Labeling craft beer as “Imperial” has become micro-brewers’ analog to the 1990s’ “fat-free” frozen yogurt craze. In both instances, a more nuanced approach to developing one of Americans’ favorite indulgences mutated into a marketing trend with arbitrary standards and countless opportunistic imitators. In the case of these suddenly emboldened ales and stouts—and, ridiculously, even saisons—that’s meant punching up alcohol content with minor regard for quality. To be fair, this is still beer, so even if 18th century English porter masters reputedly originated Imperial formula by doubling down on malts and hops for exportation to a thirsty Russian Empire, that hardly merits sacred reverence. Still, scores of imitators have essentially taken their primary recipes, rendered them more potent and pungent and seized the interest of novice drinkers. Not this six-pack. They’re the real deal, and will make you feel like a conquering czar—minus the eventually crumbled empire.
Ballast Point Victory at Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial Porter (San Diego, CA, 10%ABV) It’s a mouthful to recommend but less arduous to sip. Everything is in proportion here, which is apropos of Ballast Point, one of several West Coast breweries who’ve brought their A-game to the big-beer table. Victory at Sea is available year-round, priced like a reasonable red wine and a paean to balanced complexity. The vanilla’s apparent but less sticky-sweet than in Southern Tier’s Crème Brulee Stout and toastier than Breckenridge’s bland Vanilla Porter. That milky invite dissolves tastefully into a massive, frothy coffee finish. VASboasts a strong, detectable 10 percent ABV but opts for roasty consistency rather than boozy overkill.
North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout (Fort Bragg, CA, 9%) It’s not brewed with morsels from every level in the food chain, nor is it packaged and labeled to overtly attract 20-something stoners. North Coast’s stately Old Rasputin is a straightforward, sweet stout just like Catherine the Great’s suitors intended. It’s also a great way to introduce newbies to the Imperial pyramid, and is at least available in bottle at most decent bars, regardless of whether they cater to more obscure micros. Pour it in a glass though—the resulting, opaque silhouette is super purdy.
Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Espresso Imperial Stout (Denver, CO, 9.5%ABV) Nothing beats coming down from claustrophobically high Rocky Mountain altitudes like knocking back premium downers. Fortunately, this Yeti offspring is amped upwith espresso, ensuring a hop in your step to go along with the malty, caramel-colored head atop your pint. The Oak-Aged Espresso is demonstrably more alcoholic than its Ballast Point counterpart, Victory at Sea. The first impression can almost overwhelm, but distinctive marshmallow softness pads all that wallop. It’s a flavor that grows more drinkable as you go along, not just numbing to the tongue, which will come in handy when your presumed order ofdefibrillate-me-now pork sliders arrives.
Southern Tier Imperial Pumking Ale (Lakewood, NY, 8.6%ABV) Autumnal, spiced ales are the trend du jour, so if you’re going to be seen in public sipping out of a cinnamon-and-sugar-rimmed pint glass, at least ensure you’re toasting with a Pumking, the monarch of malty fall goodness. This highly alcoholic Halloween staple is unexpectedlysmoky and big-bodied for its ilk, and loads up on the hops in equal measure to level out its finish without drying you out. For October through Thanksgiving, this is the ultimate unisex, crowd-pleasing knockout 22-ouncer.
AleSmith Speedway Stout (San Diego, CA, 12%ABV) The champagne-style packaging is a bit gimmicky, but it’s otherwise all business from Speedway’s first pour. For those of you who, wisely, favor through-and-through roast without the burnt edges, we dare say Speedway’s worth taking for a lap—a long, deliberate lap with no particular imperative to race toward its end point (pounds of imported Vietnamese beans have something to do with that). It might be one of the few beers that actually enhances your taste buds while solidly taking the edge off your week.
Shmaltz Brewing Company/Terrapin Beer Company Reunion Ale ’13 (Clifton Park, NY/Athens, GA, 8%ABV) Limited-run collabs are all the rage among craft stalwarts pursuing an edge, but NY He’Brew purveyor Shmaltz and hippie-dippie GA vets Terrapin’s annual tradition is worthy by any serious beer connoisseur’s standards, and will also make you feel like a better human for purchasing. The 2013 variation of their Reunion Ale, as with each year’s past, was inspired by Virginia MacLean, who worked at Pete's Wicked Ale and passed away from multiple myeloma. (Proceeds go to related research.) This latest iteration was intended to replicate the taste of Virginia’s favorite dessert. Our guess is tiramisu, given the cozy whiff of cinnamon on its head, secondary layer of cocoa flavor and slow-revealing coffee depth. The best part? Reunion ’13 is truly an inclusive ale, drinkable for IPA lovers in search of a kick or just right for Joe Mama’s Milk Stout loyalists seeking a frothier—but no less flavorful—alternative. L’chaim.