Monday, February 17, 2014

Double IPA Smackdown!

In the midst of deepest darkest winter we huddle for warmth before our fireplaces and heat vents, gloomily looking forward to more ice and snow to come.  Hibernating in our ice-bound homes like bears awaiting the spring thaw and time to frolic, we wait.  And to kill the pain of isolation and bring a hint of citrus and summer to our palates we find ourselves in the season of Double IPA. 

I decided to write up this entry after realizing that I had come into a plethora of DIPAs.  A friend had brought me a Firestone Walker Double Jack from California; I had stocked up on Surly Abrasive; I won a collection of them at a silent auction for Kathy Stock; and then stumbled across Bell's Hopslam on tap.  "Wow!" thought I,  "This calls for a quick n' dirty smackdown between the big guns of the DIPA world!"  And here it comes.  Keep in mind that IPA has been around for over a hundred years, but double IPA is a very recent thing.  Some credit Vinnie Cilurzo (currently of Russian River) with brewing the first commercial DIPA.  Regular American IPA has an ABV of 5.5-7.5% and a hopping IBU from 40-70, while DIPA ranges between 7.5-10% ABV and IBU from 60-120.  This "because we can" style of beer has really caught on in the past few years and many breweries are coming out with unique and usually well-sought-after offerings. 

I'm a big fan of IPA, but once I discovered this jacked-up style I really fell in love with the hop.  I am drawn to the balance between the higher alcohol and the crazy hop flavors and aroma in the DIPA style.  Some are better balanced than others.  My personal taste is toward the fruitier examples and less toward the astringent puckering ones, so this smack-down will probably make some people angry with me.  I would love to try all of these together rather than over a few days, but nearly 10% alcohol beers aren't very conducive to that type of experiment.  Or, rather, my liver can't take more than one or two in a day!  The difference between bottle, can and tap could have effect on judging.  There also may be some variability based on age, but I tried to get examples that were as fresh as possible.  So now that I have explained all the ways in which my "very scientific" test could be inaccurate--I'm going to tell you why I'm correct!  And as I wrote this up I discovered that there are only so many ways of describing citrus hops, so bear with me.

1) Pliny The Elder:  Brewed by Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River, this is the quintessential version of the style and a direct descendant of the very first version of the style.  Named after the man who first wrote about hops in the first century AD, this was first brewed in the year 2000.  Clocking in at 8% ABV, this is on the lower side of the current style but was pretty extreme when it first released. The beer is eagerly snatched up by fans and rarely has the problem with sitting on a shelf getting old.  We can't get this in Minnesota, but I managed to snag a fresh bottle from a silent auction at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out.  The hops used are Amarillo, Centenial, CTZ, and Simcoe. 

My impressions of this beer were all good.  I found this to be very dry, but not overly astringent.  The hop aroma was strong and citrusy, with a light malt note to back that up.  The flavor really matched the aroma well with no huge surprises.  The dry finish and lack of alcohol warming makes this beer deceptively smooth and easy to drink, perhaps the most dangerous of the ones I tried.  Folks not prepared for this alcohol content could put down a few of these before realizing just how strong they are!  I have tried the bigger brawnier brother (Pliny the Younger) and that one takes it to the next level--more in line with a lot of the recent additions to the pantheon.  (And contrary to popular belief that does not at all resemble a Mickeys Malt Liquor.)  I give it a 5 of 5 for perfect drinkability and balance.

2) Bell's  Hopslam:  This is one of Bell's big guns, arriving in the winter and leaving shelves in minutes of arriving at the stores.  The brand's hoppiest beer, it clocks in at 10% ABV and includes 6 different hops with a large dry hop addition of Simcoe.  I first tried this beer a few years ago and loved it, then the following year was disappointed and stopped seeking it out.  As with any big beer, there is some variability from batch to batch and this one has seen some changes over the years.  I was busy at the Mash Out when this arrived in stores and missed my chance to pick some bottles up.  Happily, I discovered it on tap at School of the Wise in Victoria (just across the street from Enki Brewing).  I managed to get back there three days running for another sample--just to make sure I wasn't missing anything for this write-up of course! 

