What makes a beer "big"? Well, it depends what year you're drinking it. Back when Jim Koch founded Boston Beer Company — 25 years ago this April — the brewery's flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager, now considered a staple, certainly fit the bill: compared with what people were used to at the time, it was positively coruscating with bold flavors. "People were like, 'Wow, it's got a lot of hops in it, it's got a lot of malt . . . This is a big beer!'" says Koch.
Now, a quarter century later, the brewery's new Imperial Series — Double Bock, Imperial Stout, and Imperial White — go even further in the exploration of assertive, complex profiles and high alcohol content. "These are big beers that raise the bar for flavor," says Koch.
Then again, Samuel Adams beers have always pushed the envelope. In fact, while the Imperial Stout and Imperial White are new recipes, the series' Double Bock is a perennial favorite that was first brewed in 1988, and re-released on its own every winter since. When it first hit shelves two decades ago, it "was another one of these 'holy beep!' beers," Koch laughs. "It's got a half a pound of malt per bottle — that old saying that beer is liquid bread is literally true."
Of course, these "amped-up versions" of centuries-old styles pose some procedural challenges: it's not like you can simply double each ingredient and have it taste good. "Exactly," says Koch. "You can't just take a song and sing it louder and have it be heavy metal."
With the potent (9.5 percent), ruddy-brown Double Bock, swimming with viscous notes of biscuity toffee sweetness, the challenge was "getting all that malt into the beer and still have it be smooth and creamy and properly sweet," says Koch. Without getting too deep into the particulars of the brewing process, suffice it to say that the brewers' trial-and-error tinkering has left us with a true classic: it's sweet without being treacly, wholly devoid of the harsh graininess that could've resulted from to much barley malt.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Stout is an exemplary version of an age-old style that Sam Adams has been brewing in small batches for years, showcasing it at beer festivals and, occasionally, at its Jamaica Plain visitors' center. "We tried to hit it spot-on," says Koch. "A perfect Imperial Stout will be full of a lot of interesting different flavors, ranging from cappuccino, to mocha, to chocolate to espresso. You've got almost like a 'black rainbow' of flavors." (Those pleasingly roasty notes, incidentally, are derived from the Maillard reaction — the same heat-transformative process that turns bread into toast.)
The stout's strong alcohol character (9.5 percent) is also "right at the threshold of being a flavor element," says Koch. The challenge there "is to accommodate it, which the mocha/espresso/cappuccino does nicely, because alcohol can be a little hot and peppery if you don't have something to mitigate that."
Finally, the light, flowery, intensely complex 10.5-percent ABV Imperial White is something utterly new. "Nobody else has done an Imperial White Ale," says Koch of his towering iteration of the classic Belgian witbier.