Tag Archive | bell’s brewery

Beer Review 0578: Bell’s Hopslam Imperial IPA (2014)

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Indulge me here for a minute. I hardly ever re-review a beer that I’ve done before, unless it is part of my redux review series, but I decided to dedicate a fresh review to Bell’s Hopslam for a couple different reasons.

I’m no stranger when it comes to Hopslam. You probably aren’t, either, especially if you are into hoppy beers or follow limited release beers. Hopslam is released by the Kalamazoo, Michigan brewery each January, and it quickly sells out just about everywhere Bell’s ships it. And they expect you to fork over limited edition prices for it: I pay $19.99 US for a six-pack, and I imagine your price (if you can find it; it’s not nicknamed ‘Hypeslam’ for nothing) is quite similar.

A little about the beer for the uninitiated: Hopslam is an Imperial IPA, coming in at a whopping 10% ABV (alcohol by volume). The beer is brewed with honey, and six different hop varieties, all from the Pacific Northwest. Bell’s keeps the exact hops a secret, but do say they “massively” dry-hop the beer with Simcoe, a hop that contributes citrus and pine aromas.

When I previously sampled this beer back in February 2012, it became one of the first beers I reviewed to earn a perfect score of 100 points. I was floored by Hopslam, and it really opened the floodgate for hops and big IPAs for my palate. I had never tasted anything like it.

Fast-forward to 2013, when a new batch of Hopslam hit the shelf. It was overly bitter. It was overly boozy. In short, it just wasn’t what it was in 2012. But the bigger question that I thought at the time was: What if this IS the same beer; what if I’ve just had other IPAs that were as good that aren’t limited and are significantly cheaper? It was a good question — have other breweries closed the gap in the Imperial IPA category? Was the 2013 batch of Hopslam not up to snuff? Maybe my love for the beer was a fluke? I waited another year, and here we are with a fresh bottle. Let’s see what’s going on with my first true Imperial IPA love.

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The pour roused an average size, creamy (almost frothy) head that is slightly off-white in color and lasting. The beer is golden-orange in color, leaning a bit toward light amber; it’s crystal clear, with lots of carbonation bubbles zooming to and fro. There’s just a touch of hop haze. No particles or sediment to report, and lacing is superb, leaving behind thick spreads of solid foam all the way down the glass.

And, shocker here: a punch of hops on the nose. Literally every hop aroma you can think of is likely touched upon in some form. There’s dominant tropical fruits (papaya, mango, passionfruit, pineapple) and resinous pine. All of the fruits are ripe and juicy; this year’s has a significant hint of orange to it, along with small notes of grass and lime. There’s malty sweetness here but it takes a far back seat; I got caramel, wouldn’t exactly call it honey, but it has an inherent sweetness to it that is similar. Hopslam has a beautiful blend of hop aromas. At this point in my beer drinking career, its aroma is almost unmistakable.

Alright, so it looks like Hopslam, and smells like Hopslam…

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The taste? It’s Hopslam. Tame notes of grass and pine develop into big, juicy, sharp drops of pineapple, mango, tropical fruit juice concentrate. It has a ton of sweetness to balance out the high acids; this beer is like a battle on your palate between sweetness and bitterness, and all the while it gives a firework show of hops. Near the swallow, the full brunt of 10% alcohol hits; this is boozy, without a doubt, but it also serves to clean up some of the honey sweetness and set the stage for the heavy bitterness on the finish: grapefruit, pine, menthol, and bitter orange peel. Hopslam is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

This is certainly better than last year’s attempt, but to my palate, it doesn’t quite live up to the first time. The beer definitely seems much boozier than when it got the perfect score; while I do feel it maintains superhero drinkability with the 10%, the Hopslam I remember felt boozy but didn’t taste it. I also think that my palate has been treated to Imperial IPAs that are on the same level over the last couple of years…so, yes, other breweries have caught up to the mystique and allure of the much coveted Hopslam. Perhaps that should be a signal to Bell’s that it’s time for some changes with this beer — not the recipe, but perhaps the “limited” status and the price point. Because, I’m going to be bluntly honest…when it comes to picking up a six-pack of this or Lagunitas Sucks (100 points, and my 2013 beer of the year), I’m probably going to go for the Sucks and have a beer that is just as good for half the price. And I don’t have to use sophisticated radar to track it down.

