With session IPA becoming a growing trend in craft beer, you had to know a low-alcohol hop-bomb made by the hop geniuses at Stone Brewing Company (Escondido, California) would soon be on the horizon. In March of this year, they released ‘Go To IPA,’ named such because many claimed this would be the beer they would most often reach for when session drinking.
Session beers often stir up a bit of controversy — what alcohol percentage do you define as “session?” For most, it seems around 4.5% or lower fits the bill. Stone’s version of an all-night pounder comes in right at 4.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and is made using the “hop bursting” technique. Hop bursting is when the majority of the bitterness found in the beer (65 IBUs or International Bitterness Units, here) comes from late addition hops, typically added with 15 minutes or less to go in the boil.
Mitch Steele, Stone’s brewmaster, says there is a small bittering charge added just before the wort comes to a boil; the late additions are comprised of El Dorado, Mosaic, Citra, Cascade, and Sterling hops. The beer is finished with dry hops that are comprised of mostly the same additions used late in the boil.
The problem with most session IPA is that the low alcohol often makes the beer thin and lack mouthfeel, becoming more of a hoppy tea rather than a traditional beer. Let’s see if Stone has found balance that truly is a ‘Go To…’
The pour issued up an average size, bright white head that was soapy and frothy in texture. It quickly diminished, leaving one finger of foam atop a golden beer that had just a hint of orange to it. The beer was brightly clear, free of particles and sediment, and lacing was excellent, leaving solid sheets of suds after each sip. It’s a very nice looking beer.
The nose is a knuckle sandwich of hops; we’ve got a big Mosaic presence — sweet melon is tackled by oranges, pine, and dankness. There’s some light grapefruit and lemon peel. Overall, I found the hop aroma to be sweet in nature, resinous, and completely covering any malt backing this beer might have. But…there probably isn’t much malt here to begin with; I detected perhaps some grainy sweetness. It’s clean, extremely hoppy, and just as advertised.
Tasting brings on a light bitterness, reminiscent of grapefruit rind, then the middle of the taste explodes with all sorts of hop delight. Pine, melon, light tropical fruits, peaches, very fresh and clean. But things get a little muddy without a malt backbone — the hops fall apart some, and garlic/onion begin to take over the flavor profile. The bitterness, while only 65 IBU, is intense, especially with the lack of any sweetness and the bone dry finish. As it warms, the finish became more pleasant with dank notes of pine. Go To IPA is light-bodied, with a thin, drying mouthfeel. The bitterness, while heavy, isn’t too much, but it borders upon it.
Like many of its competitors, Stone’s Go To IPA lacks body and packs a heavy bitterness. It’s a nice beer, certainly drinkable with some interesting hops, but I’m not sure I could session this due to the hop tea thinness. I know Mitch Steele is a big fan of using 95-100% base malts in IPAs and (especially) Imperial IPAs, but I’m not sure that’s the right approach to take on a beer of this sort.
Stone Go To IPA, 84 points. Price: $1.79 US for one 12 oz. bottle.
Big Boss Brewing Company is located in Raleigh, North Carolina. Started in 2006, the company is a collaboration between Geoff Lamb, a University of North Carolina graduate, and Brad Wynn, former brewer for Victory, Wild Goose, and Native Brewing Companies.
Big Boss does not use artificial preservatives, additives, or pasteurization. They have a year-round and a seasonal line; The Big Operator falls in the seasonal lineup.
The Big Operator is a Belgian-influenced Black Ale that is infused with raspberries, which are shipped overnight from the Pacific Northwest, and locally roasted cacao from Escazu, a nearby Raleigh-based artisan chocolate maker. The beer is 8% ABV (alcohol by volume) — yeah, that’s not a ton of info, but it’s all we have from Big Boss. Let’s hope this is a tasty brew.
The pour makes for an average size, soapy and fast diminishing head. There’s a significant amount of yeast in the bottom of the bottle, and if you swirl a couple of ounces of the beer to get those dregs fully mixed, the head becomes creamy and has some staying power. Color is dark brown out of light; held in light, it’s a beautiful shade of deep ruby, and features a nice, clear body (sans yeast). There were no particles or sediment. Lacing was lacking, only leaving behind dots of singular suds.
On the nose, this brew is raspberry-centric, with a nice blend of sweet and tart. There’s more subtle layers of milk chocolate, orange peel, and a slight yeast character, but this doesn’t blow me away as a Belgian-style beer. As it warms, the roasted and toasted malt becomes more apparent. The raspberries are nice and fresh, and pair delightfully well with the milk chocolate.
The taste presents some pleasantly sweet raspberry up front, full fruity flavor. It continues this way for a fair bit before the milk chocolate washes ashore, and The Big Operator is like The Big Raspberry-Chocolate candy bar. Very nice. Roasted malts begin to come out near the swallow, and the malt backing takes over on the finish, changing the beer from sweet to bittersweet, and it kicks off more of a medicinal tone with the raspberries. That’s a little sad, as the raspberry starts to detract on the conclusion, which is of dark chocolate, and heavily roasted and slightly toasted (burnt bread) malt. Big Operator is medium-bodied, with a medium, creamy mouthfeel.
