The past few weeks I've been drinking "big beer" - Imperialized versions of India Pale Ales, Dopplebocks and Stouts:
Sprecher Russian Imperial
Capital Imperial Doppelbock
Pearl Street Dankenstein
Capital US Pale v.2.0
Ale Asylum Satisfaction Jacksin
And, what have I learned? Good question. I've learned that "Imperial" basically means whatever you want it to mean. I've also learned that these are really good beers, but you can't sustain a brewery on them. Of course, Stone, Surly, Dogfish Head, and Three Floyds would probably disagree. But, I would argue, these breweries are the exception, not the rule.
Even in today's American craft brewing scene a brewery simply cannot sustain itself on these kinds of beers. As we have seen, a brewery can make a reputation on these beers. I think Founders, even Central Waters and Tyranena, and to some extent Pearl Street, have certainly put their hats in the "big beer" ring. But, none of these breweries, and you can include Stone, Surly, et al, in this, make the majority of their money on any one of these big beers.
The key to "big beer" brewing, then, is diversity. You can't just make a badass Russian Imperial Stout. You have to make a badass Russian Imperial Stout, Double IPA, Imperial Belgian Blonde, Imperial Pilsner, Imperial Old Ale, Imperial Porter, and on, and on, and on. Breweries that make a living on "big" beer have, literally, dozens of brands. It's why if you look at the numbers, you'll see that over the past 10 years the percentage of brands with an ABV over 5.5% has risen from barely 40%, to well over 70%. A brewery is never going to sell 50K barrels every year of a 12% Russian Imperial Stout. So, a brewery needs to release 10 brands that it can sell 5K barrels of. That's fine, if your brewery can sustain that kind of pace. But if the brewery stumbles even once, it can kill any momentum that a dozen brands have built up.
As a consumer, it can be hard to keep up at all.
So, the reality is that most breweries can make a reputation on these big beers but will need to look elsewhere to make money. And, frankly, I think this is where Wisconsin breweries have a natural edge.