This week and part of next week we'll be looking at some "big" beers. 4 of the 5 are "Imperial" beers and the 5th is a sneak peek at the new, re-designed, Capital US Pale Ale. So, for the next two weeks, we'll contemplate the meaning of "imperial" and what it means to be a "big" beer.
The Imperial India Pale Ale, along with the Imperial Stout, are two stalwarts, The Who and The Beatles of the beer world. If you look at the lists of the Top 100 beers in the world, by far the two largest genres of beer are Imperial IPAs and Imperial Stouts. For example, of the Top 10 of BeerAdvocate's Top Beers on Planet Earth, eight are Imperial Stouts or Imperial IPAs. Indeed, number one, Pliny the Younger, is an Imperial IPA. Then, six of the next nine are Imperial Stouts. You can do the same analysis with RateBeer's Top 50: 8 of the top 10 are Imperial Stouts; 15 of the top 20 are either Imperial IPAs or Imperial Stouts.
So, clearly these are the royalty of the beer universe. But, why?
That's a good question, really. Maybe you have a better answer than I do. But, I have a theory and it's a rather cynical theory, but bear with me. My theory is this: the vast majority of people have no idea what they're talking about. But, if you get enough people who have no idea what they're talking about together and ask them a collective question, such as to rank things, the collective group will often, unwittingly stumble on the right answer. This is called "collective intelligence" and we see it all over the animal kingdom from bacteria to beer geeks.
In this case, I'd argue that the answer is "mostly right" as it is pretty hard to argue that any of the beers in the Top 20 of any of these lists are unworthy of the title "great" or "amazing" or "phenomenal" or even "one of the best in the world." Of course, to call a particular beer #1 is only a label, the reality is that any of those top 20 could easily be #1.
But, there's also a pretty noticeable lack of subtlety in either list. If you look at the Top 20 of either list you'll find that the only non-Imperial, beers with "Imperial" in their style definitions fall in to one of two categories: Westvleyteran, and sour. In the case of BeerAdvocate's list there is one English Barleywine, though at 13.5% ABV, one would be hard pressed to make a case for subtlety there. And, in the case of RateBeer's list there is Kuhnhenn's Raspberry Eisbock, which is also above 10% ABV, and not exactly subtle.
Where are delicate Belgian blondes, complex porters, velvety dopplebocks, quenching helles lagers, or the perfect dunkelweizen? Well, I would argue, nuances of texture, body, and light complexity are simply too difficult to make a case for. Put another way: these lists are the collective thoughts of non-expert, mostly mid-20s, mostly male inputs. So, what these lists should really be are "The Top 100 Beers For Mid-20s Males." If you were to poll a similar collection but reversed the male/female percentages, or a collection of "experts", or a collection of 50-year-olds, I assure you the lists would be very, very different. I put "experts" in quotes because I do believe that some people are far more experienced than others; some people, through their experience and/or superior senses, are simply better tasters than you or I.
A few years ago I would have been tempted to rail about availability. But, it seems as if availability (or even lack of availability) is hardly a pre-requisite. Many of these beers are only available in particular regions of the US. But a not-insignificant number have pretty general, national, availability.
So, what do you think? Why are these things so dominant in the Top 100 lists?
Ale Asylum Satisfaction Jacksin - Imperial IPA
Appearance: crystal clear burnished copper with a foamy, pale head; one interesting thing about IPAs is that they can sometimes be cloudy because the filters don't capture all of the hoppy floaty bits before they get into a bottle; that is definitely not the case here; a gorgeous looking beer served at 56.4 degrees
Aroma: citrus and floral hoppiness with a strong malty, sweet presence that is very promising
Flavor: hoppy; very, very hoppy; not overly, intensely bitter - this is not a Ruination clone by any stretch of the imagination - but it has great bitterness and strong hoppy flavor; the malt is present, but the hops are really the star here
Body: piney and resiny, the body itself is somewhat medium, but the finish is long and lip-smacking; if you let the beer dry on your lips and then lick it off it's like a treat that you've saved for later, reminiscent of hard candy or something
Drinkability: Rather than an amped up Hopalicious or even Ballistic, this beer reminds me most of New Glarus' Hop Hearty, with its strong hoppiness, but great all-around drinkability
Summary: The marketing copy on the neck of the bottle calls this "slightly punishing" but if this is punishing, I must be a masochist because I really like this punishment. It also says that this is "unfiltered" which, given its sterling clarity, I find to be a stunning statement, next time I see Dean or Otto I'll have to ask them how they get such amazing clarity without a filter; for a so-called "big" or "over the top" style, this beer is surprisingly approachable, it has a fine balance of hops and malt; yet, I wonder how this beer would fare in a "Top 100" list because it isn't a brash, showy beer; which is another reason to question the mob-mentality of these Top 100 lists.