All About Beer just put up an article I wrote for them just before the end of my time in Bolivia, with a few updates thrown in to keep it present. Head on over to check out Bolivian Beer: Embracing Tradition and Building a New Culture.
(Please excuse the parenthetical in the title; this is meant to be an ongoing reflection on encountering beers I’ve only read about and it’s probably a bit much to assert that this particular beer is “classic” given its rather recent introduction. One day, perhaps, it could be accurately called that, but for now perhaps it’s better to withhold the hyperbole.)
Session IPAs are all the rage of late, and the Founders All Day Session IPA is one of the leading lights of the “style” and even makes up around 50% of Founders’ total volume. I’d read about All Day, I’ve been following the Session beer movement for the last few years (which of course would be at the least peeved given that this “session” ale is 4.7% ABV, just over the 4.5% designation), and I recognize that my tastes and preferences since spending three months in China have shied away from strong, mind-warping high alcohol levels. I’d rather have a delicious, less alcoholic beer and keep my head more often than not. Part of that is returning to the USA, where a designated driver is basically always necessary if you’re not drinking at home, whereas in Bolivia a taxi could always be relied on to take one home.
Anyway, they didn’t/don’t have Session IPAs in Bolivia for the moment. But here in Wisconsin, they live in abundance and Founders All Day Session IPA is quite easy to track down.
Poured to accompany the MLS All-Stars’ defeat of my preferred Tottenham Hotspur, All Day smells so much like grapefruit and soft, sweet oranges. Truly this is the first beer I’ve smelled that really nails that aroma of grapefruit juice–there’s no beery other smells or odors to interrupt it. In the mouth it’s more OJ, and overall it’s dry and biscuity, which makes it quite lovely and it goes down quickly. Low carbonation helps with that, too.
I’d go back to this, as long as it’s reasonably priced, because the fact is that I’ve had comparably excellent beers this summer in New Glarus’ Moon Man Pale Ale and Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious, and the former in particular was a real revelation.
Part five of a series on beer in Asia, and a continuation of Where the empty bottles outside tell you what’s inside and Getting stuff’d in Beijing.
Great Leap Brewing is probably the most visible of Beijing’s self-consciously “craft” beer bars and breweries. Now with three locations, we stopped into their original pub in the hipster-equivalent area of Nanluoguxiang for a sampler flight. GLB had something like 12 of their own beers on tap, but it was as dead as we were feeling at 8 pm on a Tuesday night after a day full of sightseeing.
Sleepy, subdued, and dark, it was warm inside the pub and I’m not sure who would want to sit outside on the massive patio area during these Beijing winters. The large recovered wood tables and bar were inviting. When the sampler arrived, we tried their original beer, the Honey Ma Gold, the Little General Session IPA, and the Cinnamon Rock Ale, but it was the Three Door Tripel that stole the show. Listed as “10-11% ABV”–you’d think they’d be able to tell the exact alcohol content, right–it smelled of finger bananas and was a bit on the sweet side, but it was still really bright and tasted deeply of the yeastiness you look forward to in an abbey ale. Hands down, it easily eclipsed the Chimay Tripel I’d had the night before.
While the other three beers we tried were trying to incorporate “local” ingredients using the novelty ingredient approach, none of them quite seemed to pull it off. Honey Ma is brewed with Sichuan peppercorns, but in the beer you’d honestly not notice a difference between those and black peppercorns. The Cinnamon Rock ale utilized Vietnamese cinnamon and Chinese rock sugar, but it was mostly just an unremarkable, sweet amber ale. Spicing with a light hand is always wise, but perhaps too light?
Unfortunately, the Session IPA and Rock Ale both starting throwing off hints of bile after we started chowing down on the complimentary Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts: perhaps it is not the greatest bar snack to pair with your beer. Happily, the pub is bring-your-own-food: either order in or bring your takeout here to eat. And there is plenty of good takeout in the area.
GLB’s other point to commend was its emphasis on using China-sourced foundational ingredients in their beers. That is, Chinese malt and hops.
Has anyone noticed recently that has been China the third-largest producer of hops in the world for a few years running now? [2013-2014 Barth Haas Report, p. 14] As far as my brief exploration of this has revealed, they mostly grow what are called Qingdao Flower (the Chinese characters for hops translate to “beer flower”), Gansu, Marco Polo and SA-1 hops, primarily in the Xinjiang and Gansu provinces. Qingdao Flowers are the hops that flavor Tsingtao, and Xinjiang and Gansu are next door to Mongolia, the geographic region where hops are thought to have originated from some 6 million years ago.
GLB obviously makes a point to utilize what is locally available and Qingdao Flower hops especially make an appearance in a number of their beers. No doubt it’s an economically wise choice as well, but nonetheless this deserves praise because it contributes to the seemingly ever-fleeting sense of place that might be found in beer production. It’s hard to think of a beer as “Chinese” when it’s made from, say, German malt, American hops, a European yeast, and incidentally happens to be brewed in China itself.
For what it’s worth, I’d love to try an all-Chinese IPA at some point, highlighting China’s ingredient sources. It can be done, and while sourcing a Chinese yeast might prove a slightly challenging, White Labs is expanding to Hong Kong. And I suspect that Great Leap Brewing are the best placed to make that happen.
Coming it at second place on the 2015 American Homebrewers Association list of best beers in America and generally revered, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale doesn’t really require much of a defense in terms of its classic-ness as an American IPA. And happily, spending my summer in Wisconsin means that it’s available relatively fresh.
Like I’ve mentioned before, this series is based on my having lived for three years in the relative beer isolation of Bolivia and returning to indulge in all those beers whose praises I’d read from afar and had to imagine through tasting notes, which is at most the faint shadow of a real encounter. So does all the acclaim play out?
Poured out, Two Hearted Ale is a light copper and has a lovely head. Its very low carbonation makes it supremely easy to drink, and it’s a combination of woody and juicy hops. This clearly is not a straightforward juicy banger because there’s much more going on. As expected, it’s sweeter than all these session IPAs and lighter pale ales I’ve been enjoying lately, and the bitterness really lingers. In my mouth it seems all perfectly aligned between the sensations of bitter and juicy hops and sweet malt to fill in the gaps. I particularly enjoy how the hops become spicier the further I get into this beer. And at the very end the taste of pomelo pith carries on.
This is delicious.
But if I’m honest, I’m a tad surprised this is the second best beer in America according to the readers of Zymurgy magazine. It makes me wonder if there must truly be a lot of sub-par IPAs out there given how much this is adored. I mean, is this it? Is this the ceiling for the second-best beer in America?*
Huh. I guess I was expecting some kind of epiphany or revelation and while Two Hearted was great, it certainly was not that kind of great.
*Realistically, when you look at that list, it’s probably just the second best widely-distributed beer in America, although Pliny the Elder is in essence, the opposite of widely-distributed. Buy everything with Russian River’s name on it probably benefits from some fairly significatnt inflation by primed expectation. So then, controlling for the RR name/expectation boost, who knows, Two Hearted might be the best beer on this list. Whaaaat?!
Whatever, who cares? It was a great IPA. I just would have voted differently. Each to their own.