Russian River Brewery — Pliny the Younger Triple IPA — 10.25%

The annual arrival of what many hopheads consider to be the pinnacle of IPA perfection has become more than a mere release, it’s an event. Running dry within the first day of tapping the kegs last year taught the good folks at Russian River a few things. This year they switched things up, releasing a limited amount of kegs per day, and not filling growlers for anyone. As they announced on their website: The only way to get it to go is in your tummy! Works for me.

In the dead middle of the week, an hour-and-a-half before quitting time, the brewery was full but not insane. The uninitiate who might have wandered in off the street still might wonder what was going on. Is there a major sporting event I forgot about? The most cursory look around the brewery would shut that line of thinking down pretty quickly though; the only televisions—of which there are two, each no bigger than a desktop monitor—are hung high and out of the way. This is no sports bar; this is a temple of beer.

The young, hipster staff seemed to get a perverse kick out of asking the humble supplicant, once seated, what he wanted to drink. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? All I have to say is, “Pliny the Younger,” and they’ll bring it in a perfectly chilled 10 oz glass? Visions of the Seinfeld Soup Nazi flashed through my parched, hop-starved brain. “No Younger for you!” the server shouted in my imagination. “One year!” Luckily, it was only my paranoia working overtime, and soon the beer was down the pike.

The big board behind the bar lists the Younger at a healthy 10.25% ABV and under Bittering Units it only reads, “Gobs.” The brew doesn’t disappoint. It pours light orange with just a scrim of head and no lacing. The nose this little bomb throws, however, is heavenly: orange peel, the requisite pine forest, and a more than a hint of killer green bud.

The truly amazing thing about this Triple IPA, is how balanced it is. To me, Pliny the Elder, Russian River’s Double IPA, is more aggressively hop forward—not to say the Younger isn’t crazy hoppy (as the website reads: Younger is hopped three times more than our standard IPA, and is dry hopped four different times), its just that its sweet malt backbone carries a lot of weight.

As the sun falls behind the storefronts on 4th St. and working folks are released on their own recognizance for another day, a line begins to form outside on the sidewalk. Soon a bouncer takes position at the back door so that no one bum rushes the bar, and after a few of the most perfectly balanced beers I’ve ever had, it’s time for me to head on and give someone else a chance.

Grade: A+


Ballast Point Brewing Company — Victory at Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial Porter — 10%

San Diego is a great beer town. With Stone, Green Flash, and Port Brewing—just to name a few favorites off the top of my head—all vying for attention, it would be easy to let the heavy-hitters outshine the smaller brewers. Ballast Point is no Johnny-come-lately, however, they’ve been at it for 15 years, after the brewery grew organically from the back of a home brewing supply store.

Ballast Point really has a knack for the dark beers, and this monster is no exception. With a name that’s as much of a mouthful as the brew itself, their Victory At Sea Coffee Vanilla Imperial Porter takes no prisoners and is an excellent closer to an evening of quality tippling.

Pouring as black as the bottom of the ocean, Victory at Sea develops a tight, mocha-colored head that’s so dense, it appears almost nitro-driven. A complex nose of vanilla, cocoa, coffee, and roasted malts draws you in to its rich depths. Upon first sip, you’re sunk.

The cereal bill alone is heavy enough to take you straight to the bottom—but the American Two-Row Malt, Victory Toasted, Crystal, and Chocolate Malts, and Rolled Oats combine to provide a sturdy keel and keep this brew upright.

For an Imperial Porter at a whopping 10%, the mouthfeel is as smooth as the ass of a wee bonny lass with a nice, velvety finish. For such a high-powered brew, they have balanced it out just right, and if it wasn’t so rich, you could quaff a few of these no problem-o.

The coffee taste is predominant and Ballast Point has partnered up with a San Diego roastery, Caffé CaLabria, to get it just right. Their website mentions a 24-hour cold extraction process that leaves a lot of the bitterness behind; whatever they are doing, the java really shines through.

A guest taster at Camp Larsen thought the vanilla was a bit over-stated, and personally, I don’t think they really need it. There is already a lot going on with this brew, and if anything, the extract lends a syrupy note to an otherwise beautiful finish. I would love to cellar one of these babies and see what it becomes in a year or so—but it’s so tasty now, I seriously don’t think that’s going to happen.

Grade: A

Firehouse Grill & Brewery — Hops on Rye — 7.5%

Now, this is what I’m talkin’ about. I was in the mood for a nice, aggressive IPA, and this one out of Sunnyvale’s Firehouse Grill & Brewery hit the spot. It pours a truly gorgeous honey orange and throws some serious pine and florals up front.

A nice, inch-deep head with good retention is powered by a combination of Magnum, Amarillo, and Citra hops—not a ground-breaking combination for this style, true, but what gives this brew a nice, distinctive character is the grain bill.

Firehouse has gone with a base of rye malt that gives the beer a heated spice note that complements the hops very well. At 75 IBUs, this is by no means a tongue shredder, but that extra kick from the rye gives your mouth something to think about until the next sip.

Hops on Rye is a fairly hazy beer with a lot of suspended matter which belies how ultimately quaffable and refreshing it is.