Served in a Sam Adams special pint glass.  The aroma on this is wonderful with a bright mandarin orange, sweetness and orange blossom honey.  Deep gold color with large white persistent head.  Flavor is slightly sweet up front that fades to a bitter hop-flavored middle and off-dry finish that borders of astringent.  Some orange sweetness and hint of honey with a light grainy character as well.  Some alcohol warming.  Overall this year's is very well balanced and easy to drink, way better than I remember it.  Not just the hype apparently!  5/5.

3) Drake's Denogginizer:  Debut was in 2004 and apparently a blown pressure relief valve nearly decapitated one of their brewers during the process!  ABV is 9.7% and uses Summit and Cascade hops.  This brewery was an early addition to craft beer scene in California, starting in 1989.  They won a Silver medal at GABF for this beer in 2009.  This is the first beer of theirs that I have ever tried.  Served from a bomber bottle into the Dogfish Head Riedel IPA glass.

Aroma: A slight metallic tang to the aroma.  A strong hop aroma that is a mix of cat-box, vegetal greenery and citrus.
Flavor: Sweet malt with some caramel and bread up front, but quickly overtaken by a firm bitterness.  As it warms I get a nice citrus marmalade flavor and alcohol becomes apparent.  Slightly astringent finish but enough booze and malt to balance it.  I got more harsh alcohol and burn as I have more of it, and decided I couldn't have more than one glassful of it.  I'm going to split this into a 3.75 out of 5.

4) Stone Enjoy By IPA:  This is the newest in the series by Stone that up front tells everyone that you have to drink it fresh and they will literally pull it from shelves when it gets past that date on the label.  A bold move that has made many more people pay attention to freshness in their IPA's.  This one is Enjoy By 02/14/14 and clocks in at 9.4% ABV.  Not much info about the hops on this one.  The website is fun as it has up to date shipment info for the batch and a count-down timer for when the beer will suddenly suck and no longer be drinkable!

Aroma: Citrus and slight vegetal hop matter.  Light tropical fruit, bright and zingy.  Some sweetness and almost a buckwheat honey character.
Appearance: Deep gold to almost copper color.  Huge white head with tight bubbles.  Brilliant.
Flavor: Slightly sweet at first but not much, fading quickly to a dry middle and finish.  Borderline astringent end, but manages to stay drinkable.  Some light caramel malt notes, but not actually sweet.  I do get a orange pith flavor and strong bitterness.  Some muscat grape as it warms.
Overall: Very drinkable due to dryness but lacks a certain balance that I have found in my top examples.  4/5 final score.

5) Deschutes Hop Henge:  This is a yearly experimental beer that started life at the Deschutes Bond Street Brewpub (which is an awesome place to visit by the way!)  Every year's version is different and this one includes Cascade, Centennial, Millennium, and an experimental hop variety. 

I get citrus and sweet clover honey in the aroma.  Bright golden color with a huge white head.  Flavor is sweet malt and graininess with a strong orange rind or zest tartness.  Finish is a bit astringent and very drying.  That orange zest really lingers.  4/5, still very nice.

6) Hanger 24 Double IPA:  This is a beer from a brewery I had never even heard of before, but I won a bottle the Mash Out and figured I'd try it in good company with all the other DIPAs.  The brewery is located in Redlands, California and seems to have a pretty good local following.  This beer uses Centennial, Citra, Columbus and Simcoe hops as well as local orange blossom honey.

Aroma is light and filled with citrus and honey sweetness.  Color is gold and quite clear with a white pillowy head and fine bubbles.  Flavors are reminiscent of grapefruit and fresh oranges.  This is off-sweet with a very dry to somewhat astringent finish.  Some alcohol warming here, but not extreme.  As opposed to the Drake's beer, I actually liked this one more as it warmed up...the astringency faded a bit and more orange and honey flavors made their way into the finish.   At first sip a 3.5 but rises to  3.75/5.

