If you’re a fan of the American IPA style and love your hops, maybe you have often thought about brewing an Imperial IPA.
A bolder bigger version of the IPA, it’s basically an amped-up beer with double (sometimes more) the hops and a generally higher alcohol by content level. Sounds perfect, yes?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as taking your favorite IPA recipe and just shoveling in more hops and bumping up the alcohol strength! Getting the balance between hops and malt in this complex beer is an art, if not a science.
Add too many hops and you risk the finished beer having an astringent, harsh taste often found in some of the poorer-produced commercial examples of an Imperial IPA beer style.
If you add too much malt, although you may get a higher ABV, the residual sweetness which comes with it may push your beer closer to an American barley wine style.
The best Imperial IPAs offer a fine balance between malt and hops which gives the beer more drinkability but will tend to veer more towards the hoppy side.
Bitterness can often be extreme in an Imperial IPA sometimes reaching the dizzying heights of over 100 IBUs but most will average out roundabout 70 IBU for a moderate-high bitterness.
Fruity esters from the yeast used, or dependent on what type of hops you use, can be a welcome addition in counterbalancing that bitterness.
Do Imperial IPAs Cost More to Brew?
Due to the higher amounts of hops and malts used (normally about 1.5 times more rather than the doubled amount that the Double IPA name suggests), an Imperial IPA can be a more expensive beer to produce.
Normally I would expect to spend anywhere between $40 – $60 for a 5-gallon batch compared to $20 – $30 for 5 gallons of an IPA or similar style.
Also, the yield can substantially reduce with much of the liquid getting caught up in both kettle hops and the dry-hopping stage. Again, I would expect to lose anywhere up to 1 gallon of beer when brewing an Imperial IPA.
But, if you get it right, an Imperial IPA is the perfect craft beer for us hopheads.
The extra alcoholic warmth it offers, along with an explosion of hop flavors and aromas, make it the ideal alternative to traditional winter beers like Porters or Stouts for hop-loving craft beer lovers.
Those ultra-refreshing hop flavors (plenty of them) also make it a great drink for sipping on a Midsummer evening.
Let’s take a look at what is expected of this incredibly popular style of ale, especially if you are brewing it for a competition, before looking at a beer recipe for you to try brewing your own Imperial IPA at home.
Is an Imperial IPA the Same as a Double IPA?
Yes, Double IPAs are the same style as an Imperial IPA, it’s up to the individual craft brewer how they label this bolder style of ale.
Imperial IPAs take their name from the Russian Imperial Stouts which were popular in Europe, especially the Russian court, in the late 18th Century, when Russian Czar Peter the Great was so enamored with the English porters and ales he experienced on visits to London, that he ordered the beers to be shipped to Russia.
Unfortunately, the beers didn’t survive the 1000-mile-plus journey and were spoiled by the time they arrived.
Never one to give up on a potentially lucrative market, the London brewer decided to add extra hops and bump up the alcohol strength of their stouts in an attempt to preserve the beer longer.
The experiment worked and hence the term Russian Imperial stout was coined. Today the word Imperial is used to denote any stronger and more flavorsome ale like an Imperial IPA.
Many of the early Imperial IPAs used the phrase Double IPA which comes from the extra amount of hops and malts used.
In 2015 the esteemed BJCP dropped the Imperial IPA category 14C and instead classes all beers of this style under the American Strong Ale Category 22A Double IPA.
An Imperial IPA can be a triple IPA, or even a quad IPA but double IPAs tend to be the most common style of Imperials in the US today.
The Origins of the Imperial IPA/Double IPA
Many beer geeks will tell you the Imperial IPA was born accidentally when a Southern Californian brewer added too much malt to his mash and tried to counterbalance it by adding more hops to the boil to cut through the extra maltiness (we’ve all tried something similar at some stage, but it doesn’t normally give birth to a new beer style!).
If you want to find a beer style that was genuinely born by accident take a look at American Wheatwine which falls under Category 22D of the BJCP Style Guidelines.
In reality, there was a bit more planning for the Double IPA rather than just an unfortunate accident by a brewer.
