Union Jack

To put it simply, Union Jack is everything you want an American IPA to be.  It’s simple yet remarkable, and delivers everything you hope to get when you taste for an IPA.  A wonderful golden color and slightly citrusy aroma set the stage before each sip.  Upon drinking, Union Jack is smooth from beginning to end.  Hops are clearly the dominant flavor, as they should be, and provide classic sweetness and citrus notes that are pronounced, but not overpowering.  The flavor is the same from the beginning of the sip to the end, reaching it’s pinnacle at the finish as the beer gives a final burst of hops.  It’s not too strong, though, and doesn’t leave an aftertaste that is stale or syrupy.  Instead, you’re left with the same hop presence you enjoyed during the sip, only a little more amplified.

While it’s easy to rave about the flavor of this beer – which is marvelous – the thing that sets Union Jack apart from the rest is the perfect balance it has.  To aid the smoothness is a medium thickness that completes the body. If it were any lighter or heavier things would be out of place; the beer would have too strong a flavor for the profile or it would be too heavy to drink easily.  The slew of malts used has an impact here, rounding out the flavor.  The almost velvety mouthfeel is refreshing, quenching your thirst while making you salivate at the complex flavors at the same time.  Because the hop flavor is also in balance, it emerges from the beer naturally.  The sweetness and citrus are definitely there, but any more would make the beer taste much heavier than it actually is.  Any less, and it wouldn’t be enough.  When all these elements are put together, you’re left with the perfect American IPA.  You get all the hops you hope for: a bit of sweetness and citrus, refreshment, full flavor and, most importantly, satisfaction.  If you like IPAs, you’ll love Union Jack.  If you don’t like hops, this probably isn’t for you.  Hops are laid on thick, just not as thick as a double IPA.  If you’re looking for a great IPA, not much else compares to this.  This is what the great American IPA is all about.

Overall                 10/10
Color                    6
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          2.5
ABV                       7.5%

Otter Creek Alpine Black IPA

I had only briefly heard of Otter Creek Brewing when I stumbled upon Alpine Black IPA in a bar at the base of Okemo Mountain in Vermont.  Among the Magic Hat, Long Trail and Samuel Adams on tap, this was the only choice I’d never had, so of course I had to try it.  I didn’t know what to expect because dark takes on IPAs can vary from very good to very bad.  What I chose is one of the best dark IPAs I’ve had.

For starters, watching this beer being poured was exciting in itself.  It’s hard to find an outstanding dark IPA, so the anticipation that this would be a good one was a factor.  More importantly, though, was the creamy head that seemed to grow exponentially during the pour and add texture to the black color.  Once the head subsided and I was finally able to drink it, the anticipation was well-earned.  The best way to describe Alpine Black IPA is a mix of an excellent roasted porter and a good American IPA.  When you first start drinking this beer the balance of malt and hops is done so well it’s hard to pick out the flavors.  Malt is the overwhelming flavor, yielding roasted and caramel notes that are smooth and creamy, and noticeable for the majority of each sip. These flavors aren’t overpowering, though, and leave room for the sweetness of the hops to shine through at the end of each sip.  While malt is the dominant profile, it’s creaminess fuses well with the hops, and in the end you’re left a slight hop aftertaste with the satisfaction of drinking a very nice porter.  The flavors might sound to be too contrasting, but they work very well together.  The hops really only appear at the end of each sip, and while the malt flavor is good enough on it’s own, the mastery the flavors are mixed with is what makes this so good.

Once you get a grasp on how the flavors work, it’s easier to notice the hops throughout each sip.  Despite the predominant malt flavors, an underlying sweetness from the hops lightens the beer and then pops through more before the finish.  It’s nice to be able to pick out the differing flavors throughout each sip, but I actually prefer the first tastings.  It was nice to get a well-flavored porter style for the majority of each sip and transition seamlessly to the hops.