7) Surly Abrasive:  Formerly known as 16 Grit (strangely not an inviting title) after the abrasive factory that Surly took over.   This beer has a changed a few times since its initial release in 2008, and was the first Minnesota DIPA in cans.  Addition of oats help a bit with mouthfeel on this one, and for the last few years Citra has been the dominant hop in the beer.  I love me some Citra, and this was the first place I was exposed to that hop.

I actually had a few cans of this at home and the first one I tried was a bit older, resulting in a loss of hop flavor and some significant amount of yeast chunks when I poured it into the glass.  I tried another the following day and my results were better.  I suffer through this all for you, my readers. 

The aroma on this is all grapefruit, orange and hint of pineapple with some sweet malt to back it up.  It has a sharp citrus that I have not noted on the previous beers, that is sometimes pleasant and other times distracting.  Appearance is deep gold with a large white head and some haze with a couple of yeast floaties (yes I poured it carefully!)  Flavor is bursting with a hard grapefruit taste followed by a mix of orange and papaya.  Very fruity beer!  The end is slightly astringent and I can certainly pick up a bit of alcohol warming in it.  Medium body but a dry finish that lingers.  I just want to keep drinking this one, and after all 16 oz are gone this is one of the few that I wish was in a bomber bottle!  I give this a 5.

8) The Alchemist Heady Topper:  This beer is from a small brewery in Vermont, with a nearly cult-like status, and such minimal distribution that it is nearly mythical around Minnesota.  I had this once last summer from my friend Jason, and I've been itching to try it back to back with some of my other favorites.  The other day another friend handed me one of these treasured beers to enjoy--thanks mate!  Reading over the website, they mention that this American Double IPA is hopped with a proprietary blend of 6 different hops.  The writing on the can goes into great detail about you should drink this from the can to maintain all the hop flavors, which goes contrary to popular belief on how aroma, especially, works with beer.  I tried to follow directions and sip it out of the can, but was unimpressed with the lack of aroma and promptly poured it gently into the new Dogfish Head (East Coast Yo!) IPA glass.

Aroma is rife with toffee, orange, mango and passionfruit...almost reminds me of a dreamsicle, but less "fake".  Appearance is iffy, perhaps this is why they want you to drink out of the can?  This is murky as anything and looks like low-pulp orange juice, with the same bright orange color.  Large off-white head with larger sized bubbles.  Flavor is complex and very fruity: like a clementine orange, a mango, and a grapefruit all ended up at a 1970's key party and this was their unholy offspring.  But in a good way!  Plenty of hop bitterness to balance the malt, but on the sweeter side compared to some of the examples I've tried.  Off-dry finish with a lingering tropical fruit flavor.  Very well balanced.  I do get a hint of metallic or vegetal twang as it warms--likely due to the huge amounts of hop material in this beer.  Despite its less-than-savory appearance, I give it a solid 5.

And In The End...

What did I learn from trying all these hop-bomb beers in the middle of arctic winter?  I learned that this style across the board really appeals to my palate.  I have to keep in mind that many of the beers I tasted were the very cream of their category, but even the "non-contenders" all were fun to try and drink.  While winter begs for an Imperial Stout in front of the fire, I think that the bright and fruity flavors as well as alcohol strength in the DIPA's brings me a brief hint of summer and goes better with most dinners!  What was my overall favorite?  I actually agonized over this one a bit.  Abrasive just punched me in the nose and mouth with hops, living up to its name.  Hopslam really brought the honey aroma and an epic dry finish.  Pliny was easily the easiest to drink and the most well balanced of all of them.  And then the late-comer Heady Topper blasted me with the fruit character that I long for in this style. 

And the winner is:    Pliny!  It really came down to this or Abrasive in the end, but this year's Abrasive was a little more sharp than last year's batch to me.  The Pliny is just to well balanced that you can drink it all day--and maybe regret it!  I'd drink either of them any chance I could get.  Now get out there and try some yourself!  Post some comments to tell us what you think and what your favorites are.  I've already had several friends tell me that this year's Hopslam is not as good as last...

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