Brewers today are happily exploring the Other Things that hops can bring to their beers, besides just the predictable bitterness…
Let me just get this out of the way before we go an inch farther: I am not going to genuflect before the altar of this “new” Hazy IPA fad. Not doin’ it. To begin with, it’s not new. Hazy IPAS have been brewed for twenty years now, and brewed in exactly the same way as the emergent NEIPA is being brewed now.
Beer is Trendy. That’s just the fact of the matter. The Indie Beer community is a continually-replenishing vortex of mostly younger males, roughly 21 to 35, who roam in packs and find some brewery that’s just opened and anoint it. It becomes the Flavor of The Month; the brewery everybody who’s seeking beer geek status MUST visit and MUST rave about. This is not at all specific to beer. In my twenty+ years in the wine trade, I watched people race past shelves full of Woodward Canyon, Januik, Arrowood, Phelps, and Masi wines to grab the Latest Shiny Baubles that the Wine Savvy simply must have to be Chic. Distilling is developing the same silliness, in major ways, as I watch locals here in Washington lug literal cases of mediocre Whiskey to their cars, from the new Buzz-Worthy distiller, while bottles of Westland and Stein and Eastside sit on shelves. And you can’t tell ’em that this beverage over here is actually LIGHT YEARS better than the one they just overpaid for, because the one they did buy will impress their friends…and that – more than great beer, wine, or booze – is what matters.
So, as has been my long-standing habit, I’m not steering you to great Hazy IPAs. I’m steering you to great IPAs, period. If they happen to be Partly Cloudy, great. If they don’t, believe this or miss out, they’re still great and deserve to be experienced.
This month, in addition to a couple of new editions of established classics, there are some newer beers that lit me up and I’m going to share FIVE with you, here. This is significant because I cannot remember a week in my life in which I tasted five beers, total, of ANY type that I was moved to rave about. Given that I usually taste as many as twenty-five beers in any one category in order to find ONE that I’m going to review, this is unprecedented. One of these is not technically an IPA, although, to the taste buds, it’s gonna do a more than passable impression of one…
This little stunner was in a small box I received from FedEx, from my admitted favorite brewery. Deschutes is one of those magical companies which does not believe in standing pat on ANY of their recipes. They are constantly working, thinking, tweaking, trying to make everything they produce perfect. And, in that tiny but growing universe of the summer or “session” beer, they’re currently making one that sits so firmly at the top of the heap that it actually hovers somewhere about ten feet above it.
Deschutes “Hop Slice” Summer Ale is not an IPA…technically. In its original release, back in 2016, it was labeled “Session IPA” but has now morphed into just “Summer Ale”. But Deschutes is a brewery that worships devoutly at the Great Cathedral of the Lupulin Goddess and all their beers – even the deliberately milder ones like “Pacific Wonderland” and “River Ale” – and elevated hops character is at the heart of their style. Even their immortal Imperial Stout, “The Abyss”, weighs in at a whoppin’, Imperial IPA-ish 80 IBU; “Jubelale” rings up 65. “Red Chair” hits 65…and so it goes. So when I say that “Hop Slice” would fool a lot of people if it were placed in front of them and still presented as an IPA, I mean that quite literally…and it’s IBU count comes out to…35.
This is the hoppiest 35 IBU beer that I have ever tasted, and I want to make it clear that when I use the term “hoppy”, I do NOT mean just “bitter“. As any self-respecting beer freak should know by now, hops do not just express or create bitterness. That magical little flower also generates flavors and aromas in increasing abundance as new hops varieties are developed very nearly monthly, by those resin-soaked wizards over in our nearby Yakima Valley, the cradle of about 60% of the world’s hops production. “Slice” features one of the hybrids that’s been the biggest hit of the last five years, the juicy, swoon-inducing Lemondrop, a flower that delivers a brawny wallop of a flavor very much reminiscent of the flavor and the intensity of Lemonheads candy. This puppy, in artful combination with Centennial, Galaxy, Cascade, and Amarillo, give this beer a ruthless, diabolical freshness and drinkability. This stuff is addictive; it rivals a long, cool glass of spring water over ice for sheer hot weather refreshment and the flavor spectrum hits every note that hops are capable of. Citrus fruits, baking spices, wildflowers, sweet herbs, pine and spruce resins, tropical fruits, melon, tree fruit…it’s all in this one bottle and the rock-steady malt profile lays back discreetly and just frames this bounty of hops in a perfect balance that keeps the whole civilized, in the face of some serious hops Presence. This is the definitive “summer ale”, an infinitely repeatable, imminently drinkable ale that delivers massive flavors and wild refreshment in just 5% alcohol. 98 Points
My homies just up the road, on the scenic, pastoral Kitsap Peninsula – a NW hotbed of artful beers and breweries – at Silver City Brewing Company have come up with what I believe is the best beer yet in their 21 year history. Silver City “Tropic Haze” is, yes, a hazy IPA. That minutiae aside, “Haze” is a juicy, bountiful, achingly delicious can of baroque tropical fruits by the bushel, stone fruits, wildflowers, spices, citrus rinds, honeydew melon, biscuity malts, white grapes, star fruit, and candied ginger. This is easily one of the top three most complex beers ever brewed at SCBC and promises to make summer picnics, here in this little slice o’ paradise just west of Seattle, the most purely flavorful in anybody’s memory. If there is any justice and an ounce less trendiness in the Seattle-area Indie Beer community, this is going to be a smashing success.
