Imperial Stout - In Theory and Reality

Recently I had a day catching up on beery podcasts after several busy weeks at work. In the Hopinions on Film podcast of 22nd November, Martin and Steve were drinking Ampersand Brew Co.'s Experiments in Evil (Whisky BA 2018). Steve remarked that, at 8.3%, 'it's a little bit low for an impy stout', while Martin said 'for me 10% is the starting point' for imperial stouts. Martin did invite listeners to correct him if there is a technical definition for imperial stout, so I decided to take him up on that.

The obvious first port of call was the BJCP Style Guide (Beer Judge Certification Programme), which gives an ABV range of 8-12% for imperial stouts. However, I had to admit that my first instinct had been to agree with Martin and Steve. That got me thinking about how those style guidelines are interpreted by breweries in their brewing and marketing decisions.

Turning to Untappd, I looked up the Top Rated imperial stouts in England and this is what I found.

  1. Yellow Belly Sundae (Buxton) 12%
  2. Yellow Belly (Buxton) 11%
  3. Dark City 2018 Devil's Delight (Northern Monk) 9%
  4. Bearded Lady BA Bourbon Dessert Edition (Magic Rock) 10.5%
  5. Bearded Lady Dessert Edition: Hazelnut (Magic Rock) 10.5%
  6. Tempus Project: Heavy Lord (Beavertown) 14.5%
  7. Single Barrel Rainshadow (Buxton) 12.2%
  8. Bourbon Black Forest Stout (Cloudwater) 11.4%
  9. Arran (Buxton) 11.5%
  10. The Living End Bourbon Barrel (Buxton) 11%

So only 1 out of the top 10 impy stouts come in at less than 10%. In fact you have to continue down the list to number 27 to find Shattered Dream (Siren) at 9.8%. In fact Maple and Bourbon Imperial Stout (Fourpure) 9% is the only other sub 10% beer on this list of 50 beers in total.

Of course, it could simply be the case that big beers like this are more likely to be highly rated by Untappd users. It is certainly the case that the 50th impy stout is rated at 4 stars on Untappd, while the 50th English bitter scores just 3.5.

Trying to find out about impy stouts on the market more generally was more tricky than I had expected. Various google searches failed to turn up any useful information, so I thought I would try looking at online retailers. Several of these, including Beer Hawk, Beer Merchants and Beerwulf, don't include Imperial Stout as an option within their style search. However, I did have more luck with some other retailers:
  • Honest Brew - 2 out of 9 impy stouts below 10%
  • Eebria - 8 out of 18 impy stouts below 10%
  • Beers of Europe - 15 out of 49 impy stouts below 10% (not all currently in stock)

Clearly there are a few imperial stouts on the market at less than 10% ABV, but they are very much in the minority. It's probably not at all surprising that Martin felt that 10% was a starting point for impy stouts. 


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