If you’re going to try a black IPA, I would put this at the top of your list.  I couldn’t decide whether to give this an 8/10 or 9/10, and decided to give it an 8 because I feel the need to have it a few more times to fully figure it out.  This doesn’t take away from how good it is, though, and to me is the benchmark of the black IPA style.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    10
Thickness            6
Hops/Malt          4.0
ABV                       6.0%

Two more from New Glarus

I was in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, and of course I was looking forward to having some beers from the New Glarus Brewing Co.  I more than satisfied my Spotted Cow craving, and in addition was able to enjoy many other of the brewery’s offerings.  Though I’m not prepared to review them all, I am ready to discuss two.  The first is Fat Squirrel, a brown ale; the second is Hop Hearty, a seasonal IPA.  Both are very good, so remember to grab some next time you’re in Wisconsin.

Fat Squirrel

This year-round nut brown ale is very refreshing, something you don’t always find with nut browns. Many times nut browns, intended to produce a distinct malt character, can be overpowering. It’s not uncommon for nut browns to be too thick, not smooth and have a nut flavor that is unbalanced and leaves a stale residue.  Fat Squirrel doesn’t have any of these problems.  Sitting on the lighter end of the malt and mouthfeel spectrums, yet still providing full flavor, is what sets this nut brown apart.  From the beginning of each sip the lightness sets the tone.  The malt component follows suit with a mild sweetness that isn’t overpowering or stale, and doesn’t change intensity during the sip.  The nut element emerges about halfway through each sip, matching very well with the malt sweetness.  A slightly sweet and mild nut flavor, reminiscent of hazelnuts, fuses with the malt.  Even though the flavors don’t hit you right away, by the completion you’re satisfied, and at the end of each sip you’re left with a sweetness that’s not overpowering, but enough to let you know you’re drinking a brown ale.

What is especially unique about this nut brown ale is the refreshing aspect.  Every time the malt or nut flavors emerge, refreshment comes with it.  Most times bursts of malt flavor are accompanied with weight, not lightness.  It’s a nice change of pace from traditional brown ales, and is done very well.  Because of it’s lightness Fat Squirrel is very drinkable.  While this nut brown deserves all it’s accolades,  I would still prefer a slightly stronger flavor.  Too much would throw off the balance, but a touch more would add a little more creaminess and body.  Overall, though, this is a brown ale you can enjoy any time of the year, and if I lived in Wisconsin, I would.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    8
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          7
ABV                       5.8%

Hop Hearty

For some reason I didn’t have high expectations for this American IPA.  Whatever the reason for my skepticism, it disappeared quickly after trying Hop Hearty.  This is a fantastic take on the classic American IPA.  It won’t “wow” you with an incredible amount of hops and doesn’t use a random, interesting ingredient to make it special.  Instead, Hop Hearty is a simple, yet wonderful, take on the style.

A nice reddish-golden color greets you with a fresh hop aroma.  The bouquet leads you through each sip, which is smooth and evenly-hopped.  Light in mouthfeel in the beginning and only slightly heavier on the back end, the citrusy sweetness of the hops is consistent throughout.  The hop sweetness that starts you off remains on the tip of your tongue as the sip progresses, and as the back end approaches, the sweetness begins to wane and gives way to savory and somewhat syrupy caramel notes.  It might sound like a drastic change, but it’s not. Hops are the clear focus here, and they form a solid backbone.  The new sweetness only emerges just enough to end each sip smoothly and without any bitterness, yet without compromising any of the great hop flavor from earlier in the sip.  You come for the IPA, and as a bonus get some sweet, darker notes.  The only issue is that after a while the slightly syrupy consistency can become a little much.  This is definitely a beer you can enjoy many of in one sitting because it’s not very heavy, but the back end might become a little much after too many.

