Beer Madness, Round 5: Hops rule!

April 23, 2013

Sometimes it’s the little skinny guy who wins the fight.

Sometimes the slower athlete manages to cross the finish line first.

And occasionally, when beer geeks gather, they prefer the beer with finesse and drinkability over the hop bludgeon.

But that’s not the way to bet. Particularly not when it’s Beer Madness, our annual blind taste-off of 32 craft brews, this year all of them from the Chesapeake Bay region.

After a valiant run, Legend Pilsner, a solid example of an underrated style, succumbed to F lying Dog Double Dog Double Pale Ale by a 6-3 decision. It was a battle of unequals, pitting the 6 percent alcohol-by-volume Legend against Flying Dog’s 11.5 percent leviathan.

(twp/twp)

Legend had its fans among this year’s panel of tasters. Range chef de cuisine Matt Hill found it “well balanced” and “smooth” and claimed to detect a hint of coriander. Hank’s on the Hill mixologist Gina Chersevani also appreciated its balance and commented on the “winelike honey finish.”

She denounced the Double Dog as one-dimensional, writing, “Hops, hops, hops, hops, hops, hops.”

We get the point, Gina.

But what irked Chersevani elicited raves from a majority of our tasters. “Mr. Hops!” gushed Scott Schenkelberg. “Rich citrus flavor, great mouth feel and incredible floral scent.”

“Big, bigger, best,” wrote Jeanne Segal, the hop farmer’s daughter, who had proposed marriage to this beer in an earlier round. (She also had kind words for the Legend, calling it “sweet and lovely, very drinkable.”)

“Hops rule!” was the verdict of Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, whose home state of Oregon ranks second in the country in hop production, after Washington.

“With food, I could drink this for a while,” wrote our other food professional, Carolyn Stromberg of Righteous Cheese in Union Market. (The Flying Dog Web site advises pairing Double Dog with “extra sharp aged cheddar and stinky blue cheese,” as well as smoked meat and spicy dishes.)

Double Dog — the demented canine on the label was drawn by Ralph Steadman, best known as the illustrator of Hunter S. Thompson’s works — is a pale ale in name only. Matt Brophy, Flying Dog’s lead brewer, explains that when the beer premiered in 2004, to celebrate the brewery’s 10th anniversary, there was no accepted stylistic designation for a strong ale with such a massive hop content. That has changed, and Brophy assures us that the beer will be relabeled a “double IPA.”

Brophy says his original concept was to hop the beer continuously during the two-hour boil (a technique that would eventually be perfected by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery). To that end, he bought a device that had been used to apply sprinkles to pastries. But the hops persistently jammed the auger, grinding the process to a halt. Brophy decided to compromise and add hops manually at 15-minute intervals. He uses primarily Warrior and CTZ hops, immensely bitter and resiny varieties loaded with alpha acids, the chief source of bitterness in the hop cones. (Some Cascade hops are also used in the finish.)

If you include the additional bittering that the beer receives during fermentation (a process called “dry-hopping”), the final tally equals more than three pounds of hops per barrel. The beer’s simple grain bill consists largely of ordinary pale malt, with a little crystal malt thrown in for body and sweetness. It’s clear which ingredients are the stars and which are the supporting players.

Double Dog was first planned as a one-time release, but “it was so popular, people kept asking it to return,” Brophy recalls. It joined the brewery’s regular lineup in 2009, two years after Flying Dog moved from its original cramped quarters in Denver to a spacious new brewery in Frederick.

Brophy continues to experiment with hoppy beers. If you find the Double Dog a trifle overpowering, you might want to seek out Easy IPA, a draft-only release in Flying Dog’s Brewhouse Rarities series that should hit the taps in May. That one is virtually a session beer at 4.2 percent alcohol, and it includes hop varieties (Galaxy, Amarillo, Sorachi Ace) that impart a more gentle, complex fruitiness than the in-your-face grapefruit of the Double Dog.

Due out this month is Bloodline Blood Orange IPA, which combines the much-in-vogue Citra hop (often described as having a tangerine-like flavor) with orange peel and pureed fruit.

Look for Flying Dog beer to assume a high profile during Frederick Beer Week, May 11-18. Brophy said he wasn’t sure what the brewery would feature at the kickoff event, a May 11 beer fest at Stillpoint Farm in nearby Mount Airy, but the Beer Madness crown should put an extra strut in his step.

Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.

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