Silver City has been a bit problematic, for me, in that I love the brewery and feel a real kinship for them, having visited their original spot the same week they opened in 1996, and have reviewed their beers and named them in Best of The Northwest consistently. Several have been some of my local favorites: RidgeTop Red is my go-to stadium ale at Mariners and occasional Seahawks games (when the jackasses who choose the beers at the Seahawks’ stadium think to offer it) and their “Fat Woody” Scotch and “Old Scrooge” Old Ale make annual appearances in my refrigerator. But they have occasionally shown a reluctance to stray too far from their tried and true core beers and beers that I tasted ten years ago, at Silver City, remain exactly the same today. They have not proven to be one of those constantly-seeking breweries which continues to try to improve existing recipes and their attempts at getting outside their own box have begun to happen with frequency only in the past two to three years. With this stunningly delicious IPA, their “Foxy Lady” Flanders Red, the newish “Fuzz Huffle” Belgian IPA, and “The Giant Made of Shadows” Belgian Strong Dark, I see SCBC turning a scenic new corner and becoming a brewery that’s birthing new surprises and delights regularly. I predict more trips to Bremerton and Silverdale in my near future and wise beer fans will go back and explore good ol’ familiar Silver City all over again, SOON. 97 Points
Great Notion Brewing, in Portland, Oregon, has made a sizeable splash since their opening in January of 2016. I’ve tasted there, back in the late summer of ’16 and found a brewery that has tons of great ideas but many that hadn’t, I felt, quite come to fruition yet. GNB is the current focus of that beer trendiness that I mentioned earlier. A quick glance at their BeerAdvocate scores shows that all but four of their currently listed 73 beers have NO more than an average sixteen reviews attached. The scores are gaudy and this is how we detect Buzz at work. How great IS a beer if it’s rated at an astronomical 4.39 on BA…based on FOUR reviews? But this is not the fault of the brewery, which is owned and operated by great people and has already made more than its share of beers that can legitimately be called excellent. So, when I say that Great Notion “Juice Box” DIPA is a revelatory new-style IPA, that’s not the effect of some honeymoon bliss at work.
Juice Box is another hazy IPA – a DIPA, in this case – and it explodes with a fat, jazzy barrage of mango juice, passion fruit, grass, tangerine, peach nectar, guava, pineapple, wheat biscuits, caramel, and a Mosaic-derived hint of something meaty and substantial on the finish. For all that opulence, though, this beer is shockingly light and easy to drink. It’s opaque in the glass, glowing a luminous gold/orange and crammed to the rafters with undissolved solids. It looks as cool and suggestive as a bowl of mango sherbet and has already become something of a PNW icon, as the leader of the pack in the hazy IPA craze. Having recently tasted some of the actual Northeast IPA-styled beers, I can tell you that Juice Box is about 200% in scale to any of the ones I tried, pointing up yet again the differences in regional beer tastes as one travels West. This gushes citrus and tropical fruits and yet has a full-frontal, in yo’ face bitterness that East Coast IPA fans would find a bit shocking.
I’ll be back to Great Notion within a couple of months and fully expect to find that the very promising path they were on in my last visit has led them to what I feel is their eventual status as one of the top breweries in Portland…which is saying a LOT. 95 Points
Heathen Brewing is located in Vancouver, Washington, just across the labyrinth of various sidewaters and channels that make up the mighty Columbia River as it works its way through the PDX metroplex, in search of the Pacific. Like its bustling neighbor to the south, Vancouver has become its own small hotbed of Indie beer innovation. Two breweries stand out: Loowit Brewing and Heathen Brewing, with Loowit’s brewery/taproom located in the very heart of downtown and Heathen’s Feral Public House about six blocks north. Loowit’s review will come later but, for this post, I’m including the best single beer I tasted from either, Heathen Brewing “MegaDank” Imperial IPA.
