Imperial Red Ales, The Beatles, and Tonight’s Weather Forecast: What (Not) To Expect From Beer “Styles” and Their Descriptions
Arguably, they are the four words most likely heard during any interview with a musician. Spoken very directly and often with no small amount of bravado, “our band defies categorization!” has nonetheless become a little stereotypical over the years. After all, to some extent, don’t most bands? It’s only natural that musicians are in some part surely influenced by whatever music they’ve spent time listening to, and absorbing in their lives, and therefore are a sort of musical mosaic – a sum of the sounds which have been of most influence. Labeling a band, or a particular sound then, and having it easily fall into certain specific boundaries is nearly impossible. It would be difficult to spend significant time listening to the Beatles, for example, without having the hook from “All You Need Is Love” show up out of the blue, even if years down the road.
Any creative endeavor is much the same, including beer. All sorts of efforts are made to categorize beer, and doing so is not without usefulness and practicality. After all, when was the last time you saw a new beer and looked to see what “kind”, or style, it was? It’s an obvious first course of action. Beer styles do tell you a little about what to expect. But such labels begin and end with just that, generally speaking – with only expectations. Good for heading you in a particular direction, but often incapable of providing much beyond that. Beer styles and the flavors you might expect from them are constantly overlapping, and an individual beer of one “style” can often fit within the description of another.
One of the most perfect examples of how a style name is not enough is the Imperial Red Ale. At first, it sounds simple enough. In beer terms, “imperial” is reserved for stronger (bigger tasting, and the usually accompanying higher alcohol content) version of the non imperial version. An Imperial Red (or Amber) Ale should be just a “bigger” amber ale then. Considering that amber ales usually have wide ranging tastes anyway, you might already expect some variation in flavor and aroma. But when it comes to the individual beers which are sold as Imperial Red Ales, the width between the boundaries grows even further. Some are described as being akin to IPAs, others to Barleywines, two “styles” which have their own wide ranging descriptions. They truly a beer seemingly without a stable definition, and even a beer without a country, of sorts – the BJCP, or Beer Judge Certification Program, an often used reference for categorizing beers, currently does not recognize them as a style unto their own. (Many large beer festivals however, such as the Great American Beer Festival, do have a judging category for them.)
But even if one day the Imperial Amber did gain a spot on such a list, would it even help? A quick look at the BJCP’s online description of the American Amber Ale is a page full of statements that begin with such guidelines as “low to moderate…”, “moderate to high…”, “moderate to none”, and the word so demure on the page yet so impactful in practice “usually”. After a while, it begins to sound like the evening weather report. ”Clouds are moving into the area, so there is a chance of rain…”. (Well, yes.) This is not the fault of the BJCP, of course, or any other attempt to categorize and describe beer “styles”. As a matter of fact, their pages of style guidelines cover the bases probably better than any other you could hope to find, but in doing so, points out what beer, and especially craft beer is all about. When it comes to individual beers, there are so many factors which go into making them – amount of each ingredient, what types of malts and hops were used, at what point in the process they were used, type of yeast, even the water used in making the beer – that each can be rather difficult to categorize, and can often, easily escape the confines of any description. I would imagine that each beer a brewer produces is very much like each song the musician writes – some sort of mix of what they’ve known before, with a taste of the new.
So what can you expect from an Imperial Red Ale? Sure, you could go with those all too typical generalities – big, rich caramel tasting malt and highly hopped, citrusy flavors, some balanced between the two and others leaning more one way than the other, a possibly generous mouthfeel, and on and on. But as you see, it’s difficult to nail the whole group down. If you like bold, in your face, flavorful beers, there likely is at least one you’ll probably go nuts over. But as always, with ANY ale or lager, the best answers lie within each beer. So get out and simply taste a couple – perhaps while listening to some good music.
Here are a few delicious examples: Troegs’ Nugget Nectar (seasonal) features a juicy, orange and tropical citrusy taste which as far as my tastebuds are concerned, has not been duplicated elsewhere. It rides atop all else, including any bitterness you might find, and a swell of sweetness which is present but not overt. Think: biting deeply into a ripe mixture of fresh, sweet orange, perhaps tangerine, and red grapefruit all at once. Fans of Nugget Nectar mark their calendars each year for its release. Peak Organic’s King Crimson and Bear Republic’s Red Rocket both have plenty of caramel like malt flavor along with ample pine and also orange-ish, citrus flavor, with a slight biting bitterness. Both well balanced between the two. Others include Terrapin’s Big Hoppy Monster (seasonal) and Oskar Blues’ G’Knight Ale, both of which are works of art in the world of sticky, resinous hops, but balanced out by plenty of caramel like malt. Last but certainly not least is Lagunitas Brewing’s Lucky 13, also a big and balanced version of this bold “style”.