If you’re looking for hops that will blow you away, you won’t like Hop Hearty. This IPA isn’t extreme in any way, but for me, that’s one of the reasons it’s so good.  It’s simple and understated, yet still delivers enough hops to meet an IPA craving. You won’t be disappointed with this beer, and if you’re looking for a standard IPA, you’ll love it.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    5
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       6.1%

Encore

A friend of mine brought this back from a trip to Boston not too long ago.  I’d never heard of it, but when I was told it was an IPA, of course I was interested. When I looked into it a little more, I saw it was part of Magic Hat’s IPA On Tour series.  Throughout the year the brewery creates four different IPAs to see what variations can be made and how IPAs can be tweaked.  While I’ve known about Magic Hat for a while, this reaffirms that it’s my kind of brewery!

Encore is a hybrid of an American wheat beer and a traditional American IPA.  It’s not uncommon for breweries to blend unique ingredients into American IPAs, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen the components of a wheat ale used.  My main concern was whether the wheat would add a creaminess and subtle sweetness to complement the hops, or give the IPA a stale, lingering wheat flavor.  Luckily, the wheat is used masterfully and makes this IPA very complex.  A slight fruity smell strikes you as you’re about to take a sip, reminding you that the IPA portion of this beer is the main focus.  Meanwhile, the wheat adds a nice cloudiness to keep you cognizant of the other ingredients. Once you take a sip, everything really comes together.  With a pretty light body, hops shine as the main flavor.  There’s about as much hops as you’d find in a very flavorful IPA, and even some double IPAs, but the lightness of the beer makes it very easy to drink and not overpowering.  While the flavor is there, it doesn’t deliver as much of a punch as you might expect from a beer hopped at this level. As the sip progresses, the wheat really starts to emerge.  The initial burst of hops matures to a sweet citrusy flavor and combines with the wheat to give the sensation of a good, fruited wheat beer.  The creaminess the wheat provides joins the citrus from the hops to yield a flavor reminiscent of a nice summer, fruit-flavored wheat beer.

The wheat also makes itself known in the finish.  By the end of each sip you’re left with a sweet hoppy aftertaste you’d expect from a well-flavored IPA, but it’s diluted enough from the creaminess of the wheat to make it very manageable and smooth.  It’s never too much and fades rather quickly, leaving your palate ready for the next sip.  Each time is smooth from start to finish.  The only thing holding it back is that, after a while, a slight aftertaste can accumulate.  Aside from that, this beer is just about perfect.

This is a fantastic IPA.  It’s a great example of what can be done with the style and how complex it can be.  IPAs are more than just hops hops hops.  While those can be wonderful if done correctly, the inclusion of a seemingly common and unrelated ingredient can change how the beer is structured.  I hope Magic Hat makes Encore again, and hopefully it will eventually be made year-round.  Until then, if you see it, get it.

Overall                 9/10
Color                    6
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          2.5
ABV                       6.4%

Harpoon IPA

I’ve changed my mind slightly about Harpoon IPA since the first time I had it.  At first I really liked it, but the more I had it, my admiration waned.  I altered my opinion because of the way the taste changed, but there are other things that make Harpoon IPA interesting, starting with its ingredients.  Harpoon IPA is an English IPA that uses American ingredients.  There are more types of malt used than hops, which is normal for an English IPA, but it seems a little odd to use to Cascade hops, which are American.  It’s not out of the ordinary for American brewers to use domestic ingredients to brew a foreign style, but because Cascade hops yield such a pronounced flavor, they seem a little out of place.  English IPAs are supposed to be more malted with a hop backbone, so the selection of such a strong hop seems a little much.  Knowing this helps decipher the flavors while you drink Harpoon IPA, but it’s still an atypical beer.

