more complicated than that. You can read more on their site.

I see a lot of promise for location-based networking, but many of the apps out there are still pretty one-sided. Latitude and BrightKite, for instance, just sorta tell people where you are. Big deal. But apps like Yelp, Whrrl, and Foursquare let you keep track of where you go, how often you go, your thoughts on places you visit, and what's nearby that might be of interest. You can look up what others have said about the place as well as other similar venues. Let's say you're hanging out at Waldo Pizza and looking to move on to another good beer joint. Log in to Whrrl, look at someone who likes Waldo Pizza, and see what other places they like. Or, the list of similar places nearby. Instant location-based recommendation. (And of course, being a Google FanGirl, I love that it's integrated with Google Maps.)

But what I'm most interested in is how businesses can use these apps to their advantage - and ours. Bars are starting to offer deals to people who tweet or check in from their business locations. Beer specials. Free soda. Food deals. Did I mention beer specials? This location-based social networking looks like a wonderful thing indeed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ringing in the New Year

Happy New Year, beer lovers! It's not really a big event with the Wort Hog household, but we do like to go out even if we don't stay up until midnight. We decided to end 2009 with a meal and drinks at Swagger; for dinner I had Beef on Weck, which was fantastic. The au jus was beefy and properly salted (why on earth does most au jus taste like a marinade for a salt lick?), but my fries were kind of soft instead of crispy. I said goodbye to 2009 with a Leffe, a Manhattan cocktail (with Anchor's Old Potrero), and a Goose Island Matilda. The Manhattan was served on the rocks rather than up, but I quite liked it that way - and it was very well done. Mr Wort Hog had the Waldo Trucker sandwich with mouth-wateringly awesome onion rings, Lagunitas IPA, Bully! Porter, and Avery Salvation (if memory serves me correctly). 

While we enjoyed our meals & beers, someone at a booth ordered a Dead Texan - a burger with bacon, egg, jalapeño, lettuce, onion, tomato, and grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a burger bun. The description just doesn't do its impressive stature justice; I've GOT to get this some time (or maybe I've just been watching too much Man vs Food lately...).

When we figured out we weren't going to make it to midnight, we decided to stop off at Mike's Wine & Spirits in the same building to check out the beer selection. We were pleased to find a great beer store that's much closer to our Waldo home than Royal Liquor. While Royal has a better selection, Mike's does really well at providing a good selection of several craft beers. I picked up a couple from Samuel Smith's - Strawberry Ale & Winter Welcome; John grabbed a sixer of Dixie Blackened Lager and a bottle of Hop Stoopid (it still amazes me that this fantastic IIPA is only $3.99 for 22oz).

Though we got home loaded up with beer, we ended the night drinking the bottle of B. Nektar Margarita I brought back from Michigan last week. Made with honey, agave nectar, lime juice, and lime & orange zest, it is reminiscent of - yes - a Margarita. It's not cheap, but was one of the best meads I've ever had. Though we don't get B Nektar here, if you're ever in Michigan pick up a bottle of their mead. I got mine at Whole Foods.

So there you have it - New Year's Eve, Wort Hog style. It reminded me of how much I love Waldo and that this really is a great area in Kansas City for craft beer. Waldo Pizza, 75th Street Brewery, Swagger, Mike's, and even The Well to some extent (thanks Drunk Monkey for the info!). If you haven't been to this area in a while, it's worth a visit. Cheers!