The good points: the chocolate and raspberry combination is very nice. But there isn’t anything overwhelmingly Belgian about this brew, and the finish is a touch medicinal with some alcohol warmth. I think its worthy of a try if you like raspberry in your beer, or fruit with your chocolate. Otherwise, you might want to think twice here, as the bottle is a bit pricey for what’s inside.
Big Boss The Big Operator Belgian Dark Ale, 84 points. Price: $3.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.
Dieu du Ciel! is a Canadian brewery, based in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. They have a production facility there, and also run a brewpub in downtown Montreal. Open since 1998, the calling card of the brewery seems to be exploration in many different styles with a nod toward innovation and character.
Dieu du Ciel! have an impressive catalog of beers, and you should check out their website for a complete list. Normally, my town doesn’t see distribution of Dieu du Ciel!, but today’s beer, Solstice d’hiver, recently appeared on shelves in a few bottle shops.
Solstice d’hiver (Winter Solstice) is a Barleywine brewed near the end of summer. The brewery lets the beer age for a few months to balance out before shipping in late December, making it a winter seasonal. Based on the description Dieu du Ciel! give, this seems to be an American-style Barleywine, as they note significant hops — but, then they dose in English ale yeast. The beer comes in at 10.2% ABV (alcohol by volume) and was first produced at the Montreal brewpub in December of 1998.
The pour looked fairly typical as Barleywines go — this one produced a small, soapy, fast diminishing eggshell white head. The beer was a rusty amber color, but when held to light turned a nice ruby red; you’ll also notice a light amount of particles and sediment floating about in the bright light. The body is cloudy, with the bottle saying the brew is unfiltered. Lacing was good, leaving behind thin patches of suds.
On the nose, there’s very sweet caramel malt mixed with faded grapefruit and pine. The malt bill is complex and fairly subtle, issuing up some sweet breads, toffee, burnt sugar, and molasses. As it warms, dark/dried fruit notes begin to emerge, especially cherry and prune.
The taste starts good things cracking immediately, with a blanket layer of burnt sugary caramel, and a dash of pine and grapefruit for a little balance. This continues to the middle, which brings about some soft bready notes coupled with cherries; the finish kicks you with a full hit of the 10.2% ABV, but there are flavors of grape, dried fruit, and pine underneath all that bitterness. Coupled with the alcohol, the heavy bitterness makes this one a touch medicinal and hard to finish. Solstice d’hiver is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.
Remember how I said this beer was aged a few months before release? Well, you can tell — and in my opinion, it’s kind of for the worse. I love hoppy Barleywines, but they are at peak performance when fresh. I also like malty Barleywines, but they are at peak when the hops are at a minimum, or at least in a very minor, supporting role. This beer is right in the middle, and it just doesn’t seem like everything has melded together as it should. Yet. I’d be interested to revisit in a few months, but in this current state, I’m done after just a few ounces.
Dieu du Ciel! Solstice d’hiver Barleywine, 84 points. Price: $2.99 US for one 11.5 oz. bottle.
Piercing Pils is a new release from Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware) and replaces their venerable winter seasonal, Chicory Stout (my rating: 82 points). While small quantities of Chicory Stout will remain available, it will be a limited offering only to be found on draft — and that’s big news, considering the brewery has produced the beer each season since 1995.
Dogfish calls Piercing Pils a perry-Pilsner hybrid; a perry is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears, and perry is not to be confused with ‘pear cider.’ Piercing Pils is an authentic Czech-style Pilsner brewed with white pear tea and pear juice, both of which are added after the boil for maximum aroma and flavor contribution. The beer is hopped with Saaz and Amarillo hops, and is available December-February. Alcohol by volume (ABV) registers in at 6%, and the beer has 35 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).
Pouring produced an average size, bright white head that was soapy in texture and quickly faded away. The beer is yellow-golden in color, more yellow than golden, and it has a slightly hazy body. Carbonation bubbles zoom to support the head from the bottom of the glass. Despite the touch of haze, the body is clear, free of particles and sediment. Lacing is good, leaving thin but solid sheets on the non-sipping side of my glass.
Right from cracking the crown, this is a highly aromatic beer. Those Saaz hops are unmistakable — earthy, herbal and spicy. There are hints of floral notes and lemon peel, as well as very sweet pear juice, like you would find in a mixed fruit cup. Other than some light cereal grains, there isn’t much malt presence. Piercing Pils is crisp smelling but the super sweet pears are an oddball combination against a background of Saaz hops.
And the taste is much the same: sweet, sugary pearl juice up front, but it quickly subsides to some wonderful Saaz flavors; crisp herbal notes, spice, and lemon peel. The pear comes back for the finish, and when mixed with the hop profile, the two battle each other in a way that’s not terrible but not exactly tasty, either. It’s almost like how generic window cleaner smells, but thankfully the finish takes over delivering solid notes of spice and straw-like grain. The beer is light-bodied, with a thin, foamy mouthfeel and overly drying finish. Crisp, yes; refreshing — not quite.
Chalk up another one for what seems to be the ongoing story with Dogfish. Make a solid base beer and then throw something on top of it that just doesn’t work as a gimmick. While the pear isn’t all bad, they’ve taken what would probably be a really solid representation of a Pilsner and have made it just out of the range of being really good. The pear doesn’t enhance and the beer is a touch too dry.
Dogfish Head Piercing Pils Pilsner, 84 points. Price: $2.49 US for one 12 oz. bottle.