Beer Review 0478: Bell’s The Oracle Imperial IPA

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‘Tis the season for all sorts of seasonal releases from Bell’s Brewery, located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Over the next couple of months, you’ll start to see a whole bunch more beers from Bell’s at your local bottle shop, because the cooler months are their peak release time.

The brewery has been producing beer since 1985, but the initial concept was a homebrew store. Well, any self respecting homebrew store will probably eventually start making its own ale; Bell’s started out brewing in 15 gallon soup kettles covered with Saran Wrap. Today, they’re one of the biggest craft brewers in the country, having just expanded to a second facility just this year. They’re also one of the most respected breweries, and I rated one of their beers, Hopslam, a full 100 points on my rating scale.

Each year in late summer (since 2010), Bell’s releases another super hoppy Imperial IPA called The Oracle. I’ve often heard this beer described as “Hopslam without the honey.” I’ve sought this beer out for several years and have never been able to find it, until now. Most stores only get a case or two; why, I couldn’t exactly tell you. The Oracle is brewed in the West Coast IPA style, using hop varieties found in the Pacific Northwest. This beer is double dry-hopped, comes in at 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) and is available for a very short time in six-packs, if you’re lucky enough to find one.

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Pouring produced a truly gorgeous beer that had an average size, bright white head that was dense, very creamy, foamy, and with a lasting quality. The beer itself was dark golden in color, approaching amber, and had just a tease of haze to the body. The liquid was translucent and didn’t have any particles or sediment; lacing was a very nice display of super thin yet highly clingy layers of foam. Pretty much your classic Imperial IPA.

And true to the style, the nose holds up its end in spades. We’ve got a heavy dosage of hops with a sweet malt backing that concludes with a punch of alcohol. The hops are massively tropical fruit up front; think papaya and mango with a dash of pineapple — dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find some dank pine resin, grapefruit, orange, and even some grassy notes. The malts stay out of the way but add a caramel candy sweetness to the fruity aspects, and there’s just a twist of alcohol at the end to remind you this beer is a big boy. Impressive and fresh!

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On the palate, The Oracle holds up to expectations and is almost a tale of two different beers. The first beer is sweet and sticky, giving up pineapple and other lighter tropical fruits mixed with honey-like caramel. But as you get to the swallow, this beer opens up and shows you another side, pounding you with aggressive bitterness and notes of pine and grapefruit rind. One thing that stays consistent is the sweet caramel, but it plays a dual role, enhancing the tropical fruit sweetness, but also making the pine bitterness more pronounced and even tea-like at times. The 10% ABV cleanses the dry palate, readying it for another sip. The Oracle is full-bodied, with a medium, creamy, and drying mouthfeel.

I can’t remember who described this beer to me as “Hopslam without the honey,” but they are right on the money, sort of. At first, this IS Hopslam, until the abrupt 180-degree turn in the middle of the taste. I can safely tell you that this incarnation of The Oracle is much better than the 2013 version of Hopslam; however, when Hopslam is on, it is slightly better than this beer, in my opinion. But it’s really up to you: if you like your Imperial IPAs sweet, you’ll probably like Hopslam better. If you like a massive but not overwhelming crush of bitterness, The Oracle is your gig. Too bad it is so hard to obtain. I love them both.

Bell’s The Oracle Imperial IPA, 98 points. Price: $17.99 US for a six-pack.

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