Beer nomenclature can be a little confusing — and sometimes a little redundant.
The term “imperial” has been a buzzword for the last decade or so. The adjective was originally used in the phrase, “Russian imperial stout,” a strong, oily black ale that English brewers once exported to the court of the czar. Today, American brewers tack “imperial” in front of any style they’ve supersized with extra ingredients.
Hence, “imperial pilsner” for a strong, hoppy pale lager.
But the Germans already have a word for a strong lager: bock. A bock beer is minimally 6 percent alcohol by volume. And while many Americans associate bock with darker lagers, there are paler versions that go by the name of helles bock, Maibock or golden bock. In Germany, bock beers tend to be malt-driven, but there were hoppier American interpretations (i.e., Sierra Nevada Pale Bock) long before the imperial craze swept American craft brewing.
Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. in San Jose, Calif., has muddied the waters still further with its IPB (Imperial Pilsner Brau), the first in a series of limited-edition beers in 750-milliliter swing-top bottles. The name is supposed to evoke IPA, and this unfiltered beer (6.5 percent alcohol, 50 bitterness units) is extraordinarily hoppy for a lager, with a blend of four noble hop varieties (Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt and Saaz) contributing a long-lasting peppery bite.
Dan Gordon, founder and head brewer for Gordon Biersch, calls his brew a “Luckenbier” or gap beer because it doesn’t fit any of the traditional German categories. Its original gravity (a measure of the dissolved solids in the unfermented beer) is 15.5 degrees on the Plato scale, less than the 16-degree minimum that German brewers have set for bock. “And I just don’t know of any beers in Germany that hit this bitterness level,” he adds.
Bottles of the IPB should land in area stores this month, and a draft version will show up in some of the Gordon Biersch brewpubs, including those in Rockville and Annapolis, promises Gordon.
Over the Pils Imperial Pilsner, a one-run-and-done beer from Magic Hat Brewing Co. in South Burlington, Vt., is even hoppier than the IPB at 75 bitterness units, but it’s got a bigger malt bill, which mutes the hop bite somewhat. At 8.1 percent alcohol, this one is well within double bock territory. “To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of style designations,” says head brewer Justin McCarthy when asked where Over the Pils lies on the beer spectrum. He added that his aim was “to up the ante” on an ordinary pils, while retaining that style’s “floral, grassy hop aroma” and “nice clean malt body.”
Over the Pils marks the return of Magic Hat’s Humdinger series of higher-alcohol beers in corked, foil-wrapped 750-milliliter bottles. It’s not in the Washington area yet, says the brewery’s Steve Hill. “Our wholesalers down there will hopefully be ordering a pallet of Over the Pils soon,” he adds — assuming the limited supply hasn’t run out.
Heavy Seas/Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore is one of a few breweries that makes a beer of this type on a year-round basis: Small Craft Warning Uber Pils. General partner Hugh Sisson claims to be the first to use the prefix “uber” instead of “imperial, “but I forgot to trademark the term.” He also refers to the beer as a “pilsner bock.” At 7 percent alcohol by volume, Small Craft Warning is formulated to be hefty in body and flavor, but still “thirst-quenching,” a little lighter than Sisson’s other high-gravity beers.
Finally, the District ChopHouse in Chinatown has been serving Spring Bock, a 7.7 percent alcohol powerhouse hopped liberally with Hallertau Tradition. It lacked the floral aroma I usually associate with this hop variety, but had a nice firm bitterness and makes for a wonderfully appetizing beer. During a happy hour I attended about two weeks ago, the beer was indeed described as an imperial pils.
Perhaps someday brewers will resolve this Tower of Babel. In the meantime, there’s no need to go thirsty puzzling it out.