When I first had Harpoon IPA I loved how smooth and crisp it was.  It wasn’t one of the best IPAs I’d ever had and didn’t blow me away, but it seemed simple and well-made.  It’s a pretty light beer with an average IPA hop element that didn’t leave an aftertaste and was pretty easy to drink.  I could tell it used Cascade hops because the hop element is floral, fruity and crisp.  The hops were smooth for the entire sip and peaked at the end.  The entire beer was well-balanced and the hop element wasn’t too strong.  I thought it was a great beer to introduce to someone who might want to get into more heavily-hopped beers; it wasn’t too much or too little.  In fact, I thought this beer was an American IPA because of the way the hop flavor commanded the beer.  The more I had it, though, the flavor started to change for me.  The malt element became more pronounced and, with it, wasn’t as balanced as it once was.  It’s fine for the malt to shine through a bit more – it is an English IPA, after all – but it no longer matched up very well with the hops. The freshness of the hops still towered over the malt, but the malt didn’t just produce the backbone anymore, and instead poked through just enough to offset things.  While the malt tried to come through completely, and not entirely poorly, the hops at the end of the beer were still very present, which capped off the sip with a disconnect from the preceding malt flavor.  Eventually I tasted all malt and no hops, aside from the final bit you get at the very end.  The malt seemed unimpressive when compared to the hops and became a little bland and old after a while, and in turn, I became bored.

While I think Harpoon IPA is still a pretty good beer, I’m not as crazy about it as I once was.  Taken individually, the hops and malt are good, but once combined in this instance, they could be married better.  Would I get this beer again? Absolutely.  Would I drink it for a whole night?  Probably not.  I’d most likely have one or two to fulfill a hop fix I might have and then move on to something else.

Overall                 7/10
Color                    6
Thickness            3
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       5.9%

Racer 5 IPA

I had actually seen this IPA on the Falling Rock Tap House menu before I left for Colorado.  I’d never heard of it, so when when we went to Falling Rock it was the first beer I ordered.  Bear Republic Brewing Co. from Northern California produces this American IPA, and while it’s not outstanding, it’s still a solid beer.

The thing that sticks out the most about this IPA is how light it is.  It’s almost to the point of watery, but it’s done well.  Each sip begins with a very light mouthfeel that’s about as light as a domestic light beer, but there’s a great hop flavor to back it up.  The hops aren’t overpowering, but are definitely stronger than you’d expect from the almost weightless body.  The lightness continues for most of the sip, not getting that much thicker while still retaining a pleasant hop sweetness.  It’s refreshing and subtly sweet. At the end of each sip the hops reach their richest point.  It normally wouldn’t seem like a lot, but the lightness of the body makes the hops more pronounced.  It’s just a little too much.  Something’s just a touch out of balance.  Sometimes the hop flavor is noticeably stronger than others, which can leave a slight, unpleasant aftertaste.  But despite it’s shortcomings, this is a very good American IPA.  If you don’t want to get weighed down too much, this is a great option.  It’s also a great beer if you want to introduce someone to IPAs without overpowering them.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    5
Thickness            4
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       7.0%

471 IPA

Before I departed for Colorado, I told myself that with all the great beers the state offers, I shouldn’t have too many IPAs.  But then I thought, since the West makes some of the best American IPAs out there, I should take advantage of it.  I decided not to think about it too much and just get whatever looked good to me at the moment.  Well, when our group found our way into one of Breckenridge Brewery’s pubs in downtown Denver, the first thing that struck me was their Small Batch 471 IPA.  Of course I ordered it, and I was sure glad I did.

471 IPA is Breckenridge’s double IPA, and it’s masterful.  There’s actually more types of malt than hops, but you wouldn’t know it other than noticing how smooth and balanced 471 is.  From the first sip you know you’re drinking a double IPA, but none of the issues that can come with a double IPA are present.  While the hop component is incredibly pronounced, it’s never bitter and doesn’t leave an aftertaste. The beer is actually very light while still having a savory, thicker mouthfeel.  The four types of hops combine to deliver a refreshing, sweet and citrusy flavor that is smooth for the entire sip.  It’s never too strong, never too light.  Each sip you take you expect the hops to peak at some point, and when you realize that the entire sip was a high point, you’re happy it doesn’t recede too quickly and leave a stale residue.  The aftertaste isn’t so much an aftertaste, but pleasant remains getting you ready for the next sip.  At no point does 471 weigh you down.  The hop sweetness is enough to satisfy, and the citrus is pronounced without being too sweet.  Each sip is a joy, and if it wasn’t for having to make dinner a reservation, I probably would’ve kept drinking it all night.

