Imperial IPA – The History, Ingredients, and Brands

NOTE: In the most recent BJCP Style Guidelines of 2021, Imperial IPA is now listed as Style 22A Double IPA, a subcategory of Category 22 Strong American Ale which includes modern American strong ales with a varying balance of malt and hops. The category is defined mostly by alcohol strength and a lack of roast. prior to 2015, the BJCP category was 14C Imperial IPA but the new guidelines argue it is rarely called Imperial IPA. (Try telling that to some of our favorite craft breweries!)

The information below is still valid, but if you are studying for the current BJCP exam, use the current description in conjunction with this page as reference material.

American craft beer lovers tend to love their American IPAs – bigger, bolder, and brasher than their British counterparts, they are a hop explosion waiting to happen on your palate.

The quest for more and more hops in our beers, and more of those India Pale Ale flavors, led to the creation of the Imperial IPA beer style.

The term “Imperial” is taken from the Russian Imperial Stout, which was a very strong version of the popular English and Irish stout made for the Russian court and meant to withstand the long journey from England to Russia.

Other terms are just as valid – Double or Triple IPA being the most popular. Some Imperial recipes test the physical limits of the properties of hops and add an insane amount in their recipes, vying for the most extreme drinkable example of the style.

The problem is that anyone can add a lot of hops to a recipe, but making a delicious Imperial IPA is much harder.

Balancing the bracing bitterness and prodigious hop flavor and aromas with complex malt flavors is an art as well as a science.

The first Double IPA is often attributed to Vinnie Cilurzo while at Blind Pig Brewery in Temecula, California.

The story goes that Vinnie was nervous about producing his first large batch of commercial beer at his new job at Blind Pig so he added more hops to his ale recipe in an attempt to hide any possible off-flavors.

The result was Inaugural Ale, arguably the first Imperial IPA in America. The Blind Pig Brewery is closed now, but the Blind Pig Inaugural Imperial IPA has attained cult status on the craft beer scene.

Vinnie has gone on to make other cult beers, such as Pliny the Elder.

Others attribute the creation of the style to Rogue Ales with their I2PA, originally brewed in 1990. Whoever created the style, craft beer consumers across the world have rejoiced for nearly two decades.

Brewing an Imperial IPA isn’t as easy as doubling an IPA recipe. You must brew a “drinkable” and well-balanced beer, which is pretty difficult with the hop load in these beers.

An Imperial India Pale Ale should feature a high hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The hop character will be fresh and will be evident by the types of hops that have been utilized. Alcohol by volume is medium-high to high, about 6.0% – 8.4% alcohol is a good guideline.

The increase in hops from the original IPA recipes gives an Imperial IPA more of a bitter taste and doesn’t bring the same malt taste of other stronger ales in alcohol content like an American barleywine.

For fans of the original India Pale Ales and American IPAs, an Imperial IPA is the perfect craft beer when searching for that even more hoppy flavor.

Double / Imperial IPA Description

the glass of beer on a long stem against the black background
Photo by Jan Gunnar Nygård on Unsplash


Modern American or New World hops usually feature in an intense hop aroma. Characteristics such as citrus, floral, pine, resin, spice, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, or melon can be found.

The background may be supportive with a clean, neutral almost grainy maltiness.

The hops will often give neutral to lightly fruity fermentation, and alcohol may be noted in the aromas, but without too solvent a smell.


Although an Imperial IPA will often be darker in color than a traditional IPA, it should still have a gold to light orange-copper color, with most modern versions being fairly pale.

Clarity should be good, but a little haze is acceptable, especially when the beer has been dry-hopped.

The head of the beer should be moderate-sized, persistent, and white to off-white in color.


A strong and complex hop flavor will feature many of the same characteristics of the American or New World hops used in the aroma description.

Slightly floral, piney, resinous, spicy, tropical fruits and subtle stone fruit flavors with hints of berry or melon.

The moderate high to very high bitterness should not be harsh or astringent. A low or medium supportive, clean, soft, unobtrusive malt character; may exhibit light caramel or toast flavors.

A dry to medium-dry finish shouldn’t be sweet or too heavy. Depending on the hops used, low to moderate fruitiness is optional. A light, clean, smooth alcohol flavor is allowable.


With a medium light to medium body, the Imperial IPA should have a smooth texture. Carbonation will range from a medium level to medium-high.

There should be no harsh hop-derived astringency. A restrained, smooth alcohol warmth is acceptable in this style.

Overall Impression

An intensely hoppy, very strong pale ale without the big maltiness and/or deeper malt flavors of an American barleywine.

Strongly hopped, but clean, lacking harshness, and a tribute to historical IPAs.

Drinkability is an important characteristic; this should not be a heavy, sipping beer. It should also not have much residual sweetness or a heavy character grain profile.


Bigger than either an English or American IPA in both alcohol strength and overall hop level (bittering and finish).

Less malty, lower body, is less rich and has a greater overall hop intensity than an American barleywine.

Typically not as high in gravity/alcohol as a barleywine, since high alcohol and malt tend to limit drinkability. A showcase for hops.


It is a recent American innovation reflecting the trend of American craft brewers who are  “pushing the envelope” to satisfy the need of hop aficionados for increasingly intense products.

The adjective “Imperial” is arbitrary and simply implies a stronger version of an IPA; “double,” “extra,” “extreme,” or any other variety of adjectives would be equally valid.


Neutral base malts such as American two-row are commonly used, with sugar adjuncts common as well.

Crystal malts are rare. American or New World hops give it that citrusy, hoppy flavor the beer demands. Neutral or lightly fruity yeast. No oak.

American yeast, that can give a clean or slightly fruity profile. Generally all-malt, but mashed at lower temperatures for high attenuation.

Water character varies from soft to moderately sulfate.

Vital Statistics

IBU60 - 100
SRM6 - 14
OG1.065 - 1.085
FG1.008 - 1.018
ABV7.5 - 10%

Commercial Examples:

Russian River Pliny the Elder, Three Floyd’s Dreadnaught, Avery Majaraja, Bell’s Hop Slam, Stone Ruination IPA, Great Divide Hercules Double IPA, Surly Furious, Rogue I2PA, Moylan’s Hopsickle Imperial India Pale Ale, Stoudt’s Double IPA, Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA, Victory Hop Wallop.

Food Pairings:

Bone-in pork chops, Miso Salmon, Rich Cheeses, Carrot Cake

Glassware & Serving Temperature:

Tulip Glass, 50 – 55ºF.

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