Also sometimes known as a Double IPA (or even Triple IPA), an Imperial IPA is one of my favorite go-to beers for the fall and those fast-approaching darker, colder winter months.
While many craft beer lovers will often favor more traditional winter styles like a Porter, Stout, or darker beers, for hopheads like myself nothing can beat an ultra-hoppy IPA which has raised the hop levels and the ABV for that extra alcoholic warmth that winter ales call for.
A common myth is that the Imperial IPA style was discovered by accident.
A Southern California brewer was said to have added too much malt to his mash by accident and rather than throw away the whole batch of beer decided to add a surplus amount of hops in an effort to counterbalance the excessive malt.
The result was a stronger, more hop-forward beer that is still around today.
However the Imperial IPA came to be, many of us beer geeks are certainly grateful for the introduction of this style of hoppy iconic beer.
The American Craft Beer world wouldn’t be the same without the Imperial IPA and its extra bold hop character that is seen as defining much of the American beer style.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Imperial IPAs you can sample this fall!
The Origins of the Imperial IPA
Basically, an amped-up version of an IPA, the Imperial IPA dials everything “up to eleven” (as Spinal Tap would say!).
The term Imperial comes from the Russian Imperial Stout, which is another brew known for its higher ABVs. However, the Double IPA moniker has become the preferred name for these stronger, more hop-forward IPAs in the US.
Although there exists the previously mentioned myth of Imperial IPAs being born by accident, the first commercial example of a Double/Imperial IPA and the invention of this style is credited to Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner of the Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California.
While working on his first brew for the Blind Pig Brewery in 1994, the Inaugural Ale, he decided to take his existing IPA recipe and double the number of hops.
Nervous about brewing his first large batch of ale, Cilurzo figured if there were any off flavors in the Inaugural Ale the extra hops could help mask them.
Blind Pig Inaugural Ale may have been the first commercially brewed Imperial or Double IPA, but it is with Russian Rivers’ Pliny the Elder, first produced in 2000, that Cilurzo is most well-known, and it was, without doubt, the Imperial IPA which made people sit up and take notice of this bolder style of IPA.
An intensely bitter double IPA, Pliny the Elder remains Russian River’s best-selling beer more than 20 years after its first release.
With its dry and piney flavors, it’s regarded as a prime example of the Double IPA category and still ranks number two on Beer Advocates’ top 100 list (The top spot is actually held by Pliny the Elder’s younger sibling, the stronger Triple IPA known as Pliny the Younger!).
Although many of the West Coast pioneers like Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas are better known for their hoppy beers, including the Imperial IPAs, today any craft beer producer worth its salt will include at least one Double IPA in their portfolio.
What Makes an IPA an Imperial IPA?
To briefly describe the style of an Imperial IPA you could say once an IPA reaches an ABV of 7% or higher it strays into the Double or Imperial IPA category.
Imperial IPAs head towards some of the strongest ales you will find on the American craft beer scene.
It’s not just about the strength of the beer though, with the names denoting the number of extra hops which have been used in the brew. A Double IPA will normally add at least twice the number of hops found in a similar IPA recipe and gather most of its flavor from those extra hops.
In order to add that extra hop flavor, many of the Imperial IPAs will utilize dry hopping, some examples such as Dogfish Head’s beloved Imperial IPA even use a process of continuous hopping throughout the boil.
Normally, an Imperial IPA will have a slightly more malty character than your traditional IPA, but will still be more hop-forward. An Imperial IPA should offer a bitter, hoppy taste rather than a strong malt backbone.
If the malt flavor becomes more prevalent the brew is more like the style of an American Barleywine.
Ranging in color from deep gold to medium amber, the American Imperial Ale is a boldly flavored, medium-bodied beer with complex hoppy and fruity flavors. The best examples of an Imperial or Double IPA should be balanced in hops between bitterness and a slightly sweet maltiness.
The Imperial IPA label is also used for Tripe IPAs (IIIIPA/TIPA) and Quad IPAs, which offer massively hoppy beers of at least 9.5% ABV with larger amounts of hop flavor, malt flavor, alcohol content, and bitterness.
Again, these beers lack the big maltiness balance you would normally associate with barleywines. Although the Triple IPA may be similar in style to a Double in hop profile, it normally has a thicker syrupy body which is accentuated with more intense resinous hops, making it a heavy sipping beer.
