by Paul Deines
To begin: Bell’s makes a lot of beers.
Beer Advocate lists 114 beers released (not all bottled, of course) in the last year. Compare that to, say, Brooklyn Brewery, no slouch in the volume department, which put out 70. Bell’s Brewery is up there with Stone, Sierra Nevada, and Boston Beer Company in terms portfolio size, but it does not have those brewers’ distribution footprint. It only arrived in New York in February, which was cause for celebration, since because this brewer makes my favorite year-round IPA: the Two-Hearted Ale.
Fruity, resiny, and completely satisfying, Two-Hearted is a dangerously easy-drinking beer with a wallop of flavor. Before it came to NY, I bought it by the case while visiting family in Virginia and Kentucky. Today, I have to stop myself from buying it every time I’m restocking the fridge with IPAs. Beyond Two-Hearted, Bell’s also makes an decadent Imperial Stout, a comfort-food Porter, a flavorful Summer Ale, and one of the finest barrel-aged beers on the market. And that’s not even accounting for the deep bench of regulars, seasonals and one-offs that have elevated this brewery to the top craft echelon.
So I have a lot of faith in Bell’s, enough that I’m willing to follow them to a style I have little love for: the Triple IPA. I wrote about the American IPA renaissance in an early Curiograph post, and at the time I acknowledged that the IIIPA is more a marketing ploy than an identifiable style. Even if you subscribe to the idea that beer styles exist and can be codified, you’d be hard-pressed to explain what the extra-I in the Triple IPA is. If IPA is India Pale Ale, a lighter-hued ale that is extra hoppy; and Double IPA is Imperial India Pale Ale, boozier and more bracingly, aromatically hopped; then the dubious Triple IPA would be, I suppose, the Incredibly Imperial India Pale Ale? Insanely? Irresponsibly?
The Triple IPA, for our purposes, would be any Pale Ale over 10% ABV. Drinkers’ descriptions tend to focus on their huge – you guessed it – hop profiles: so, you’d think they were all unrelentingly bitter. But when I drink something like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA or Founders’ Devil Dancer, I notice the counterbalance to the hops: the boosted malting, which boosts the sugar and consequently the alcohol. I tend to associate the Triple IPA with a syrupy consistency, more like an American Barleywine.
Well, what about Hopslam Ale from Bell’s? With the exception of Pliny the Younger (Russian River’s flash-in-the-pan annual event release), Hopslam is probably the best-regarded 10%-plus IPA out there> It arrived in New York with the rest of the Bell’s oeuvre, and, of course, I snagged a six-pack and poured a snifter full as soon as I got home.
Hopslam is a nice dark-straw amber. Like a cloudy gemstone, it allows the light to twinkle through without being really transparent. After all that talk of Trip-IPAs being too malty, the citrusy, resiny hop aromas explode after the pour: orange-peel, forest morning-dew, tart pear, lemongrass and rosewater with a nice biscuit undertone. Like Two-Hearted on HGH. That first sip brings the alcohol heat. If the nose is all fruit and woodland dewiness, the taste is honey and dough (and, to be sure, Hopslam is brewed with honey). It’s actually pleasantly bitter upfront (passion fruit, lemon, tart cherry, lavender), but then it’s all that grainy malted sugar. Dark, grainy sourdough bread soaked in booze. This is by no means a sessionable beer – in fact, it’s kind of a slog – but it’s as refreshing as a 10% ale can be.
So, Hopslam did not turn me around on Triple IPAs, nor is it even in my top five Bell’s brews. But it’s a fine piece of work, and a good primer for the super-hopped, super-malted extreme of the American craft brew scene.
HOPSLAM ALE (Bell’s Brewery) – Available throughout Bell’s distribution, which is most places east of the Mississippi (also Arizona and North Dakota). Hopslam is bottled in January; so this year’s batch is not that fresh. Maybe hang back until next year.