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Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Big Boys


Choice. That is one of the perks of living in America. Choice of religion (or none at all), political affiliation (or none at all), where to live, how to live, who to marry (or not). This choice extends into what we eat and drink as well. There are a great variety of restaurants from fast food to slow cooked. It is in large part a direct result of a free market. And that's a good thing. But it can also be a double-edged sword. During the post World War II baby boom explosion (of which Yours Truly was a part) the demand for quick and easy meals grew. A consequence of this demand was what I like to call "the blanding of the American palate." TV dinners, American cheese, cake mixes, prepackaged foods of all types, Jello, canned soups all made their way into American kitchens. The mantra for such items was "when shooting for the masses, aim for the middle." It became important not to offend anyone, so the more middle-of-the-road one could be with a product, the better. Spicy, strong flavors were avoided at all costs.
3.2% Beer
And this became the mantra of the big beer companies as well. Volume was everything. Produce the most for the least cost per unit. What this meant was an increased production of lagers (which are faster and cheaper to make), the use of inexpensive adjuncts such as corn or rice in place of barley (which both lowered the cost and lightened the body and flavor) and a reduction in the use of costly hops (which significantly lowered the IBU of these beers.) All of this meshed nicely with returning servicemen (who would become the target demographic), many of whom by now were used to drinking the 3.2% beer brewed specifically for the military.
Good news for the big breweries. Bad news for good beer.
Today choice has returned to the world of American beer. Ironically, the country that once was considered to be at the bottom of the beer barrel (so to speak) by the rest of the world has risen to the very top. Try to find the diversity of beer styles anywhere else in the world. Big beers, small beers, light beers, dark beers, IPA's, Porters, Stouts, Bitters, Belgians, Pilsners, Lagers, Ales, Wheats, Ryes, Imperials - and nearly any combination thereof. You name it, we brew it.
Choice is a good thing. It's the American way. Right up there with Truth and Justice and...

...this guy!

Which brings us to...

Imperial IPA's (or Super Beers!) 

By now, I'm sure most of you out there are familiar with the oft repeated story of IPA's: beers developed specifically to survive the long ocean voyage from England to India. Without refrigeration, beer (an important commodity for the British military stationed in India) often went bad. Upping the hops and the ABV created a hearty beer that could make the trip.
But what's an Imperial IPA? Big beers can be, among other things, Imperial Stouts, Imperial (or Double or Extreme) IPA's or Barley Wines.  First there were Imperial Stouts - these were originally brewed specifically for Russian royalty. They were, as the name might suggest, Stouts with the added kick of hops. But then sometime in the 1900's came Bass's No. 1 Ale which might be considered the first Barley Wine. It was rich and somewhat sweet and stronger than typical beer. Now jump to 1985 and Sierra Nevada, that crazy upstart brewery making those strange "microbrews," came up with the first American Barley Wine - Bigfoot Ale (S-N has released it as a spring seasonal and, by the way, it's excellent). As American craft beers, despite the best efforts of the mega-brews to indoctrinate the masses with their "Lite is Right" message, began to distinguish themselves through the bold infusion of hops, the natural progression was to amp up the IPA formula with even more hops and a bigger alcohol profile. These became know variously as Imperial IPA's, Double IPA's or Extreme IPA's. The meaning of the word "Imperial" when used in conjunction with beers has morphed from an indicating of royalty to meaning, basically, "big" or "bold" or "strong."
In general, an Imperial IPA will have a bold hop aroma at the pour. The taste should open with the grapefruit, piney tang of the hops up front. Then, depending on the formula, some will balance that out more than others. But, hops should be at the forefront, with a nice bitterness and a warming finish.

We met to take on the Big Boys at the home of Gerry and Donna on a sunny February 26th. Just another day in the paradise known as Central New York. Being unapologetic hopheads, we had been eagerly anticipating taking on the Imperials - and we were not disappointed. We were down a man as Herb and Pat were wintering in Florida - Herb doing his own bit of recon work down there. Nevertheless we soldiered on without him. We strapped on our helmets and bellied up to the tasting table.


Boston Beer Company (AKA Sam Adams) has a fine line-up of year-round brews, but their limited release series of big beers are tremendous. While Sam Adams is not nearly the size of AB or Miller/Coors, they do have a national presence and they show what can be done with top notch facilities. 