The 12 Best Imperial IPAs You Will Find in Your Local Store or Bar
There are many lists of the best Double IPAs for you to peruse, but many feature DIPAs which were produced as limited runs, seasonal beers, or just are not produced by the brewery anymore (if the craft brewery even still exists!).
Instead, I have tried to feature Imperial IPAs which you should easily be able to find in the alcohol aisles of your local convenience store or local craft beer hangout, although a couple of them may be more sought after and take an extra bit of tracking down.
With its bolder flavors and that extra alcoholic warmth, an Imperial IPA is the ideal style of IPA for hop lovers looking for something to drink in those winter months, although many are available all year round and some would argue taste just as good in the spring/summer months too.
Not all Imperial IPAs are created equal, so let’s take a look at our favorite 12 Imperial IPAs to sip this fall.
Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, CA
- ABV 8% IBU 100
The original and still the best, as many beer aficionados would argue.
Named after the first-century Roman author and naturalist who first created the botanical name for hops, Pliny the Elder uses a staggering amount of Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops.
This award-winning beer is known for its balance of sweet malts and citrus, tropical fruits, and slightly bitter, piney hops. After hearing so much about the legendary Pliny the Elder, I was hugely excited when it first appeared on the shelves of my local 7/11.
That’s the good news – Pliny the Elder is now one of the most widely distributed Imperial IPAs across the states and even worldwide. However, like most of these hoppy beers, it’s best drunk fresh with every bottle carrying a “Born on” label.
Available in its local area on both draft and in bottles, the bottles of Pliny the Elder are now distributed to almost all beer suppliers across the states, all year round.
This is one of those beers where you will never forget your first sip, and if you are in the Santa Rosa vicinity next March why not pop by the local brewpubs and try its younger sibling, Pliny the Younger, a Triple IPA with an ABV of 10.25%.
Originally brewed in 2005 as a winter seasonal beer, the next release is due in March 2023 at both the Russian River’s Santa Rosa and Windsor pubs on tap and in bottles. Put those dates in your diary, March 24th to April 26th, 2023!
Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0 Sans Filter by Stone Brewing, Escondido, CA
- ABV 8.5% IBU 100+
One of my all-time favorite craft breweries, with more hop-centric beers that never fail to disappoint and challenge the taste buds, is Stone Brewing of Escondido. Their beers are also available now nationwide and even shipped overseas.
Imagine my surprise to find a few bottles of Stone beers available on one of the more remote islands upon a recent visit to Thailand.
Credited as being the first full-time brewed and bottled West Coast Double IPA on the planet, Stone Ruination has evolved as the Imperial IPA style has changed over the years.
In 2015, Stone employed dry hopping and hop bursting processes to squeeze every last drop of piney. citrussy, tropical, and skunky essence from the hops to give the beer a hugely assertive character.
The latest evolution is to bottle Ruination unfiltered so as to bring you the beer in its rawest form.
Hops including Magnum, Nugget, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra, and Azaca contribute towards the beer’s IBU level of over 100 with a bitterness which will, like the name suggests, will “ruin” your palate (but in a surprisingly pleasant way with a hoppy, fruity and piney flavor profile!).
Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, Delaware
- ABV 9.0% IBU 90
Hailed as “one of the most important American craft beers ever brewed” by the influential Food & Wine magazine, Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute Imperial IPA is one of the most sought-after and well-known Double IPAs on the market.
Fortunately, it’s now available in 50 of the mainland states, and might even be on the alcohol shelves in the store down the street.
The 90 Minute Imperial IPA gets its herbal, earthy, piney, memorable flavors from the use of an industry-changing process of continual hopping.
Rumour has it that Dogged Fish Brewery founder was watching a cookery show focused on soup where they continuously seasoned the soup throughout cooking, and Sam Calagione thought why not do the same for beer?
Calagione devised a system using a thrift store-bought electronic football game, which he placed over the brew kettle to repeatedly shake hops into the boiling wort over the course of 90 minutes, hence the name.
The result was an incredibly hopped Imperial IPA with more robust flavors and aromas of pine and citrus.
The first thing to hit your nose when trying this beer is a bouquet of grapefruit zest, tangerine, bready, caramel malts, and a large dose of herbal, piney hops.
The palate is a hop enthusiast’s dream, wave after wave of pine, resin, and dank hops paired with tangerine, lemon, tropical fruits, and lightly sweet malts. It’s lightly bitter on the finish, and surprisingly balanced.
If you only put one American Imperial IPA on your bucket list of must-try beers, many would argue it should be this one.