Grade: A

Hermitage Brewing Co. — Hoptopia Double IPA — 8%

After the disappointing performance of Hermitage’s double hefeweisen, I was a little skeptical about Hoptopia, the corresponding IPA in the San Jose brewery’s recent “double” series. Upon first pour, everything seemed on track for a decent, hoppy experience: a nice straight-up golden color with a tight, sizable head, which, after some decent retention, leaves some lace, but not enough for your glass to be mistaken for your great auntie’s parlor.

The pine/grapefruit nose is present, but not as hop-forward as I expected, and it’s paired with something else, either I’m sensing the alcohol, or this beer has spent some time in or around a Naugahyde couch. There is a strange polyvinyl ester leaching from somewhere and it throws off the decent malt backbone of this beer.

For a double IPA, I’m just not getting smacked silly with hoppy goodness, which is exactly what I look for from this style. The finish has an odd, lingering note of slightly rancid butter.

With so many better (read: friggin’ amazing) double IPAs—i.e. Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Ruination, Maximus, Moylander, Steelhead Double IPA, yes, even Hop Stoopid, etc., ad nauseam—on the market right now, I don’t think I’ll be making the trip out to Hoptopia again anytime soon.

Grade: D+

Full Sail Brewing — Spotless IPA Brewmaster Reserve 2010 — 6.5%

Oregon is beer-crazy; it seems like you couldn’t stand in that state and swing a dead varmint without hitting a craft brewery that is churning out stellar brew after stellar brew, and Mt. Hood’s Full Sail Brewing is no different. Known, at least around camp, for one of the tastiest pale ales to be found on the west coast, Full Sail has consistently made refreshingly unique takes on every style from the afore-mentioned pale to a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout.

The Spotless IPA Brewmaster Reserve 2010, part of what they called their “Summer Sun Series,” pours the color of said celestial body—big, fat, and orange—and throws off life-giving hints of tangerine, lemon, and the requisite pine from behind a fluffy cloud-like head.

Full Sail packs this picnic lunch with plenty of Willamette and Zeus hops that, like a lot of summer relationships, start to reveal their bitter selves after the original hit of sweetness fades.

This would be a great IPA for those put off by the hop bomb arms race and long for a simple sunny west coast day in a bottle.

Grade: A-

Hermitage Brewing Co. — Wheatopia Double Hefe — 8%

I have really enjoyed some tasty craft brews from San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing Company in the past, so when I saw their new “double” offerings, I had to pick up a couple. The first, a “double hefe,” had me intrigued, considering I had never heard of a “double” hefeweizen and wasn’t sure what would even constitute one.

Wheatopia pours like a somewhat murky American wheat: California sunshine in color with a white head that dissipates pretty quickly leaving a little bit of lace behind. Upon first sip, however, it’s obvious that this isn’t your ordinary Americanized south German thirst quencher. There is something off with this brew that bears consideration.

Backtracking for a moment, the aroma isn’t all that enticing, I liken it to wet dog with lemon. Or perhaps a kinder description would be—to borrow a term from the Scotch lexicon—“peaty.”

Oddly missing from what I expect from a decent hefeweizen are the banana and clove flavors associated with the traditionally used yeast strains; in its place is that strange ashtray note that keeps me from liking lagers, bocks, ashtrays, etc.

On the upside, the mouthfeel is active with a hop-driven zing although you can’t really taste them. All-in-all, not what I expected, if this is indicative of a double hefeweizen, make mine a single.

Grade: C+

Sierra Nevada — Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA — 10.4%

Sierra Nevada’s latest bid for the hearts and gullets of hop extremists is a whole-cone-fired monster named Hoptimum. Sounding like a b-list X-Man who, after a mysterious nuclear accident in a hop field, awoke the next day with a giant hop cone for a head, this hop bomb delivers the bitter goods.

Hoptimum pours the color of a new Lincoln penny and its mutant hop power drives a multi-finger head that never truly dissipates but sticks around throwing lace all over the place like a cross between your granny and Spider-Man.

As for the hop report: German Magnum, Simcoe, Citra, Chinook, and the mysterious “New Proprietary Variety,” all gang up on your helpless lil’ pink tongue and give it a beat down it won’t soon forget: kind of like getting whooped with a towel full of grapefruit and clementines (so they don’t leave bruises) and then skull fucked by a pine tree while smoking some killer green bud (don’t pretend like it hasn’t happened to you). At 100 IBUs, the astringent factor is off the chart, so if you don’t like drinking cleaning products—and let’s be honest, some of us don’t—steer clear of this one.

The malt character, made up of Two-row Pale, Golden Promise, Munich, and Wheat, fights a good round or two—probably just so those who foolishly put money down on Light Caramel don’t start throwing chairs—but ultimately (or Hoptimately) bites canvas before too long.

At 10.4% there is an expected alcohol note in the finish, but nothing like what those numbers would presage, which leads me to rethink that perhaps this creature is better balanced than I gave it credit for.

All-in-all, an enjoyable atomic hop bomb for those of us who appreciate such things, but God help us all if this thing gets into the wrong hands. I’m looking at you, Magneto.

Grade: A-