Bell’s Hopslam Imperial IPA (2014), 98 points. Price: $19.99 US for a six-pack.

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Beer Review 0545: Bell’s Christmas Ale

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Somebody has to make a Christmas beer that isn’t a “winter warmer” or spiced.

Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Michigan) was founded by Larry Bell in 1983 — originally, Bell’s was a homebrew supply shop. But the itch to create beer was there (with all that homebrew equipment, who could blame them?) and the actual brewery portion of the company fired up with the initial batches brewed in 15-gallon soup pots.

The first beer was sold in September 1985; originally self distributed by Mr. Bell and his (then) nine employees, the company grew to produce 500 barrels in 1989; and in 1993, the brewery became the first in Michigan to open an onsite pub.

Today, Bell’s has a capacity of more than 500,000 barrels, and the company has two different production facilities.

Bell’s take on a Christmas beer is for it to be sessionable and not use any of the typical spices often found in Winter Warmer style beers. As such, Christmas Ale is brewed in the Scotch Ale style, with 100% Michigan-grown barley, which they have custom malted by Briess Malting. The hops are a blend of varieties grown in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. Available in the winter months, Christmas Ale is 5.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).

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The pour made a large, foamy head that was long lasting. As I sipped, it hung around in about half finger amounts, growing larger if you swirled the glass. The color was dark amber, with some lighter orange highlights toward the bottom of the glass. Obviously, this beer is unfiltered, as it has lots of chunky sediment floating throughout; despite the particles, it’s an otherwise clear beer. Lacing is excellent and began as soon as the head initially diminished, leaving thick clumps of suds.

On the nose, for a winter-type beer, we’ve got a timid aroma, yet well balanced. It has initial notes of sweet caramel and some general roast, and opens up into an equal hoppy side, giving off fresh pine and grapefruit. If you imagine a well-hopped Scotch Ale, you’re thinking correctly — just turn the volume down the aroma a couple of notches, as it’s quite subtle. It doesn’t change as it warms — a bit dull, but what’s here is nice.

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The taste is much the same, very light and bready with a hint of caramel sweetness. Not at all what I expected; this brew is really light and almost watery. Some nice citrus hops save it, picking up when the sweetness starts to fade, opening up to some pine and sweet, juicy grapefruit. The finish is wheat filled and grainy, creating a very clean and almost crisp finish that cements how light-bodied the brew is. Christmas Ale has a medium, foamy mouthfeel and average carbonation.

Well, this is not at all like a Scotch Ale or a Winter Warmer. The pine flavors do remind me of Christmas, and I can’t say I was put off by the beer when considering the time of year. It’s a decent brew, and it sure would be sessionable and easy to drink a few of these, but to be completely honest with you, after about half a glass I was ready to move on. It’s basic, no frills, and simple, and it’s unlike Bell’s to be this way. Perhaps a good transition starter for the commercial lager drinker.

Bell’s Christmas Ale, 83 points. Price: $1.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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Beer Review 0536: Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale

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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 (especially December), 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 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.

Third Coast Old Ale is a high alcohol, malty beer that is released once each year. On the bottle label, Bell’s challenges you to save one of these and allow it cellar time, and at 10.2% ABV (alcohol by volume), it’s certainly built to stand the test of time. Classified as an Old Ale, this style of beer generally refers to English ales above 5% ABV; however, typical American takes on the style, such as this one, normally hit 9-11%.

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This beer pours a small, eggshell white head that is creamy but doesn’t stick around very long. The color is tawny brown out of light, and with a fairly cloudy body, looks like dirty water. But in light, Third Coast is a nice shade of reddish-brown, and is spot-on for the Old Ale style. There were no particles or sediment floating about, and lacing was minimal, only leaving behind a few sudsy small pieces of foam.

