My high school history teacher taught us when you want to use the word "very" try using "damn" to see if it worked better. Most times neither were necessary. Lately that's been one point underlying much of the discussion around the word "imperial" - like this post by Ron, this by Stan and this by Lew. Given the pervasive use of "imperial" the eager beer fan can be left with the distinct suspicion that he or she is facing a situation proving that once again when everything is special nothing is. And what is worse, use of the regal adjective (dibs on calling it "the I-word"!) can get even a little more uncertain when it is attached to a style like porter that in itself is a bit open to interpretation and revisionism.
Fortunately, this is not in the case of Middle Ages' twelfth anniversary ale, XII. With a high neck filled growler, the seeping out of a bit of beer was inevitable I suppose. Or at least that's what I told myself when I abandoned the plan to store it and poured yet another slug. And, lo, it was good for, as it was at the sample room so it was at home - a big froth of light mocha head stood up above the inky black ale. In the mouth, you have plenty of dark fruit - date, plum - as well as licorice and a helpfully refreshing minty hop but entirely without any old school porter tang. Within the heart of the ale, despite its 9% strength, there is still a lightness that, shared with the subdued roasty-toastiness, justifies or at least explains the label of porter rather than stout.
But is it also imperial? Well, let's review the supporting claims. First, it is a beer of the Empire State and uniquely placed near one of the great hubs along the old Erie Canal, the western-seeking spine of New York, the engine that made that imperial state upon which the Empire State was founded - the riches of commerce. Second, it is a rich pinnacle of the style. In this case, the use of "imperial" could be thought of as "royale". In fact, couldn't brewers break out the thesauruses (perhaps thesauri?) in a hunt for other monarchical superlatives? And why just the kingly words. At the Kingston brew pub, amongst all the brewiania, there is a tray branded with the name "Congress Ale". Why not, then, also have a Parliamentary Porter or even Appellate Division Ale or any number of other authoritarian descriptors? In any case, this particular porter is superlative in terms of strength and balanced management of that strength. Third, while the use of imperial is clearly a contemporary reference, it is also indicative of the fact that this beer is really a cross between a porter and an imperial stout. Certainly if you look at Ron's chart for Whitbread stouts in 1914, you can make that claim - though I think I know so little about what is to be found within the charts of Ron that I might make any claim I wanted in reliance on the truth of one chart or another. But if you accept that (work with me) the underlying logic makes "imperial porter" an excellent and instructive contraction of this beer's two parents. Accordingly, I deem (imperially) that imperial porter is apt in this case.
Yet the broader question arises, though: are we truly bound by the original use in brewing of the descriptor "imperial?" Of course not. But that is not the real issue, though, as a quick scan of my notes shows that it has at least graced the label of not only stouts but IPAs (making an IIPA), an extra pale ale, one pumpkin ale, red ale and maybe a brown ale as well as a pilsner and now this porter. Maybe the problem is not so much it's widespread use as how its overuse indicates a bit of a lack of imagination. Time to mix it up. Time for a VDBPA - a very damn big pale ale.