MegaDank is NOT a trendy, new-style Imperial IPA. MegaDank is a nuclear-grade, Old School, bitterness bomb that remains squarely in the wheelhouse of those Inspired Excess IPAs that brewing is slowly moving away from. Make no mistake about this: that style of IPA is NOT going to die out – EVER. There will always be a core of beer geeks who seek out and consume frankly bitter, dank, narrow-focus Double/Imperial IPAs and those folks deserve to be served, too. And MegaDank is, out of the hundreds of those unapologetic Hop Bombs I taste with such numbing regularity, a classic and absolutely delicious example of that knuckle-draggin’ style. MegaDank is Complex. It is the farthest thing from one-note bitter beer but it’s subversive; it will make a devout HopHead think this is All About The Bitter, while sneaking in levels of flavors and a seriously fine balance of hops and malts. I know, I know: talking about balance in an Old School Imperial IPA is madness. They ARE About The Bitter, right? But, hang on: Stone’s Arrogant bastard, Dogfish 90 and 120, Moylan’s Hopsickle…examine those beers beyond their first impression of bitterness X 20 and you find…layers, strata, complexity of flavors and even textures that are adamantly NOT present in most real one-note IPAs. MegaDank follows that Stone/Dogfish template, sliding in some biscuity malts and stray caramels in between the geysers of herbal/grapefruit hops and offering a texture light enough to kill off any accusations of “cloying” or its ugly brother “puckery”. MegaDank is – GASP! – drinkable; even verging on friendly! It’s entirely possible that the folks at Heathen won’t appreciate my outing the artist hiding behind the armored frontage of this amazing beer but there it is: MegaDank is delicious, approachable – even for relative Indie Beer newbies! – and lighter than you would think it would be. It’s probably even light enough for drinking during hot weather, as we shall see shortly.
Heathen’s MegaDank is a small masterpiece that deserves a far wider audience and, someday soon, as Portlanders continue to “discover” the beerish delights just across the Columbia, it may even get it. 95 Points
Finally…Pyramid Brewing. Nine years into The Pour Fool and I didn’t feel moved to write about Pyramid but twice, in two years’ lists of The Best of The Northwest, in which I believe I named Pyramid Apricot ale, their “Curveball” Kolsch (back when it was called a Kolsch), and my old fave, Snow Cap, Pyramid’s iconic Christmas ale, among the region’s best. In the past three months, I’ve HAD TO review Pyramid’s new releases twice already and here’s number three…
Pyramid H7 Brewer’s Reserve Unfiltered Imperial IPA is named for the seven varieties of hops that give this stunning new Imperial IPA its soul and considerable cojones. These hops – Apollo, Chinook, CTZ (Columbus, Tomahawk, Zeus; all three varieties within this species), Simcoe, Amarillo, El Dorado, and Calypso – are no strangers to one another but it’s rare for them to hold a family reunion within a single bottle and, after tasting this, I suspect they won’t wait quite so long to have a meet-up again. The 2-Row Pale, Munich 20, and C-40 malts that give this ale its backbone are as sound as a steel buttress but lay back and let the hops sing all the good solos. The dynamic range of these seven hops manages to come through very nearly in their entirety and the sheer numbers of grace notes in this masterful beer is eye-opening. Citrus peels for days, juicy tropical fruits in profusion, pink grapefruit, pine needles, spruce tips, a boozy note of fruitcake are just the immediate impression and then shit gets Serious, with a mid-palate festival of spices, sweet herbs, tangerines, sugar cookies, a subtle nuttiness, teaberry gum, sultanas, cantaloupe, pear nectar, and a fine edge of something like graphite all making cameos.
H7 is – and this is one of the best thing I can say about any beverage – Interesting. It can engage purely on the hedonistic level of drinking a really flavorful beer but will also keep analytical geeks like me busy for forty minutes or more, seeking out each new subtlety and nuance, so that the normal people in the crowd can enjoy their beers with minimal interruption. It’s tasty as sin, beautifully made, and packs enough hops oomph to satisfy even the most hard-core Hophead.
I don’t know what’s got into my good ol’ homie brewery, Pyramid. I don’t know if they have changed brewers, changed management, changed ownership, or maybe just changed pants. But Something Changed and that change is ALL to the better. H7, along with the previously released miracle of “Triangulate” IPA and “Railroad Avenue” Porter, is a Statement Beer and the statement is that you, as a proud PNW or American beer geek, will skip Pyramid only at the peril of your own beer enjoyment. 95 Points