The nose is flat out amazing! Super thick and sweet caramel with backing toffee collide with brown sugar and dark fruits — figs and prunes. It’s very port-like, rich and decadent; the hops are at a minimum, only providing some general citrus notes and orange peel. The alcohol is present, but it adds to the warming scent, along with a dash of cinnamon. Impressive stuff.

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But the flavor doesn’t exactly hold up to the superb quality of the aroma. Boozy sweet caramel and toffee lead off again, but this time they hit a brick wall of hops; the hop presence here is fairly big, and issues up sugared grapefruit with some mild dark pine. The hops kind of weaken the malts, which makes this beer a little less intense than it ought to be, in my opinion. The dark fruits are shuffled to the back of the palate, and you get some fig before the finish comes on, surprisingly herbal and tea-like, riding a moderately bitter note of grapefruit while trying hard to return to the sweet caramel found at the start. The alcohol isn’t present in taste but you can absolutely feel it. Third Coast is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

While this beer had an extremely promising nose, the flavor did disappoint; however, I’m going to call this one a definite prime candidate for aging. My prediction is that after a 12-18 months, the hops will fade just right and prop up the malts instead of fighting with them, allowing this beer to truly shine for the style. Still, it’s an outstanding beer while fresh, but I think time is needed to allow this one to fully develop.

Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale, 90 points. Price: $2.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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Beer Review 0524: Bell’s Cherry Stout

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Returning for 2013 is Bell’s Brewery Cherry Stout, a beer brewed with 100% Montmorency cherries, all grown in Traverse City, Michigan — last year, the beer wasn’t able to be made because of a soft cherry crop.

Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Michigan) was founded by Larry Bell in 1983 — originally, Bell’s was a homebrew supply shop. But the itch to create beer was there (with all that homebrew equipment, who could blame them?) and the actual brewery portion of the company fired up with the initial batches brewed in 15-gallon soup pots.

The first beer was sold in September 1985; originally self distributed by Mr. Bell and his (then) nine employees, the company grew to produce 500 barrels in 1989; and in 1993, the brewery became the first in Michigan to open an onsite pub.

Today, Bell’s has a capacity of more than 500,000 barrels, and the company has two different production facilities.

Montmorency cherries are employed in this beer because they are a tart variety, and balance out sweetness from the malt bill. Coming in at 7% ABV (alcohol by volume), Cherry Stout is only available in the winter and comes in six-packs. I’ve often found this beer a little hard to find, so you might have to do some searching for it, especially if you don’t live near the state of Michigan.

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The pour draws a small, dark tan head that is creamy in texture but quickly disappears. Color is pitch black; as I poured, I could see a little hint of red in the beer as it went into the glass, and the very edges are reddish when held to light. It’s so dark that I couldn’t tell if the body was cloudy or not — the bottle did have some yeast dregs. There weren’t any noticeable particles or sediment floating about. Lacing was fair, only leaving a small trail of foam here and there.

I found the nose to be a wonderful mix of solid, creamy dark chocolate with a subtle undercurrent of tart cherries. These are the dominant aromas, but the malts also showcase some general roasted and toasted tones, a bit of black coffee, and it just smells overall creamy. It’s a deep aroma but not in a very pungent way.

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Cherry Stout is surprisingly tart, in a way that seems to take some of the oomph away from the stout portion of the beer; up front are lots of tart cherries, but they aren’t sour or even mouth puckering. The tartness quickly mixes with a deep note of decadent dark chocolate, and these flavors play well all through the middle of the taste, throwing in hints of black coffee. The finish brings on a touch more tartness, slightly acidic, which entertains an additional slightly acidic dark chocolate. The finish is long, and as it unwinds, the chocolate is replaced with general toasted notes and actual burnt toast. I’d classify this beer as between light and medium-bodied, believe it or not, and the mouthfeel is medium, quite foamy when swirled around the tongue and drying thanks to the tart cherries.

One big plus to Bell’s take on a Cherry Stout: it’s not medicinal. The overwhelming majority of beers that use cherries turn out to be medicinal; this, thankfully, is not. That said, I think the base beer here is probably quite incredible and the cherries seem to dial it down a little too much. And I’m not a big fan of burnt toast flavors, so it loses me after the dark chocolate fades. Still, for a good moment, this is like a chocolate covered cherry in your mouth, and that’s a very good thing. Check it out.