This beer is available in bombers and six-packs, but beware, because it is on the pricey side.  The other day I bought a six-pack because I was thinking about it and was lucky enough to find it at my local liquor store.  Out of the bottle I’d give 471 a 9 out of 10.  It’s still excellent, but is lacking something you can get on tap. On tap (and made down the street) it’s a perfect double IPA.  If you’re a hop fan you won’t be disappointed.

Overall                 10/10
Color                    6
Thickness            6
Hops/Malt          2
ABV                       9.2%

Saranac’s Three IPAs

Saranac offers three IPAs during the year.  The original IPA is a traditional American IPA and one of their core beers, available year-round.  The other two, India Copper Ale and Rye IPA, are winter beers and available in the winter mixer. This grouping contains the first IPA I ever had, and I encourage you to try each of them because it shows how versatile the IPA style can be.

Saranac IPA

This is everything a traditional American IPA should be.  Smooth for the entire sip, hops are balanced throughout and don’t sit too heavy at any point.  It’s light body makes this IPA very refreshing while not skimping on flavor, which makes this incredibly easy to drink.  The hop element is about what you’d expect to find in your average American IPA, producing a sweetness that is pronounced, yet not too strong.  Even though Saranac IPA uses only Cascade hops, it doesn’t have a strong floral element, which is common with that type of hop.  It also doesn’t have an overpowering or overbearing hop flavor, instead having just the right amount to maintain balance and smoothness.  As the sip progresses your mouth salivates due to the right amount of sweetness, and at the end of each sip you’re left with just enough hop aftertaste to keep you wanting more.  The creaminess of this IPA is a key element to making it a well-rounded beer.  At no point is anything out of balance to take you aback.  Each sip is as smooth as the last and continues to get better.

As a whole, this is a simple, classic take on the American IPA, but it is done extremely well.  What sets this IPA, and others like it, apart from others is that everything is in the right balance.  Saranac IPA reminds me a lot of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, but with a touch less hops and smoother.  Because of this it’s more refreshing and a better beer overall.  Even though it’s simple, because of how well it’s executed, this is a perfect version of the American IPA, and worthy of my first perfect 10 rating.  If you think all good IPAs should have a strong floral and citrus element, or be over-saturated with hops, you won’t think this is a 10.  I’m not saying those types aren’t done right, and I do like IPAs with those characteristics, but there is something to be said for simple if it’s done well, which this is.  Even though Saranac IPA doesn’t go to any extremes, this beer is fantastic because everything is so well-proportioned and succeeds at what it’s trying to do.  If you’re looking for a classic American IPA, this is perfect.  This is the first IPA I ever had, about five years ago, and I’m happy to report it’s as good now as it was then.  There will be more perfect ratings to come, but right now I’m very pleased to give the first to Saranac IPA.

Overall                 10/10
Color                    7
Thickness            4
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       5.8%

Saranac India Copper Ale

If you were to mix a very nice red ale and an American IPA, you’d be left with Saranac’s India Copper Ale.  It’s an interesting and delicious combination that keeps you thinking the entire time you drink it, noticing different and wonderful things throughout.  At first you mainly notice the creamy malt that makes each sip smooth and very enjoyable.  Each sip is very creamy and full of flavor, leaving you with a slightly malty, yet juicy, finish.  After a while I noticed another flavor poking through the malt, and eventually I realized it was hops that gave it a nice flavor and unique finish.  Citrusy hops pop through at different times to give it a perky flavor.  I forgot I was drinking an IPA because of how well the malt is balanced with the hops.  The right amount of hop sweetness combines with savory from the malt to create a complex and delicious flavor.  The finish is that of an IPA, but it takes a while for the hops to build to notice.  The hops are masked by the malt, making them a secondary flavor in a style of beer where they shouldn’t be, but complementing the main flavor wonderfully.  Maybe surprisingly, this is an easy beer to drink.  The only downside is that after a while it can begin to get filling due to an above-average thickness and rich flavor.  In the end, though, this is a complex beer I would gladly drink any time.  Plus, if you don’t know what you’re in the mood for, this covers several bases.  I recommend this for any fan of IPAs or darker ales, and especially those who like malty English pale ales and IPAs.  Saranac India Copper Ale is very good, and even though it gets you thinking at first, in the it’s easy to stop thinking and just enjoy it.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    8
Thickness            7
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       6.0%

