Okay, so you have these two beer styles, one of which has been tweaked and yanked and messed with and grafted upon more than Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork freakzazoid and you feel that there’s nothing at all that anybody could do to either one that would surprise you. The Red/Amber ale has been notable for all the multitude of things that have NOT been done to it, flopping out of breweries everywhere as almost an afterthought, give or take gems like Troeg’s Nugget Nectar and Bear Republic Rocket Red and Cigar City Tocobaga. It’s safe and predictable and a crowd-pleaser and, apart from a Mac & Jack’s African Amber and those previously mentioned…kinda, uh, b-o-r-i-n-g…
Then, there’s the IPA, which has more fingerprints on it than a stadium bathroom door and has been messed with more than Facebook. Grossly excessive IBUs, Double and Triple and QUAD IPAs, the mostly failed (with some brilliant exceptions) low-alcohol “session” IPA, tons of tricky hops combinations, Belgian yeasts, hazy, not hazy, traditional English style, mutant experimental styles…you name it, somebody is working on it in the IPA continuum, because millions of lemming-like HopHeads want anything that pushes out the bitterness, whether the beer itself has any balance or makes sense or not. I see it weekly, during my brewery visits: hordes of young, usually bearded and plaid-clad young men, all passing up nicely made Pales and Ambers and ESBs and Barleywines and pretty much every other style of beer to guzzle yet another dull-ass IPA. It just…makes me tired.
Then, Deschutes – which hasn’t exactly majored in the Red Ale curriculum, having had just TWO, out of their hundreds of beers, that ever made it into regular bottle rotation (Cinder Cone and Green Lakes Organic) – decides to marry the IPA and the Red, come up with a riff on a couple of taproom reds they’ve run occasionally, and make something called Deschutes “Swivelhead” India Style Red Ale. Deschutes, despite the mere dalliance with Ambers, has several doctorates in the American-style IPA. Several of the nation’s most celebrated Indian-leaning ales wear Deschutes labels, so should it come as any surprise at all that they would manage to make something out of that Red-IPA inbreeding that elevates both styles past the predictable sum of their parts?
Deschutes “Swivelhead” India-Style Red Ale is one of the most complex and fascinating beers that this relentless gaggle of innovators, down there in the pricey real estate of Bend, Oregon’s hilly West side, has turned out in years. It is certainly not the most quirky or creative. This is the company which just released “Sagefight” IIPA, a near-perverse marriage of Imperial IPA, sage, and juniper, whose ingredients list reads like a failed dinner entree but which tastes like what God would make if He resigned from Anheuser Busch and took up craft brewing. (He has to have been working at AB. How else can you explain how a tasteless, watery crap beer ruled the entire planet for 100+ years?) Despite my universally recognized fanboy status vis a vis Deschutes (becoming more embarrassing as I age ever more badly), I do not have any insider knowledge of what goes on there. They may well drain-pour fifty or seventy-five failed recipes every year but even that speaks volumes of their acumen and collective palate. IF Deschutes rejects dozens of ideas, that just testifies strongly to the fact that you will NEVER find anything in a package (and damned little in their taprooms) that seems even slightly questionable. It’s called “judgment” and you’d be astonished at how many breweries have almost none of it. If it wears the Deschutes name, it’s GOOD – all caps, all the time. In 23 years of drinking Deschutes beers, I have found ONE that I just could not say anything good about. And even that, my criticism be damned, was a very popular pub beer in Bend and Portland.
So, Swivelhead shows up at my door and I check out the label – easily the best Deschutes label in maybe five years – and get all set for what I believe is going to be in that bottle: Cinder Cone Red in a shotgun wedding with Inversion IPA, plus some roasty malts.
This speaks volumes about MY judgment, or lack thereof, having ridden in our communal microbus with this brewery’s fans for two+ decades, and my lack of vision, too. This beer is NOTHING like either one of those ales and damned little like anything anybody else has managed to do with this frustrating style called “IRA” (India Red Ale). I’ve now tasted maybe fifteen ales that would fit under the cocktail umbrella of “IRA” and none of them made much sense at all and/or lacked most identifiable characteristics of either style.
Swivelhead – despite the fact that my Uncle Donnie routinely called me that all the way through my teenage years and right up into that day in my mid-twenties when I went after him with a plastic baseball bat for doing it – got right up into my wheelhouse instantly; literally with one sip, and it kept getting better as the bottle disappeared. As a Red Ale, it’s better – if that’s even possible – than Cinder Cone and that’s saying something. I have ingested a small swimming pool’s worth of Cinder Cone and, if it had eyes and legs and even one breast, I might have married it. I was nutso about CC and I am not alone. There either was, or maybe still is, a loose society called PFYRCC – People For Year-Round Cinder Cone – of which I was one of the loosest members. For me to say that any Red is better than Cinder Cone shocks even me but this is. My definition of the perfect Red Ale is fairly compact: luminous coppery red/brown in the glass, aromatics of caramel and spices and pear cider, baking spices on the palate, chewy caramels and roasted nuts and red berries and tree fruit and anise and complementary resin and citrus hops notes. Boom. But about 80% of all Reds that I taste have significant holes in the flavor profile. As a Red Ale, Swivelhead leaves nothing to be desired.
As an IPA, it works equally well. In this ale, Deschutes has landed upon a Byzantine combination of EIGHT(!) different hops – Millenium, Bravo, Willamette, U.S. Tettnang, Crystal, Northern Brewer, Triskel, Summer – that creates a crazy complexity and hits every note of which the hops flower is capable, including an assertive and almost sweet shot of melon(!) that adds a refreshing overtone to the beer. Weighing in at a hefty 70 IBU, this is a declarative statement that shouts “IPA”, but with that engrossing Red twist. That hoppy citrus and spruce/pine resin edge is fleshed out with restrained florals, sweet herbs, and a bounty of spice flavors. The spices are SO prominent, in fact, that the beer seems to vibrate on your tongue, a sensation akin to licking a small battery. There is a literal impression of tingling as it finishes, a vivid and complex liveliness and a broad wash of grace notes like Teaberry gum, pie cherries, lime leaf, and eucalyptus. It’s bitter, emphatically and frankly, but never strays into the puckery endurance contest that is the average, one-note IPA.
If I have any reservation at all about Swivelhead, it’s that it is a hair short of the sort of the creaminess that comes from emphatic malts. It IS creamy, and undeniably smooth, just not viscous enough for me to call it perfect. But it’s in that textural frisson that the Amber/Red and the modern IPA find their greatest conflict. IPAs are rarely creamy at all and only a scant handful push grains to the point at which they can express a hint of that texture. IPAs are about HOPS, after all, with malts in a clearly supporting role and creating an exceptionally creamy IRA might create a situation in which the hops are masked a bit. In this ale, that balance may just be as good as it can possibly be. Certainly I have never tasted a better example of the style and I am constantly on the lookout.
Swivelhead India Red Ale is the best example I have yet found of the uber-elusive IRA and it sets a firm template for brewers who hope to work on the style. If this is as good as the American IRA ever gets, I don’t think anybody is ever going to feel cheated. This is yet another landmark ale from a brewery that drops landmarks as casually as a MacDonald’s drops fries. 96 Points