Cigar City Florida Man Double India Pale Ale by Cigar City Brewing Company, Tampa, Florida
- ABV 8.5% IBU 55
Another widely available Imperial IPA, Cigar City’s Florida Man DIPA is now available in over 30 states thanks to a tie-up with CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective, a collective of independent brewers who help smaller craft brewers to distribute their brews more widely.
Although the exemplary Jai Ale from Cigar City ranks as the second best-selling craft beer 6-pack in the US, according to the latest IRI reports, don’t overlook their version of a double IPA, Florida Man.
Named after the superhero commonly known as “the world’s worst superhero”, Florida Man DIPA uses what the brewery calls “a nearly criminal amount of hops” which include Citra, Azaca, El Dorado, and Mandarin Bavaria.
The result is a bold Imperial or Double IPA which bursts with a big citrussy character and a moderately high IBU of 55.
A unique double IPA yeast which is used by Cigar City cuts through the beer to balance those piney and floral hops with notes of peachy esters and stone fruits.
Florida Man may be the worst superhero ever, but as an Imperial IPA, it’s one of the best widely available heroes of the DIPA scene.
Lagunitas Maximus Colossal IPA by Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, California
- ABV 9% IBU 61
If you know anything about Lagunitas beers, you’ll know there’s nothing subtle about them! In the Untapped description, the brewery itself writes about “a flavor so hoppy it threatens to remove the enamel from one’s teeth.”
You can never really go wrong with one of Lagunitas IPA offerings, but if you really want to warm up this fall while enjoying some herbal hop flavors it’s time to try their Maximus Colossal IPA.
A 9% banger of a beer, it is brewed with insane amounts of Cascade and Simcoe hops as well as using malted barley, malted wheat, Munich malts, and English Crystal malts.
The elevated level of fresh hop character and the alcohol content allows the flavors of dark berries and nectarines to shine through more, with the complex malt bill giving an almost biscuity finish with a sugary snap from the Crystal malts.
Dry hopped with the C hops similar to their regular IPAs, a floral aroma of geraniol compliments the citrus aromas and flavors from orange juice to grapefruit rind.
An all-around beautiful DIPA perfect for hopheads everywhere!
New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA by New Belgium Beer Brewing, Fort Collins, Colorado
- ABV 9.0% IBU 70
I’ve always been a fan of the new Belgium Beer Company, which makes innovative IPAs with trendsetting hop and malt varieties.
One of the best things about their Voodoo Ranger beers is they are now generally available everywhere. New Belgium now distributes to all fifty states plus Canada, Japan, Sweden, Australia, South Korea, and even Belgium.
Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA clocks in at a potent 9% ABV and has been brewed with ale yeast as well as Pale and Black malts. Leveraging a selection of hops which include Bravo, Delta, Centennial, Cascade, Calypso, and Mosaic cranks up the IBUs to 70 in this awesome beer.
The blend of hops contributes to an explosion of flavors including fresh-cut pine and citrus for a deliciously rich and complex flavor profile.
Bell’s Double Two Hearted American Double IPA by Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, Michigan
- ABV 11% IBU 80
Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale is one of America’s favorite IPAS, so what’s not to like about something which takes this bold beer and basically doubles everything up?
Double Two Hearted weighs in at 11% ABV and uses two and a half times the bulk of Centennial hops in the brew for an intense drinking experience.
Pine, orange, and grapefruit citrus notes make this one dank double IPA while retaining the qualities which made Two hearted Ale one of the favorite beers of many beer geeks.
Bell’s beers are now available in forty-three states plus Puerto Rica, and you could always use Bell’s Beer Finder on their website to track down your nearest supply of this outstanding Imperial IPA.
Stone Enjoy by 01.01.23 Unfiltered IPA by Stone Brewing, Escondido, California
- ABV 9.4% IBU 90
Using a staggering 12 different hop varieties, the latest in the Stone series of IPA is not designed to last, hence the “enjoy by” name. Described as a festively fresh Double IPA on the website, Enjoy by 01.01.23 is an unfiltered Imperial IPA that needs to be drunk by the end of the year.
The flavor profile, as you would expect from that huge amount of hops, is intensely hoppy with lots of stone fruit flavors and fruity esters derived from the yeast, which quickly dissipates into a crisp finish loaded with hop flavors and bitterness.
Hop aromas abound of intense peach, tropical fruits, and citrus, although reportedly the dankness of the hops is a little more subdued than normal.
