Friday Froth: Brewer Variants from Victory Brewing, Two Roads & Rodenbach

James Gribbon

One of the principle joys of live music is hearing familiar songs played in unfamiliar ways. An extended improvisation, a song's slow dissolve as band members explore different chords and reconnect through the voices of their instruments, the pure truth of an imperfect voice, the energy of a band and crowd playing off one another until every molecule in a room hums with energy... living, breathing creation. This is why we go, and why most artists aren't content to play the same songs over and over again the same way. Brewers are also creators and, once they have a formula down, start looking for a new way to express it. A new song is a new song, but what happens when you play with what you already have? What might evolve from here?

At this point, many of you reading this are already familiar with variants of existing beers like Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, even NEBCO Zapata-Bot (Gandhi-Bot aged in tequila barrels). This week we're going to take a look at a very few of the ways brewers are riffing on their beers, and what the results can be. 

Victory in Pennsylvania has been playing around with hops in a big way for several years, now. Their Hop Ranch series was a farm-to-beer concept in which a single beer recipe was treated with a single variety of hops from different family owned hop growers for each release. The idea was for the beer to stay the same, allowing brewers and drinkers alike to focus on the different natures of each hop specie and its terroir. The Hop Ticket series isn't so strict in definition - with both session and black IPAs, a dry hopped saison, etc. - but every one is made exclusively with whole cone hops instead of the more common, pelletized delivery method. I had Victory Hop Session Rye IPA.

This one poured with all the color and clarity of a Budweiser, but with a distinctly un-Bud-like tall and sticky head. The hops were big and sharp in the air above the glass, but they shared space with dry, grainy notes. The mouthfeel was smooth, with all ingredients saving their bite for the flavor. A good, strong bitterness coated my tongue as I made my way through the pint. The hops were more earthy, likely due partially to the Simcoes, but also because they grew from a rich bed of solid barley and pungent spicy rye. Like many experimental beers, Hop Session Rye was draft-only, and likely all gone by now, but I expect Victory to continue the series, so I wanted to give you a heads up.  

Two Roads introduced a series called S.H.O.P. in their tasting room this past October. Every beer in the series (Single Hop Original Pilot) is an extra pale ale, similar to the Hop Ranch concept, with those little green cones taking center stage. Several of the varieties don't even have names when they arrive at the brewery - the first I had was single hopped with HBC Experimental #344 in November - and only a few barrels-worth of each are on hand at any given time.

The newest in the S.H.O.P. series just tapped two days ago at the brewery, and is made with Comet hops. I wasn't too familiar with the name, and first assumed this was another newborn, fresh from the earth, but Two Roads says it's "an old school variety almost forgotten and now finding favor again among brewers looking for under-rated and interesting varieties." 

As you can see above, the beer's a bright amber with a medium head that fades down to a film, but the nose was a cargo ship full of fruit, particularly pineapple. The aroma melded with the malts in the glass to form an instantaneous burst of creamsicle flavor - bashing through the door on first sip like a kid who's heard the ice cream truck. Soft, round, and juicy, Comet S.H.O.P. has surprisingly few IBUs. This definitely sets it apart from other floral, hoppy Two Roads brews like Lil Heaven, which finish with a distinct bitterness. The Comet XPA is like nectar on the tongue, but finishes very clean. 

Far afield, a much older brewer is doing something much different. Rodenbach was started in Flanders, Belgium, early in the 19th century, and is likely the primary cause for Flemish red ales to be so well known in American society. Their Grand Cru is a staple at many craft beer bars, and a beer I've used to introduce many people to the concept of a sour beer. It is mild, slightly winey, and I've always thought there was a tiny shoot of chocolate poking a tendril out of the flavor. Sour beers often undergo maturation in huge, oak barrels called foeders, so Rodenbach took a beer very similar to their Grand Cru, ripened it in these oak barrels, and called it Foederbier

Foederbier is unblended, unfiltered, and available on cask only. Ruddy as the Grand Cru, it gives off a similar scent: grapey and sharp. Drink this potion, and sense the cleanliness: dry and biting as an angry English governess. Foederbier is very like the Grand Cru, but the oakiness somehow gives the beer talons. Don't mistake this for a warning, though: this is a wonderful beer. If you manage to find a place serving Foederbier, drink it - you may not see it again for a long time. 

Just like brewers, drinkers can sometimes find themselves in a rut: same thing, different day. Don't allow familiarity to sap your joy... keep pushing, keep exploring, and who knows what you may discover?

See you out there.