     THE BEER FACTS: 8.0% ABV - 80 IBU'S - Hops: Cascade hops (3 types from different growing regions around the world), Simcoe. 
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Bright and intense with a vivid punch. The unique conditions of soil, moisture and sunlight from each (growing region) yield subtle differences that makes this beer a complex medley of hop notes."
     POUR: Decent head, average staying power, maintains lacing
     COLOR: Clear, amber.
     AROMA: Hoppy, with aromas of alcohol and malts.
     BODY: Full/thick
     TASTE: Hop bitterness. Taste notes of grapefruit, alcohol, malt, bread and nut.
     COMMENTS: "It's hoppy with a good malt backbone; That's a good beer; Earthy, Sam Adams has a reputation as a small brewery gone big, but this beer is its redemption - a true craft beer; Sam Adams' limited release beers are great!"


Magic Hat's flagship beer is their #9 Not Quite Pale Ale - which in my opinion is not quite their best beer by a long shot. HI.P.A. is part of their IPA On Tour. We were concerned that it would pale by comparison with some of the bigger beers, but it help up quite well.
     THE BEER FACTS: 6.7% ABV - 70 IBU's - Hops: Columbus - Yeast: English Ale - Malt: Pale
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "HI.P.A. begins and ends with big, bountiful bites of hops, hops and more hops while maintaining the barest hint of malty middle in the mouth."
     POUR: Decent head, noticeably unfiltered.
     COLOR: Honey/gold
     AROMA: Citrusy
     BODY: Medium 
     TASTE: Bitter initially, but finishes sweet. Taste notes: citrus/grapefruit.
     OVERALL IMPRESSION: Fell between "I could drink this" and "CAN'T GET ENOUGH!"
     COMMENTS: "I like that it's unfiltered - the translucency; Even though it's a smaller beer, it held up well; Compared to the other beers this evening, it's a fine session beer."


Green Flash Brewing Company is located in San Diego. This was the first beer we've tried from this brewery.

     THE BEER FACTS: 9.4% ABV - 101 IBU's - California State Fair 2009 1st place Imperial IPA 
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "San Diego IPA, as it has come to be known by many, is pale in color, super-hoppy, high-gravity, yet a highly quaffable ale.Our Imperial IPA is created in this new tradition with intense hop flavors and aromas from a unique blend of Summit and Nugget hops."
     POUR: Better than decent pour, but not quite Guinness class. Great head with good lacing.
     COLOR: Honey and cloudy
     AROMA: Hoppy
     BODY: Medium plus; doesn't hit full, and probably closer to medium.
     TASTE: Hop bitterness. Notes of grapefruit and a bit of yeast.
     COMMENTS: "Hops dance right on the back of my tongue; Complex; Very nicely balanced; Warming; Fills the mouth; Hits the taste buds - an explosion; A really nice beer; Aggressive, yet sensitive."


Another brewery first for BOTB, Hoppin' Frog is out of Akron, Ohio. You gotta' love any brewery that has a name that plays off "hops". They claim that their double IPA weighs in at 168 IBU's! An interesting claim since there is no real gauge beyond 100. 

     THE BEER FACTS: 8.2% ABV - 168 IBU's 
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Explore the extremes of hops, and experience all of their bitterness, flavor and aroma with this Double IPA. An extreme, super-assertive and satisfying amount of American hop character is balanced with a toasty, caramelized, intense malt presence."
     POUR: Decent head.
     COLOR: Cloudy amber
     AROMA: Hoppy
     BODY: Relatively full-bodied
     TASTE: Big hop finish, with undertones of malt, alcohol and a slight caramel kiss.
     OVERALL IMPRESSION: a cautious "Can't Get Enough!"
     COMMENTS: "This dances on my tongue even more than Green Flash; Tasty; If somebody doesn't like hops, this will drive them nuts; I could ...drink that!"


Located in Lakewood, NY, Southern Tier is one of our favorite breweries. And their 2x IPA is one of their best.
     THE BEER FACTS: 8.2% ABV - 84-86 IBU's  - 4 types of hops and 3 types of malt.
     WHAT THE BREWERY SAYS: Not quite an imperial, but certainly not a standard India Pale Ale. Our double IPA is a hop lovers dream. Citrusy and clean with an incredible finish.
     POUR: Decent head
     COLOR: Almost a pale yellow.
     AROMA: That wonderfully delicious grapefruit hops.
     BODY: Just above medium.
     TASTE: Very balanced with some hints of malt, but the citrus/ grapefruit hides  it.
     COMMENTS: "Very well blended hops to malt; Outstanding; Southern Tier, they make good beer; This very nicely frames the hops; Crisp; Wonderfully clean; I could drink that!" 


Lucky to have made it to the meeting as it resided in my beer fridge in the cellar for a week or so! I loved their Union Jack IPA so when I saw this one I grabbed a couple.

