There are a few things that all of my drinking buddies know about me. First, I practically had to rush home and change my pants when I noticed that thirty packs of Iron City cans had arrived at my favorite store (Murphy's, 29th and Topeka). The moment I saw them my mouth began to water with visions of hours of lakeside drinking unhindered by clumsily hiding bottles at the sound of a park ranger's truck. I'm not saying IC is the nectar of the gods, but it's a huge step up from the High Life I'm usually forced to drag with me to the lake, or the occasional dusty case of Yuengling I track down if I'm out of town.
Another thing my friends know is this: I ain't no hophead. Never been one. I've tried. Hell, I've even faked it, to no avail. It's just something about my pallette: almost every high IBU concoction I bring to my lips turns out to be a mistake, and the gnarly shape I somehow contort my face into after the first drink is (I'm told as I've never seen it) both comical and terrifying - an otherworldly cross between the Elephant Man and Jim Carey that defies logical explanation and is worthy of National Enquirer consideration. I've always defended myself by saying things like "I don't put flowers on my steak, why would I want them in my beer?", and "I'll take a Heather Ale over an Imperial IPA anyday", which is ludicrous and untrue. To me, hops are the meat of a beer, the part a patron can really sink their teeth into, and an overly hopped brew is like a steak or slab that's been burned beyond recognition, one dimensional and bland.
That said, I still get excited whenever a new huge IPA hits theshelves, and, though reluctantly, I'll usually end up buying it, dragging it home and forcing myself through it in the hopes of being pleasently surprised. I like being pleasently surprised. It's pleasent. And so, predictably, on my last run to the store I nabbed a few singles that looked promising and sat down determined to approach them with an open mind. Here we go...
Ranger India Pale Ale, New Belgium Brewing Compnay, Fort Collins, CO
Honestly, you could see this coming a few years ago when New Belgium released the Mighty Arrow Pale Ale in their sampler 12 pack. It was obvious that they were testing the water for something new and you could tell that a simple pale ale, while good, wasn't their ultimate goal. The funny thing is, I spoke to a very nice representative at New Belgium about the Mighty Arrow at the time of it's initial release and she told me very enthusiastically that it was "The big one, a whopping 35 IBUs!" which, at the time was quite high for NB. After all, I got a little pissed when they drastically raised their prices during the hop shortage a few years ago because Fat Tire and Sunshine Wheat aren't exactlyhyper hopped brews, so what gives? But bygones are bygones and I dropped my ill-advised boycott of NB a while ago and I'm glad I did, otherwise I would have missed out on Ranger.
At 70 IBUs and 6.5% ABV Ranger is pretty ambitious for an American Belgian style brewery, particularly one as high profile as NB. Ommegang has nothing like it. Even Boulevard's Single Wide is only 59 BUs, so Ranger seems like a great leap forward. It's like if Anheuser Busch came out with some sort of slightly hoppy ale or dumped a bunch of lime juice into Bud Light.... Oh, yeah, nevermind.
I fell in love with Ranger pretty quickly after pouring it into my trusty Old Style mug. It's a beautiful looking beer, strongly copper in color and sporting a fluffy pillow of tasty foam that laces the glass with crinoline etchings of delicious residue as the beer sinks sip by sip. It's incredibly drinkable, and while the hop presence dominates the smell and taste of the beer it doesn't attack the pallette. The bitterness is slight, just a mild tingle towards the end of each sip that tickles the back of the tongue. Hops are the dominate taste, but Ranger doesn't fray the tastebuds with a shocking hop bath. Instead, due to an intense dryu hopping with Cascade hops, it's almost like a hop flavored amber rather than a typical IPA. It's a fun beer to both to drink and look at, and surprisingly sessionable - exactly what I've come to expect from NB.
Something unexpected, however, (at least for me) is a enjoyable Imperial IPA. Unlike a lot of people, I've never been impressed with the "Imperial" tag brewers have been slapping on their brews. To me, it's a great example of the nauseating self-propaganda techniques ad-execs use to make a quick buck, but hey, there's enough simpletons out there to make it profitable, so whatever. To me, it ain't Imperial unless it's wearing white armor and walking around the Death Star. That said...
Hop Czar Imperial IPA, Bridgeport Brewing Company, Portland, OR
It would be unfair to say that I was underwhelmed by the Czar. But it is Bridgeport's fault for calling it Imperial. When I hear Imperial expectations are raised. That's the point of calling it Imperial. I get prepared for an experience. It's irrelevant, really, whether it's good or bad - I'm looking for something memorable. Which is not what you get with the Czar. Don't get me wrong, you get a great beer, one that you'll want to drink regularly. And at 7.5% ABV and 85 IBU's you can drink three or four of these a night a few times a week and be perfectly happy. Fulfilled even. But you're not going to be blown away.
In many ways Hop Czar epitomizes Bridgeport itself. It's a great, flavorful beer that doesn't over-achieve or over-shoot it's boundries. It's recieved good reviews but nothing stellar, and provides a nice back bone for a style that's been plundered and pillaged like a Viking conquest over the last ten years. The IPA and Imperial IPA may be close to running it's course and it's nice that both of these powerhouse breweries have finally contributed their two cents to the conversation.
Well, that's it for now. Be back next month with a few more thoughts and such, and maybe one of those brewery visits I promised last time. Cheers! - jack