A Beer Judge’s Diary: Imperial, What???

Source: Wiki
Source: Wiki

Written by Ken Carman

bjd-265x300  The tightrope walker calmly stepped one step at a time, unlike our picture above; holding a balancing pole with buckets at each end. But as he delicately put one foot ahead of the other malt was dumped into one of the buckets. He had a rational, reasonable, hope that there wouldn’t be so much malt dumped before hops were added that he would fall, but more malt fell into the bucket anyway. He tilted to one side but continued to walk. Still hoping hops, then eventually yeast, would balance it out, more malt dropped. The tightrope walker found it close to impossible to stay on the tightrope as the fermentables piled up higher. Then the announcer declared, ”And now, ladies and gentlemen, with even more malt to come, we present our demonstration of IMPERIAL tightrope walking!”
  You could very well replace malt with hops in that tale, or simply take away the pole and make the rope as thin as the finest thread, and just as breakable.
  Both as a judge, and a craft beer consumer, sometimes I wonder how silly it can become. What’s next, Imperial NAs? Wouldn’t an Imperial Scottish Light just be a Scottish Export, or Strong? Anyone for 10 hour constant boil hop soup? Add the hops right in the beginning of the boil, let it cool, then add a teaspoon of honey and call it, “Imperial Galena Mead Gone Mad,” or just “Mouth Rot.”
  I suppose all this depends, to a certain extent, what you consider ”Imperial.” I’ve judged entries where the brewer seemed to think Imperial IPA means a King Kong amount of hops in little malt and little extra alcohol: if any. Yes, I’ve judged some brews called “imperial” where both judges wonder, “Is there any alcohol in this at all?” I’ve judged others where we wonder, “Is there anything BUT alcohol here?”
  Now when brewers innovate their definitions of “Imperial” do vary, even per established style, to a certain extent. But Russian Imperial really isn’t just a dry stout with more alcohol. An Imperial Porter really shouldn’t be another name for Baltic Porter. But then you have… Imperial Brown? Once we start getting down to the more delicate, softer, more gentle brews that have less and less to hide behind, aren’t we too often simply talking about deliberately brewing an out of balance, increasingly undrinkable, entry, like my rather absurd Imperial NA example? Never you mind the contradiction: a low body (in comparison with many styles) practically no alcohol brew, with a lot of extra whatever that either would put it out of balance, or contradict the very concept of “NA?”
  Again: depends upon the entry and I would hope the brewer would specify what she, or he, thinks makes this “Imperial.” And, of course, balance must be a concern, especially for drinkability. Some think it simply means higher abv, without any compensation for that. Others more of one specific ingredient. Then there’s the more of everything approach which could result in, well, something like my comment about Strong Scottish, or Scottish Export.
  I would think this might either mean you’re simply brewing another style, or you may be trying to covering your posterior in case the judges are tempted to wince and say, “That’s way the hell out of balance.”
  Some styles just seem wrong. I mean alcohol in itself is not all that palatable, and doesn’t always make the best pain killer. Excess hops with no malt backbone might be a more local cure for pain when a dentist hits a nerve, since your mouth might be so raw and lacking sensation the nerve just can’t compete. (Yes, I’m joking. PLEASE don’t suggest this to your dentist, and especially don’t try it at home.)
  Aren’t we sometimes, with those more subtle styles, just talking more “harsh?”
  Now, if you can brew it, yet hide it well enough, that’s talent. But then, what exactly is the point? Getting drunk faster? Discover what was used instead of cement on Jimmy Hoffa? I suppose it would be great exercise in showing your superior brewing skills. If you hide the abv well, OK but if you’re incredibly good couldn’t we get to the point where the judges at the table might ask, “Is this REALLY higher abv?” I mean we don’t carry refractometers, or hydrometers, around with us, nor should we have to.
  I think my judging case might be filled with broken glass as to the last, they break so easy. As for the other: a decent light source? I don’t know how much you’ve judged but optimal conditions are not as frequent as one might hope.
  I’m also firm believer that if you put it in there and it can’t be sensed it’s possible you just wasted your time and my, the consumer’s, money if we’re talking commercial product. Unless your real interest is spending money adding what won’t be sensed so you might go broke as a pro-brewer.
  I once brewed a braggot using 100% breakfast cereal so I get the concept of learning the brew extreme side of the craft. But when it comes to entering competitions, well, I certainly will judge to the best of my ability any Imperial that arrives at my table, and do so as professionally as I can. And I do judge a lot of high grav. But on the side, away from the score sheet, occasionally I’ve wondered… “Why?”

Ken A Beer Judge’s Diary is one of many columns by Ken Carman: Certified BJCP beer judge, homebrewer since 1979 and seeker of both simple and complex quaffs who, until the very early 70s, thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast.
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