Beer Madness, Round Five: The Winner Is . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

And then there was one.

In a free-for-all between two very disparate beers -- a quenching, citrusy Belgian-style ale with notes of coriander and ginger, and a hoppy American pale ale -- the Ommegang Hennepin was outpunched by the Troegs HopBack Amber, which won handily by a 7-2 score.

Brewery Ommegang named its saison-type beer after Louis Hennepin, a French missionary priest who was the first European to describe Niagara Falls. His namesake brew might be considered something of a long shot: an eccentric, unfiltered Belgian-style pale ale that advanced a lot further than anyone might have guessed with a mostly non-beer-geek panel of judges.

"Too sophisticated for my palate" is how one panelist dismissed this beer. "I like the simple flavors of hops," professed another.

Yet it won raves from a dissenting taster, who commented, "It is light enough for usual enjoyment, but its quality is apparent, with sharp and subtle flavors that strike hard but linger."

Judging by the plaudits it received from the outset, the brilliant, copper-colored HopBack had to be considered our odds-on favorite. The championship round was no exception. Comments ranged from a succinct "I loved it, just right" to a pensive "It represents life . . . sweet initially, with bitter overtones, yet fully satisfying."

Who could argue with that assessment?

Certainly not John and Chris Trogner, the brothers behind Troegs Brewing Co. in Harrisburg, Pa. They went their separate ways (John to a Colorado brew pub, Chris to brewing school in England) before reuniting in 1996 to open the microbrewery a few miles from where they grew up. The name Troegs is a somewhat convoluted pun involving the brothers' family name and "kroeg," the Flemish word for pub.

HopBack, according to John Trogner, is the brewery's No. 1 brand, accounting for about 35 percent of sales. It's an American ale with a German accent. Liberty, the hop variety that gives the beer its piquant aroma, is a relative of the classic German strain Hallertau, prized for its spicy, floral flavor. The recipe also incorporates Munich malt, a variety kilned at higher temperatures than the standard pale malt used to produce golden beers. Munich malt gives the beer its reddish-amber color and sweet, caramel overtones.

The "hopback" in the brand name is a vessel through which the beer passes en route from the brew kettle on the hot side of the brewery to the fermenter on the cold side. A sievelike metal basket filled with whole-flower hops is inserted into the hopback before the beer is pumped in. Prolonged contact between beer and hops allows the volatile hop oils to leach into the beer, resulting in a more delicate flavor.

Trogner describes the process as being similar to that for French press coffee, where the coffee grounds come into direct contact with the brew, resulting in a stronger, more flavorful drink.

The brewery Web site ( recommends serving HopBack with red meats and strong cheeses, particularly Stilton and smoked cheddar.

At 6 percent alcohol by volume, HopBack was one of the stronger beers in our contest. Still stronger, at 7.5 percent, is Troegs Nugget Nectar Ale, a pumped-up, imperial version of American amber ale that Troegs released as a midwinter seasonal and that might be lingering on a few area shelves.

-- Greg Kitsock

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