Double IPA vs Imperial IPA – What’s the Difference?

If you are a fan of hoppy beers with stronger alcohol content, you will have no doubt stumbled across the occasional Double IPA or Imperial IPA.

A premium beer, the Double IPA is normally a little darker in color, a lot hoppier, often with extreme levels of bitterness, and has an ABV of 7.5 % or higher.

Basically, it’s an IPA that has been amped up, with a much bigger flavor profile than the British style of IPA and a stronger ABV than an average American IPA.

But what is the difference between a Double IPA (DIPA) and an Imperial IPA (IIPA)? Where do these names come from and why is there any confusion?

Let’s take a brief look at the history of this relatively new style of beer and try to clear up some of the confusion over the name.

Should you be asking for a Double IPA or an Imperial IPA? Does it really matter?

What’s the Difference Between a Double IPA and an Imperial IPA?

black, yellow, blue, brown and white labeled can
Photo by Studio Blackthorns on Unsplash

Basically, none. Both terms refer to an IPA that has a higher ABV than your standard IPA.

In the most recent BJCP Style Guidelines a Double IPA is classed as a Strong American Ale (Category 22) with an ABV range of 7.5% to 10% alcohol content (6.0%-8.4% alcohol by weight according to the Brewers Association 2022 Style Guidelines).

Although the BJCP acknowledges the use of the term Imperial for this beer, they state it is rarely called an Imperial IPA in the US modern versions.

As American brewers constantly try pushing the boundaries of an IPA with more hops, more challenging bitterness, and a higher alcohol strength, many Imperial IPAs now clock in at well over 10%.

Although not recognized as an official beer style, once the ABV of an IPA goes above 10% it is commonly referred to as a Triple IPA (TIPA), but can also still be called an Imperial IPA.

Confused? Although a Double IPA can always be an Imperial IPA, an Imperial IPA can often be a Triple, even Quadruple (QIPA) as well.

The only real difference between an Imperial IPA and a Double IPA is that the term Imperial can also be used for much stronger beers than 10% ABV, whereas Double IPA only refers to an IPA with an ABV of 7.5% – 10%.

Imperial is basically a catch-all term indicating a higher ABV.

Where Does the Term Double IPA Come From?

I have heard some beer geeks argue the term “double” refers to the double I in the abbreviation IIPA (Imperial India Pale Ale), however, it’s much more likely the “double” refers to double the hops, double the flavor, and double the strength (of a standard ale anyhow!).

The style of a Double IPA is widely acknowledged to have been invented by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing back in June of 1994.

Working for the now-defunct Blind Pig Brewing Co of Temecula, California, Vinnie, with limited equipment, was nervous about his first large batch of beer produced as a head brewer.

So, to hide any possible flaws, Vinnie “doubled” the amount of hops to mask any potential off flavors.

green hops in clear glass bowl
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Of course, when you double the hops you also need to increase or “double” the other ingredients too. Too many hops and the beer may take on a harsh astringent taste which is unpleasant to drink.

The brewing process of a double IPA is all about balance, balancing the malt bill with the huge amounts of hops. When extra malt is added the yeast will have more sugar to convert into alcohol, hence the higher ABV of these beers.

The result of Vinnie’s first experimentation was a beer that was exceptionally bitter and flavorful, much more so than the traditional English style India Pale Ales, and with an even more intense hop character than the modern American IPAs beloved by so many craft beer drinkers.

Hence the category of an Imperial or Double IPA was created.

Although many beer writers will call Vinnie’s Inaugural Ale at Blind Pig and the ensuing Pliny the Elder from his own Russian River Brewing Co. the first Imperial IPAs, both Inaugural and Pliny were called Double IPAs by their brewers, even producing glassware for the Inaugural Ale emblazoned with “Double IPA”.

So where does Imperial come from?

What Defines an Imperial IPA? The Origins of the Term Imperial

Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “imperial” as relating to or befitting or suggestive of an Empire or an Emperor, when it comes to beer, Imperial basically means stronger in alcohol.

As a noun “imperial” can also refer to something of unusual size or excellence.

It’s a common misconception that Imperial was first used in relation to beer with the Russian Imperial Stouts of the late 18th Century, which were brewed in England for export to the Russian Imperial Court of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

It’s often thought that these stouts were bumped up in alcohol to survive the long sea-faring journeys to Russia in much the same way as IPAs were hopped up to help preserve them for the long trips to India.

However, it’s much more likely the strength of these stouts was increased to meet the demands of the Russian nobility, who, with their extravagant court, enjoyed the bigger (and more expensive) things in life.

Catherine the Great even boasted she could outdrink any Englishman.

Being exported to the Russian Imperial Court, many would assume these stouts would be called Russian Imperial Stouts, but this label wasn’t really applied until the mid-20th Century by the English brewers, in particular Courage, who labeled their famous original Russian Imperial Stout “as brewed for Catherine the Great of Russia”.

In reality, the stouts exported to Catherine the Great would have been called “Entires” (meaning strong stout) or Russian Export Stout.

The term “Imperial” had actually been used to describe any beer which was stronger in strength since the early 18th Century by the English brewing industry.

Stout was to be introduced in the 1720s to describe the stronger Porter beers being brewed by the Irish (stout actually means strong in traditional English) and the term Imperial Stout may have been used in the 1730s to describe an even stronger stout.

Why Do We Still Use the Term Imperial?

As American craft brewers jumped on the Double IPA bandwagon, many of the more well-known breweries would start making Imperial IPAs which could range in strength from around 7% ABV to even 15% ABV.

