Serious Beer: Imperial Porters

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

American craft breweries like to turn up the volume. While they've produced some truly great traditional porters, breweries all over the country have also been busy experimenting with high-octane Imperial Porters.

Imperial beers are high-impact variations on traditional styles. Imperial porters are full bodied, with tons of rich malt and high alcohol levels. They are brewed with dark-roasted barley, which can add a bitter punch. Some include a generous helping of hops. (American Imperial porters are differentiated from Baltic porters by the addition of fragrant hops and dark-roasted malt, as well as the fact that Baltic porters are usually lagers, not ales, but the line is a little fuzzy and some use the category names interchangeably.)

While these potent beers won't be everyone's favorite style, we found quite a few tasty examples in our roundup.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite **** Awesome, worth remembering *** We'd consider buying this again ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Our Imperial Porter Picks

Tyranena Dirty Old Man Wisconsin, 7.9% ABV Part of the batch of this Imperial rye porter is aged in rye whiskey barrels, but we didn't find this overly boozy tasting. It's rich and dry, with smoke and vegetal notes—we were reminded of well charred steak and green peppers. There's a hint of cinnamon and clove here, but it's not very sweet and quite drinkable. Several tasters named this their favorite of the bunch. ****1/2

Long Trail Brewmaster Series Imperial Porter Vermont, 8.3% ABV This beer smells a little like wet leaves. It seems perfect for the style—like a traditional porter, but with a little more oomph. Floral hops, chocolate notes, and smooth malt balance well with coffee and chicory flavors. This is a beer worth tracking down. ****1/2

Full Sail Top Sail Imperial Porter Oregon, 9.85% ABV This bourbon-barrel aged porter is silky and chocolaty with some musty walnut and maple flavors. The scent reminded us of port and expensive leather, vanilla and wheat. Though some found it a little syrupy, we felt like the hoppy edge keeps this beer in balance. ****

Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter Maryland, 9.2% ABV We could smell the alcohol in this dry Imperial porter from several inches away, but we enjoyed its full roasty flavor. We tasted rich malted milk, cinnamon, and caramel, with substantial earthiness. Grapefruity hops offer a herbal note that make the roasted finish a little bitter. ***1/2

A Few Others We Tried

Ballast Point Victory at Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial Porter California, 10% ABV With a heavy vanilla perfume and Kahlua-milkshake flavor, this beer is a good dessert substitute. It's creamy and quite sweet, but has a hoppiness that keeps it from being too syrupy. We were impressed how bold the coffee flavor was—this beer doesn't have the diluted canned-coffee flavor of many coffee-flavored brews. While it was too sweet for us to drink much of, you might be a fan. ***

Southhampton Imperial Porter New York, 7.2% ABV This beer reminded us of molasses and sweetened coffee, but wasn't quite as richly flavored as we hoped. We tasted a hint of toffee and milk chocolate with a tart cherry edge. It has mineral notes and a slightly ashy finish. ***

Shipyard Imperial Porter (Pugsley's Signature Series) Maine, 7.1% ABV This very dry beer had flavors of dry cocoa powder, earthy blue cheese, and pumpernickel bread. This scent is a little musty. We noted a hint of cardamom in the finish, but some tasters thought there was something metallic in the flavor. ***

Ska Nefarious Ten Pin Colorado, 8% ABV This slightly fruity porter had a hint of sour cherry and dry wood, yeast and wheat germ. It's a bit lighter than the others—one taster was reminded of flat Coke. This beer hides its alcohol level well. Some tasters found the musty scent a little off-putting. ***

Disclosure: All beers except the Gonzo and the Southampton were review samples.