Bell’s Cherry Stout, 87 points. Price: $2.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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Beer Review 0509: Bell’s Wheat Love Wheatwine

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Sometimes you must dust off a old recipe and make an old beer new again. That’s what Bell’s is doing this year with Wheat Love, a Wheatwine-style beer that was last produced in 2005 as part of the Bell’s Wheat Project.

Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, Michigan) was founded by Larry Bell in 1983 — originally, Bell’s was a homebrew supply shop. But the itch to create beer was there (with all that homebrew equipment, who could blame them) and the actual brewery portion of the company fired up with the initial batches brewed in 15-gallon soup pots.

The first beer was sold in September 1985; originally self distributed by Mr. Bell and his (then) nine employees, the company grew to produce 500 barrels in 1989; and in 1993, the brewery became the first in Michigan to open an onsite pub.

Today, Bell’s has a capacity of more than 500,000 barrels, and the company has two different production facilities. In 2005, the brewery experimented with four different wheat beers — stick with me, because this gets kind of complicated — each beer was made with 55% wheat and 45% barley malt. All four varied in the types of wheat that composed the 55%, and each beer used different yeast strains. The beers, appropriately named ‘Wheat 2,’ ‘Wheat 4,’ ‘Wheat 6,’ and ‘Wheat 8’ used the following combination: Wheat 2 used two different wheats and two types of yeast; Wheat 4 used four different wheats and four types of yeast, and so forth. The hops and barley malt remained consistent. ‘Wheat 8’ went on to become 2013’s Wheat Love, and is what we have for review today. The beer comes in at 8% ABV (alcohol by volume) and uses the following types of wheat: White, Dark, Victory, Toasted sprouts, Torrefied, Red, Caramel, and Chocolate. The yeasts at play are: Bell’s house strain, WLP410 Belgian Wit II, WLP550 Belgian, WLP570 Golden, WLP500 Trappist, WLP530 Abbey, WLP4000 Belgian Wit I, and WLP565 Saison.

Sorry if you’re bored by all the technical stuff, but I figured some out there would find it pretty interesting. I know I did — typically, beers that have a ton of stuff going on like you see here tend not to be very good, so let’s see where Wheat Love falls.

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Pouring produced a very nice looking beer, topped with an average size, bright white, creamy and frothy head that lasts. Color of the beer is golden-yellow, with an extremely cloudy body; the yeast floating around in the beer provides the lighter golden color, swirling with highlights. Although very clouded, there are no particles or sediment, and lacing is excellent; the head regenerates to a finger-width when swirled in the glass. Very nice.

The nose smells exactly like a Hefeweizen, sans clove and bubblegum elements often found in those beers. There’s a ton of grainy wheat, straw and bready notes here, along with a heaving helping of yeast. I can really pick out the Abbey and Saison strains at work here, along with the Belgian Wit. It’s earthy, doughy, and has touches of pepper and funk. The hops add a nice orange peel and mandarin that is both up-front and restrained, bending with the more subtle yeast notes.

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On the palate, this is a sweet beer but not overly so — initial notes are of orange peel and funky yeast. It opens up to more of a bready flavor, with high carbonation. The orange peel stays consistent and actually turns into more of a fleshy, juicy orange as the beer unfolds. It never really loses the sweetness; instead, on the finish, it becomes dry and issues up a ton of chewy wheat. The sweetness turns into more of a sugary bread crust, with an edge of funk. Wheat Love is medium-bodied, with a thin, very foamy yet creamy mouthfeel. The 8% alcohol will sneak up on your if you allow it to significantly warm.

I was pleasantly surprised by this beer — I halfway expected it to be a mixed-up mess, but I should have known to have more faith in Bell’s. And to not go in with any expectations. Consider this brew like an Imperial Hefeweizen moreso than a Wheatwine; perhaps Bell’s missed this timing on this one, as it would be a great big beer for summertime. Tasty flavors that are subtly complex.

Bell’s Wheat Love Wheatwine, 93 points. Price: $2.99 US for one twelve ounce bottle.

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