In 2003 the BJCP introduced Imperial IPA as a style (ex-Category 14C) which was retired in favor of the Double IPA classification of the 2015 and later BJCP style guidelines.

In fact, Stone Brewing’s Ruination IPA, which was the first year-round-produced Imperial IPA in 2002, only had an original ABV of 6.7%, which wouldn’t even be classed as a Double IPA these days.

Instead, the beer was said to “ruin” you with the staggering amount of hops and an IBU of 100+.

Imperial can be used for any stronger IPA which doesn’t fall into that magic 7.5% – 10% ABV range of a Double IPA.

Much like the Belgians use the classification of Dubbel (double), Trippel (triple), or even Quad, which described the strength of ales by “x”s marking the barrels, Imperial is a tricky style that denotes a stronger IPA.

IPA5.5%-7.5% ABV
DOUBLE IPA7.5% - 10% ABV

Imperial, however, is the only term ever used to describe a stronger stout. You don’t get a Double stout classification or a Triple Stout.

Imperial stout is a style that has officially been given its own classification by the BJCP (Style 20C) and has even been claimed as an American style, falling under the American Porters and Stouts category.

Officially an Imperial Stout will have an ABV of between 8% – 12% but many of the seasonal or celebratory Imperial Stouts can reach alcohol levels as high as 15%.

Although Imperial can be used to describe a Triple IPA (TIPA), nowadays most brewers will label it a Triple IPA as they want to stress the pedigree of the beer and the extra hops and ABV it offers.

Stone’s RuinTen, a limited edition anniversary ale and big brother to their Ruination IIPA, was labeled as a Triple IPA, as was Sierra Nevada’s well-known Hoptimum Triple IPA (interestingly enough, though, they now call their Atomic Torpedo Imperial IPA (9.2% ABV) by the simple term Imperial rather than a Double IPA).

What is an Extra IPA?

pink blue and green can bottles with XPA
Photo by Studio Blackthorns on Unsplash

To further confuse matters, some brewers have referred to their hoppier or stronger ABV IPAs as an Extra IPA (XIPA).

Again, just like a Triple IPA and the term Imperial IPA, these don’t have an official style certification so there are no guidelines as to what defines an Extra IPA.

Although you would assume an Extra IPA is Imperial, quite often the ABV of an Extra will fall short of the Double IPA at the lower end of the Imperial IPA style.

The only Extra IPA widely available at the time of writing was Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA, which weighs in at 7.2% ABV just below the 7.5% ABV of a Double IPA.

In the case of Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA, the Extra seems to refer to the extra hops used and/or the extras process of hop-torpedoing (SN’s innovative method of dry hopping using a torpedo-shaped vessel.).

Do Triple Imperial IPAs Exist?

hat trick can
Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash

Yes, there are some Triple IPAs on the market but they are rarer and are normally seasonal or Anniversary brews due to the higher costs involved in producing them.

Three times the hops and three times the malt/grains normally translates to three times the cost with a lower yield too than a traditional brew (those hops absolutely drink up the wort!).

Some of your more cynical craft beer snobs argue the Triple IPA style was only invented by craft brewery marketing experts as a way of getting more brands on the shelf next to their others.

There never used to be an upper limit on what alcohol level was acceptable for an Imperial or Double IPA.

A prime example would be Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, which is hopped for double the time of its sibling beer, the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, and for years has been described as a Double IPA or Imperial IPA.

At 15 – 20% ABV, it’s still classed as an Imperial Double yet beers that are just 10.2% ABV are often called a TIPA.

Pliny the Younger, the sibling beer to Pliny the Elder, is one of the better-known Triple IPAs which, with an ABV of 10.25%, is released only once a year and sells out very fast, even though it is only available from the brewpubs in person or through select draft accounts in California.

Do Imperial Quadruple IPAs Exist?

Yes, although these will be even rarer to find than the Triple IPAs.

As there is no upper limit for what defines a Triple IPA, it’s just accepted that an ABV of over 10% is a Triple, and it can be hard to say exactly when a beer is a Quad.

These hopped-up versions of a Triple IPA are heavy, rich beers, again only produced seasonally or for special occasions or brewery anniversaries.

The cost of the ingredients for a Quad IPA (each barrel often uses over 10 pounds of high alpha hops) can be prohibitively expensive for both the brewer and the consumer alike.

They can also be notoriously difficult to brew, although those who have tasted a QIPA would argue the extra effort is 100% worth it.

For recent examples of Quad IPAs, and there is some crossover between the Triple and Quadruple IPAs in ABV and IBUs, check out our guide to Quadruple IPAs here.

Double IPA vs Imperial IPA – Last Call

Next time you hear somebody talking about a Double IPA they could also mean an Imperial IPA, but if they say Imperial you need to ask whether that’s a Double, Triple, or even Quadruple IPA (fortunately, Quintuple IPAs don’t exist just yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time!).

Imperial IPA basically refers to any IPA which has a strength over the 7% ABV upper limit of a standard IPA.

Double, Triple, or Quad simply denotes roughly how many times stronger, and how many more hops and more malt have been used.

With very few style guidelines such as the “over 10% makes it a triple” guideline, it can be difficult to define whether a stronger double-figure ABV IPA is a triple or a quad.

Imperial IPAs creep up towards some of the strongest alcohol-content beers there are, but gather most of the flavor from hops. Too much of a malt flavor and an Imperial IPA would almost stray into the American barleywine sector.

But just when does the ABV of an Imperial IPA get so high it’s no longer a beer?

That’s for you to decide but personally, I’m not looking forward to those upcoming Quintuple IPAs (it’s gonna happen believe me) and a potential for alcohol content well into the 20% ABV and higher range.

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