The first time I ever had what I think was an imperial red ale was during my first trip to Portland, Ore., way back in 2006. I can’t remember exactly which brewery it was from, but I distinctly recall the rich toast-and-caramel malts, vivid hop flavors and aggressive bitterness. It wasn’t like the IPAs I knew. This hoppy beer had serious malt depth.
That trip was before I worked for DRAFT, before I knew what imperial red ales were, and before they started popping up throughout states other than Oregon, Washington and California. Today, they’re pretty much everywhere (we have a few slated to publish in our Jan/Feb reviews section). But what exactly is an imperial red ale?
Here’s the clearest way I’ve found to illustrate the style, which is still unrecognized by the BJCP: An imperial red ale is to an American amber as an IPA is to a pale ale, but with no defined cap on ABV and IBU. That is to say, imperial red ales should exhibit alcohol and a hop presence that hits IPA-like levels, and can venture into imperial IPA territory. But, unlike IPAs and imperial IPAs, this style’s malt and hops remain balanced. Intense, but balanced.
That leaves a lot of room for interpretation: Hop varieties, hop flavor, IBUs, alcohol strength, etc. Sipping through the numerous examples shows brewers dialing in on their own preferred level of intensity. So far, I’ve been impressed by most of the ones I’ve tried.
One of the best is Knee Deep McCarthy’s Bane, which I would hold as a standard-bearer of the style. Its well-connected American hop notes of grass, pine, orange and grapefruit fuse perfectly with a creamy, sweet-and-toasty wash of malts.
BJ’s Brewmaster’s Reserve Imperial Red Ale tips the balance a little toward the hops, with a bold citrusy aroma and similar hop flavors, but a smooth caramel base gives the brighter flavors depth to play.
Then there are the versions that refuse to hold back punches—a must-try for anyone who loves uber-bitter imperial IPAs. Black Diamond Fracas is exceptionally creamy upfront, before intense hop bitterness and a slight boozy sharpness steamrolls the tongue. Similarly, SweetWater Dank Tank Red Hot Mama wields its 80-plus IBUs and roasted malt sharpness for a wildly forceful finish. The difference between these and imperial IPAs? An extra cushion of malt depth throughout the sip.
There’s a lot to explore in the imperial red ale category, and with each example varying so greatly in intensity and flavor, it’s only a matter of time before you find one that hits exactly what you like.
What’s your favorite example of the style?