     THE BEER FACTS: 9.5% ABV - 100 IBU's - Hops: Warrior, Columbus, Centennial, Cascade, Simcoe. Malts: Premium 2-row, Munich, Simpson's Light Crystal. 
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: Double Jack IPA is our first ever Imperial IPA. It features a big malty middle to cloak the high alcohol and mouth puckering hop bitterness. Huge tangerine, grapefruti and juicy fruit aroma blossom over the herbal blue basil and malt earthiness of this aggressive beer. Best enjoyed in moderation.
     POUR: Better than decent head
     COLOR: Unfiltered honey
     AROMA: Citrus/grapefruit hops
     BODY: Full
     TASTE: Bitter, grapefruit with hints of toffee.
     OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: "CAN'T GET ENOUGH!" (In moderation, of course)
     COMMENTS: "Translucently mystical aura; I love the Jack - Double Jack is even better; Creamy and rich; This is a good find; Almost stings; Bites you right back; Arrgh!"


Middle Ages is another nearby favorite of the BOTB guys. Their 10th Anniversary was first brewed in 2005. It has remained a popular staple of the Middle Ages fleet. Herb is normally our Middle Ages connection, and it just wouldn't be right if we didn't have something from this brewery. 

     THE BEER FACTS: 10% ABV - IBU's uncertain - up there though (60 - 80).
     WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Brewed in the style of an American Double IPA in celebration of our 10th Anniversary. This beer is golden in color, has medium to full body, intense hop bitterness, flavor and aroma. Ten additions of American hops are made throughout the brewing process."
     POUR: Better than decent head with tight bubbles.
     COLOR: Cloudy golden amber
     AROMA: Bready/yeasty.
     BODY: Full/thick
     TASTE: Balanced, with notes of malt, bread and nuts.
     OVERALL IMPRESSION: Between "I could drink this" and "CAN'T GET ENOUGH!"
     COMMENTS: "I could drink this; You wouldn't know it's 10%; Middle Ages must be using a different yeast for this, there is no banana flavor; It's a tribute to Herb; This didn't disappoint; It fills the mouth; Complex; Doesn't bit; Typical of Middle Ages, without the banana aroma and undertaste often associated with English style brews."

The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vermont, brews only this beer which is available in 16 ounce four-packs of cans (see previous blog re. Cans vs. Bottles.) 

     THE BEER FACTS: 8.0% ABV - 120 IBU's
     WHAT THE BREWERY SAYS: "The Alchemist Brewery is our new 15 barrel small production brewery specializing in fresh unfiltered IPA's. We are currently focused on brewing one beer perfectly, Heady Topper, our flagship Double IPA."
     POUR: Decent head
     COLOR: Unfiltered amber
     AROMA: Grapefruit hops
     BODY: Medium
     TASTE: Grapefruit, tropical fruit, piney, slight bitterness
     COMMENTS: "A nice beer; The can has 'truth in advertising;' It definitely cleanses the palate; Our 8th Imperial of the day AND this impressed us!; This is a terrific beer; Very complex beer; One of those brews that fills the mouth; Amazingly balanced taste; I get a bit of coffee with cream taste - it is nice and creamy; I really love this style of beer, with the unfiltered look and the big hoppy flavor; Terrific beer."

We finished off the day with one of Mike's home brews - excellent as always. No matter how many times we tell Mike he is depriving most of America of his creations, he sticks with his day job and brews for fun. Luckily, he shares...
This may have been the first time we did not have so much as a mediocre beer. They were all excellent. We really couldn't rate them. My suggestion: give them all a try and see what you think!


Picked up this year's Saranac What Ales You mixed 12 pack and was very impressed. I've often voiced my mixed feelings about mixed 12's. I like the idea of trying several different styles, however it also means that you can be stuck with two or three beers you just don't care for (yes, Cherry Wheat Raspberry Lager Heffeweisen, I'm talking to you!). But in this case, Saranac has provided six tasty ales and no losers. For the hop lovers, there's their Pale Ale, IPA, and White IPA, while for those who prefer the maltier side there's their new Single Malt Scottish style ale, Irish Ale and an excellent Stout.
Well done, Saranac, well done!


The BOTB guys and wives spent a great evening at Uno's Tuesday, pairing Sam Adams beers with Uno's wings. We sampled Sam Adam's lager, Alpine Spring, Latitude 48 IPA and Whitewater IPA. (We begged off the Cherry Wheat, thank you very much, and Uno's was kind enough to supply more IPA - perfect!)

Coming up next - We take a look at H Block Brewery's brews.

The BOTB Guys



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