Saranac Rye IPA

This is the least enjoyable of the Saranac IPAs, yet it’s not offensive. Saranac Rye IPA uses rye malt to give it a unique and subtle flavor, although it’s not noticeable until the back end of each sip. As a whole, the flavor is rather bland and not exciting, though it doesn’t do anything to turn you off and doesn’t have a bad flavor. It’s just kind of there.  This doesn’t really taste like an IPA at all, with no hop presence or sweetness.  After starting with almost no flavor, the rye malt yields a slight muckiness of flavor at the end, but it’s the only time you notice the rye.  While not a great beer, Rye IPA doesn’t do anything to upset.  It actually starts very clean, yet without much flavor, and is drinkable for the duration.  I was curious about the combination of rye and hops when I looked at the bottle, and in the end I expected something more.  For better or worse, I would’ve preferred more pronounced flavor.  The result, though, is beer that is drinkable without much to offer.

Overall                 5/10
Color                    6
Thickness            6
Hops/Malt          4
ABV                       5.95%

60 Minute IPA

This IPA is a very nice, basic version of the classic American IPA.  Based in Delaware, Dogfish Head is a prominent East Coast brewery that offers many IPA varieties (it’s also one of my favorite brewery names to say).  60 Minute IPA is the most basic IPA Dogfish Head offers, and is a good place to start if you’re looking to get into IPAs.  It uses Northwest hops, which bring a nice citrusy flavor to the beer, but isn’t overpowering or too sweet.  Although it’s thickness is just a touch above average, it’s still light and smooth.  Hops are present from the beginning of each sip, like they should be in an IPA, and continue evenly to the finish, leaving a slight hop aftertaste that is just enough to keep you wanting more.  The hop sweetness isn’t overpowering, but I wish there were a little more.  The hop element is about average for an American IPA, but the body provides the framework for extra.  The body is rich and a good base for any IPA, but for some reason I think just a touch more hops would be better.

If you wanted to try an American IPA to get an idea of what the style is capable of, 60 Minute IPA would be a good place to start.  It has average hops with a good sweetness, has average drinkability and gives a peek into the citrusy aspect some American IPAs deliver in a big way.  It’s not too heavy and is relatively smooth, although it could be a bit smoother.  As a whole, 60 Minute IPA is a solid beer, yet there are other IPAs I’d rather have.  There’s really not much wrong with this beer, but to me something was missing.  After reviewing the other IPA varieties Dogfish Head offers, I might be able to shed more light on it.

Overall                 7/10
Color                    5
Thickness            6
Hops/Malt          2.5
ABV                       6.0%

Two Hearted Ale

I wish I had a lot to say about Two Hearted Ale, because it’s a great American IPA, but it’s so simple it doesn’t take much to describe it.  Put out by Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Mich., Two Hearted Ale gives you what you look for in an IPA.  It doesn’t offer anything other than hops, is light in color and mouthfeel, and is very refreshing.  Because it uses American hops it has a distinct citrusy aroma and flavor, very comparable to New Belgium’s Ranger IPA (which was previously reviewed), just less.  It has a very nice natural sweetness that’s enough to satisfy any hop craving, yet not too much to overpower. Although it is smooth overall, I wish it had a little smoother finish.  Otherwise it’s just about perfect.  If you’re looking for a great IPA, this is one to try.  Hops are the focal point, which they should be, and although the beer doesn’t try to do too much, it’s simplicity is what makes it effective.  I could drink this any day and be satisfied, and whether you’re new to IPAs or a fan already, you’ll be pleased.

Overall                 9/10
Color                    4
Thickness            3
Hops/Malt          2
ABV                       7.0%

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