Although it has a dry finish with hints of alcohol warmth and a nice bitterness at the back end, it can feel like it has a little more heft in the mouthfeel due to the beer being unfiltered.
The unfiltered aspect also makes a perceptible change to the hop aromas which are more fruit-forward than Stone’s filtered IPAs.
If you were a fan of Stone’s previous limited releases such as Arrogant Bastard Ale which challenged your palate, then Enjoy BY…is one of the more bitter DIPAs – just make sure you drink it fresh!
Lawson’s Finest Double Sunshine Ruby Red Grapefruit Double IPA by Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Waitsfield, Vermont
- ABV 8% IBU Unknown
Along with the still-to-come Heady Topper, Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine IPA is probably one of the most iconic New England-style IPAs responsible for where the IPA scene is today.
Double Sunshine Ruby Red Grapefruit Double IPA is a ramped-up version of the popular Sip Of Sunshine which adds ruby red grapefruit to the mix for an extra layer of mouth-watering, juicy, lush fruit character along with dank, tropical aromas.
Loaded with Citra and Colombus hops, Double Sunshine is well known for its hazy, juicy, tropical, fruit-filled, slightly earthy, herbal, sublime, and dank character.
With the refreshing citrus bomb of flavor, this is a Double IPA you could just as easily drink on a warm summer night as on a cold winter evening.
Deschutes Royal Fresh Imperial IPA by Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon
- ABV 9% IBU 70
Deschutes is another of those craft breweries whose beers always seem to hit the right spot.
Their best-selling Freshly squeezed IPA constantly rates highly in lists of brewers’ top 10 IPAs, and now even has sibling beers like Lil’ Squeezy Juicy Ale and, apparently, a Squeeze Rider West Coast IPA.
For their double IPA, Deschutes has gone down the Royal route, with Royal Fresh Imperial IPA which uses over five pounds of hops per barrel of 7 hop varieties (Mosaic, Centennial, Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, Cashmere, and El Dorado) with hop additions at six different stages of the brewing process.
The result is an ale that has all the big juicy hop character of a traditional IPA but manages to balance the bitterness with a reasonable IBU of 70 rather than the 100+ of some other Imperials.
The taste is that of big malt and big hops, with a light boozy feeling that heads in a sweet direction, Some would argue the overwhelming hop flavors may even make it more of a Triple IPA but it drinks easy with the “hop candy” keeping it dangerously sippable.
Bell’s Hopslam Ale by Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, Michigan
- ABV 10% IBU 65
To say Bell’s Hopslam Ale is one of the most sought-after Imperial IPAs in the US would be no exaggeration, especially as it is only produced three months of the year.
Brewed with six specifically selected Pacific Northwest hop varieties known for their aromatic qualities, they contribute a pungent blend of grapefruit, stone fruit, and floral notes.
A generous malt bill with a solid dollop of Michigan honey gives just enough balance to keep those hops in check.
A remarkably drinkable version of the Double IPA style, Bells Hopslam features orange and tangerine flavors which pair well with that sweet honey and complex malt profile.
Only available in the winter, the number of fresh hops used in this beer means it should be drunk within 3 months too, so unfortunately it’s only available for half the year at max. It’s a good job Bell’s also produces the previously mentioned year-round Double Two Hearts Imperial APA.
The Alchemist Heady Topper by Alchemist Beers, Stowe, Vermont
- ABV 8% IBU 75
When looking at the hoppiest IPAs on the market, I may have already mentioned the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, but it would be impossible to list the best Imperial IPAs without including this legendary beer.
Unfortunately, the cans of Heady Topper are not as easy to come by as many of the other Imperial IPAs on our list, with the brewery themselves imposing a limit on how many four packs a customer can buy from their shop.
Brewed in such small quantities, each release excites such hysteria with followers of Heady that they queue up around the brewery fence.
Even a UK journalist for Esquire, Michael Smith, commented that Heady Topper was in such demand “they don’t even get out of the brewery, let alone the country”.
In much the same way as Sierra Nevada is said to have kickstarted the American Pale Ale style, Heady Topper can be credited with starting the New-England style of IPA with their flagship beer, which even has its own Wikipedia page.
Brewed with six hops, this amazing DIPA is loaded up with caramel malts, grapefruit, tangerine, and tropical fruit notes to balance with the dank, piney hops.
Fortunately, some of the supply issues are better nowadays, and you are more likely to see Heady Topper in your local beer fridges. But if you do see it, snap it up quickly, as it won’t be there long!