When you have something good, you want more of it. More, always more - that’s the American way, and that’s how we like it; everything bold and dripped in excess.
This is dangerous when we’re talking about things like fried chicken or energy drinks, but it can be a welcome addition to the beer world. Belgian monks doubled and tripled their ingredients to make richer, boozier beers that we now know as dubbels and tripels; meanwhile Germany loved its bocks so much they upped a little bit of everything and created the dopplebock, a malt bomb of epic proportions.
Here in the US, though, we’re slowly moving into the Time of the Imperial, when the best breweries are judged by their ability to imperialize one of their existing beers. Last week, New Belgium announced their official entry into the imperial annals with release of Rampant Imperial IPA.
Using the relatively new Mosaic and Calypso hop strains, Rampant is dry, light and hoppy. It’s unlike anything else in the New Belgium family, though there’s a definite nod toward older brother Ranger - Rampant is a boozy, pale version of its elder. Yet, there’s something missing, and in the beginning I couldn’t quite tell what it was. Until I dove into a little history, that is.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the idea of an imperial beer began with the Russian imperial stout, brewed thick and extra hopped for export from England to Russia. These beers, popular with the Imperial Court, have since shed their royal ties and have become a staple of American breweries, with the high-gravity, high-hop technique bleeding into other styles - most notably, the IPA.
Because brewers get bored easily, there’s a trend among top breweries to create envelope pushing imperial IPAs. And with good cause: in addition to Belgian trippels and quads and Russian imperial stouts, imperial or double IPAs (the term “double” and “triple” tend to be synonymous with “imperial” these days) routinely top the list of “The World’s Best Beers.”
Yet, while imperial tag is often used to signify a top-shelf version of a style - boozier, richer and way more expensive - we should get a little technical here. The BJCP doesn’t even use the term “imperial” except in reference to one of two specific styles:
- Russian Imperial Stout (ABV 8 - 12%) - classic commercial examples available in Sioux Falls include North Coast’s Old Rasputin and Deschutes’ The Abyss.
- Imperial IPA (ABV 7.5 - 10%) - classic commercial examples include Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Surly’s Abrasive Ale and Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute and 120-Minute IPA, none of which are available our area, so excuse me while I cry for a bit.
Beeradvocate is a little more lenient in their classification taxonomy, claiming in addition to the stouts and IPAs an increasingly more popular style: the imperial pilsner (Odell’s Double Pilsner the most recognizable of this bunch). We could go super crazy here and say, sure, let’s claim the the dopplebock as an imperial style German bock, and dubbels and tripels as imperial style Belgian ales.
The surge in imperialism - especially with IPAs - has given the beer world some amazing brews. But it has also fueled a very troubling “bigger is always better” vibe, where instead of creating an imperial IPA because it tastes amazing, we’re creating imperial IPAs because they’re bigger and boozier. We’re filling a niche instead of creating something special. There’s a tradition of creating great imperial beers that are well regarded, but there’s a new trend trend in creating them for the sake of the style.
It’s hard to tell where New Belgium was going with Rampart. Were they attempting to fill a niche and bring the imperial IPA to grocery store aisles and backwoods bars everywhere - or did they really think that Rampart was a unique enough idea that it was necessary to move forward? Were they going for the tradition? Or the trend?
Rampant, a young upstart that out-boozes grandpa Ranger right out of the parks system - is good. Don’t get me wrong. It’s pretty good, and if I made it, I’d be proud of it. The issue here is that, as mentioned above, you have two directions to go with an imperial IPA - you can attempt to make the beer better, or you can attempt to make the beer stronger. Unfortunately, this fits into the latter - a stronger version of Ranger that feels both disappointing and unfulfilling.
Let’s make this clear, though - I am an unabashed Ranger disciple. I expect great things from a New Belgium pale ale. So when I say disappointing, I mean it in the same way one might if their daughter started dating a crust punker. You still love it, but, man, some bad decisions may have been made.
My love for Ranger set me up for unreachable promise: Rampant is good, but it’s not great. I hope I’m wrong on this one.