Credited with brewing the first commercially available IPA, Vinnie Cilurzo was working for the now-closed Blind Pig Brewery of California in 1994.
Nervous about the antiquated state of the equipment they used, and also producing the first larger batch of beer for commercial release of his brewing career, Vinnie decided to up the hops count to mask any potential off-flavors the beer may have acquired during the fermentation process.
The result was 1994’s Blind Pigs Inaugural Ale, recognized by most professional beer writers to be the first Imperial or Double IPA released to the market in the US.
Vinnie didn’t stop there, he went on to found Russian River Brewing and produced Pliny the Elder in the year 2000, which is still the Imperial IPA used as a benchmark for this brewing style, and Russian River’s top-selling flagship beer.
Two years after the release of Inaugural Ale, Rogue beers followed suit with IPA2, and in 1998 Stone released their 2nd Anniversary IPA which fell firmly into the double or Imperial IPA category.
In 2003, the Imperial IPA even appeared in its own category at the Great American Beer Festival.
Nowadays any craft brewery worth its salt that wants to please the hop-heads out there will produce an Imperial or Double IPA.
Some are seasonal or limited-release beers, although many are now available all year round (check out our list of the best Imperial IPAs widely available in the US).
The Style of an Imperial IPA
The basic style of an Imperial IPA can briefly be described as everything very high (often absurdly high), from the bitterness to intense hop aromas and flavors with just enough malt background to offer some balance.
Although some Imperial IPAs have a ridiculously high alcohol content creeping into some of the strongest alcoholic beers on the American craft beer market, the average ABV range tends to be roughly 7.5% to 10%.
With an Imperial IPA, you should be aiming for a straw gold to bronze orange color.
The clarity will depend on whether or not you dry hop the beer, although some Imperial IPAs may have a slight haze simply from the huge amounts of hops added at different stages of the brewing process.
A white to off-white head will normally offer good retention or lacing.
new world or American hops should give off strong hop aromas in this style of beer. The American motto of “bigger is better” definitely applies to an Imperial IPA.
Aromas such as floral, citrus, stone fruit, pine resinous, beery and melon should be present depending on what hops are used. The hop aroma will normally be quite intense especially if you decide to dry-hop the beer.
The malt may carry a slightly sweet character to the aroma. The alcohol present in the aroma can be noticeable but should be low without any alcohol burn.
The hop flavor should be the most noticeable taste when you first sip your freshly brewed Double or Imperial IPA. Again, the flavors of the American hops or New World hops used will have hints of floral, citrus, stone fruit, and dank piney resinous flavors.
The hop bitterness should range from moderately high to (for some brewers) absurdly high. Think of an IBU of 100+ in some of the better-known versions of this beer.
The malt background should be clean with a slightly grainy character and may contain notes of slight caramel or a bready toastiness.
Some fruitiness is acceptable in this style but dactyl shouldn’t be present. Light and clean alcohol flavors can be acceptable but should never offer too much of an alcohol bite.
Smooth on the palate without any harsh astringency from the hops, you should be aiming for a medium to medium-high level of carbonation. Some alcohol warming is acceptable in an Imperial IPA.
Brewing Hints For Brewing an Imperial IPA
Now we know where the Imperial IPA style came from, the style you should be looking for, and that it is the same as a Double IPA, let’s take a look at how you can make your own magnificent Imperial IPA at home.
85% to 90% of the base malt will be made up of a neutral clean grain like domestic 2-row malt or a British Maris Otter.
Try experimenting with other clean base grains to find out what works best for you but avoid roasted or highly kilned grains which can add too much maltiness.
Caramel malts used in small quantities can give the finished beer that kiss of caramel flavor it may be looking for.
To add some more complexity you could try adding Vienna, Munch, or wheat malts too, but they should only account for less than 10% of the total grain bill.
Dextrose sugar can be added to allow the gravity to rise and give the beer more alcohol. This extra sugar can also dry the beer out a little and give it a lighter body too.
Perhaps the most important ingredient in this style of bolder beer is the hops you use.
A traditional bittering charge at the 60-minute stage is a good place to start, although some award-winning craft brewers now use a constant hop addition throughout the boil for a more intense bitterness and aromas.
