Beer Review 0066: Dogfish Head Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Ale

(This is the second in a series of three reviews featuring the musical beers Dogfish Head have created to honor artists that have stood or will stand the test of time. Be sure to check out the other two — Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Pearl Jam Faithfull Ale.)

Robert Johnson, born May 8, 1911, was an American blues musician, most renowned for recordings he made in 1937, just one year before he died at the young age of 27. Johnson never got to enjoy music success; his tunes became popular and reached a wide audience only after being reissued in 1961. Eric Clapton calls Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”

Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He’s been named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time (number five).

Dogfish Head made a beer in his honor, Hellhound On My Ale, this past May to celebrate Johnson’s 100th birthday.

Legend has it that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the legendary “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Johnson grew up on a plantation. Johnson was instructed to go to the Crossroads at midnight, where he met the Devil, who took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it, and played a few songs. He then handed the guitar back to Johnson, which gave him the ability to create the blues he would be known for.

Dogfish’s beer creation pays tribute to Johnson’s 100th birthday in this way: the beer is dry-hopped with 100% centennial hops at a rate of 100 kilos per 100 barrel brew-length. The beer comes in at 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) and uses dried lemon peel and flesh in the brewing process. The use of lemons is a shout out to Johnson’s mentor, Blind Lemon Jefferson. And the IBU (International Bitterness Units) on this beer, while brewing, hits 100 (58 on finished product).

The name of the beer, Hellhound On My Ale, is a takeoff of Johnson’s song Hellhound On My Trail, which is considered by most to be his greatest performance.

I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

Not much is known about the life of Robert Johnson. His death is a mystery as well; sources say he was poisoned by drinking whiskey laced with strychnine, but modern day scientific analysis places doubt on the story. In 1991, a British documentary called The Search for Robert Johnson attempted to piece together details of his too-short life. I’m not sure where one can acquire a copy of the film.

Two things are certain: we have recordings that assure us Robert Johnson was a real human, and we have this beer to drink to see if it lives up to the man’s music.

The pour gave way to an average size head that was rocky in texture. It didn’t last awfully long or fade away too quickly. The beer had a golden amber color with orange highlights when held up to light. The body was generally clear with just a hint of particles floating around. The lacing was excellent as the drinking progressed.

Hops were dominant in the aromatics. With as many hops that were used in this beer, that is to be expected. There were heavy amounts of pine present, as well as the lemon peel and flesh. The lemon was never like Lemonhead candy; it was natural and like sniffing a freshly cut fruit. There was a light hint of malt in the form of some caramel and grain. The aroma was tart and very pungent — I could smell lemon across the room after the pour.

The taste of the beer falls to the extreme hop side. There’s loads of citrus and pine, but the lemons present in the aromatics don’t really come out on the initial taste. There’s an underlying maltiness that guides you to the finish, which is bitter and turns alcohol warm. Although this beer gets to 100 IBU at the brewhouse, you’d never guess it. It is nowhere near that bitter, and actually has a great balance of tart/sweet. The lemons are there on the remainder, and I noticed as the beer warmed, the lemon became even more prevalent on the finish. Again, it’s not a candy type lemon, but more of a natural, freshly cut or squeezed fruit, which is very nice.

Hellhound is a great India Pale Ale. But there’s two things I have negative to say: the lemon touted just isn’t featured as much in the flavor profile as I would like, and the value is missing. This beer was $13.99 per bottle, which is slightly above average for a Dogfish Head 750 ml bottle. The flavor very much reminded me of Dogfish’s 90 Minute IPA, minus the lemons — and that beer can be had at $9.99 for a four pack. I rated Dogfish 90 Minute IPA at 97 points, which is classic on my rating scale.

I don’t think Hellhound On My Ale is quite up to the level of 90 Minute, but if you like heavily hopped IPA, give it a shot. It’s above average and given that it is part of a special series, I think it’s worth tracking down at least once despite the higher price.

And if you can’t find it, maybe make a deal with the Devil to get it?

Dogfish Head Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Ale, 92 points. Price: $13.99 US for one 750 ml bottle.


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