Chinook, Simcoe, or Cascade, higher in alpha acids, are all good hops for the bitterness levels required.
After you have thought about the bittering hops to use, there’s really no limit on the hops you choose for flavor and aroma. Cascade, Citra, Columbus, Centennial (The big C hops), Amarillo, Simcoe, Warrior, or Mosaic are all good hop choices to add.
New World hops like Galaxy or Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand will also work too.
Dry hopping is a popular choice with an Imperial IPA which helps to extract more of the hop aromas and flavors in your beer.
You should always choose a well-attenuating strain of yeast for an Imperial IPA, one which has a clean and neutral character. Good options include Wyeast American Ale yeast #1056, White Labs California Ale WLP001, or Northwest Ale 132.
For those who prefer dry yeast, a safe choice would be Safale US-05, but considering the gravity of the beer, you will need to use 2 packets. A yeast starter is also normally required when using any of the above liquid yeasts.
Imperial Yeast makes a good selection of yeast designed especially for higher gravity beers such as an Imperial IPA and includes A18 Joystick, A20 Citrus, and A24 Dry Hop to name but three.
An Imperial IPA Recipe for Advanced Homebrewers
This all-grain recipe is designed for the more advanced homebrewers out there.
Based on the Avery Brewing Company’s Maharaja, you are going to need a larger mash tun than normal to fit in all that extra grain and hops.
If you don’t own a larger mash tun you could always substitute some light dry malt extract for some of the 2-row malt at a ratio of 0.65 pounds of dry extract for each pound of 2-row malt removed.
Add the dry malt extract to the wort after the spare and as you are heating to a boil.
|YIELD||5 GALLONS (19L)|
The Grain Bill
- 15.5 pounds 2-row malt
- 0.5 pounds Victory Malt
- 0.5 pounds Crystal Malt 120L
The Hops and Hop Schedule
- 1.25 oz Columbus hops – 60 minutes
- 1.25 oz Centennial hops – 30 minutes
- 2 oz Simcoe hops – 10 minutes
- 2 oz Centennial hops – 10 minutes
- 4 oz Simcoe hops – dry hop
- 2 oz Centennial hops – dry hop
- 2 oz Chinook hops – dry hop
4-liter starter of American Yeast – White Labs WLP001 or Wyeast #1056
1.5 packets of Safale US-05 dry yeast.
1. Add the grains to your mash tun and using 5 gallons of water at about 161ºF (roughly 1.2 quarts of water per pound of grain) mash in. Stir constantly as you add the water for 2 minutes to prevent balls of grain from clumping and to create a more consistent mash.
2. Cover the mash for about 60 minutes or until the enzymatic conversion is complete. Only uncover every 20 minutes or so to briefly stir the mash.
3. Heat 5.25 gallons of sparge water to 185ºF before mashing out and transferring it into your brew kettle. You should aim to have about 7 gallons to 7.5 gallons of wort. (Remember you will lose some of this liquid as the kettle hops and dry hops absorb the wort)
4. Allow the wort to come to a boil before adding the first batch of Columbus hops (1.25 oz)
5. Boil for 60 minutes while adding the hops according to the schedule above.
6. At flame out, remove the boil kettle from the heat and chill quickly using a wort chiller. Transfer to a carboy or fermenting vessel and take your Original gravity reading before pitching the yeast.
7. Oxygenate the wort vigorously and you should be looking for a temperature of 65ºF to pitch the yeast. Make up the yeast into a starter following the guidelines on the yeast label.
8. Ferment for 7 to 14 days at 65ºF to 68ºF until fermentation seems to have ceased and the lees have dropped.
9. Transfer to a secondary fermentation vessel or carboy and dry hop with the Simcoe, Centennial, and Chinook hops. Allow the beer to stand for a further 7 days for the dry hopping process.
10. Transfer to a keg, force carbonate or siphon off to a bottling bucket, and add priming sugar. You should be aiming for a medium to medium-high carbonation level of 2.2 to 2.7 volumes of CO2.
11. Drink fresh for the best results.