Preface: Drinking craft beer and reviewing it isn’t exactly a chore that you need to beg me to do. The tasting portion of each post is undoubtedly the easiest part to write because I’m required to indulge in craft beer to complete the task. The tricky part, which happens to be the bulk of my posts, is expanding upon a specific beer topic and discussing it. In the past I’ve written in-depth about hops, beers for in between seasons, etc. In short, that part which requires me to tap into the critical part of my brain accounts for my present failure to update the blog in quite some time. This post in particular was not easy to write, and the tasting portion has long been completed (I think I re-visited those duties a few additional times). The topic for discussion was elusive, but I’m fairly certain I’ve pinned it down and developed some talking points.
Styles on Steroids
The ales I’m featuring in this post are Hop’solutely from Fegley’s BrewWorks of Allentown/Bethlehem, PA and Samuel Adams’ Imperial White. Out of a long personal backlog of beers needing review, these two stood out because they’re both experimental/non-common styles of beer. Hop’solutely, a “Triple IPA,” made my list because it was the favorite beer of 2010 as named by Joe Sixpack, beer writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. And, other than the legendary Pliny the Elder by Russian River, Hop’Solutely was the only Triple IPA I’ve seen on store shelves (a quick BeerAdvocate search yielded only a handful of examples from brewpubs and very small breweries). Samuel Adams Imperial White was a four-pack that jumped out at me while in Massachusetts a couple months ago. I never before heard of the “imperial witbier” style before, so I figured this would be a great opportunity to try something new.
Judging the Un-Judgeable?
I was looking forward to getting down to business and reviewing Hop’solutely and Imperial White, but a puzzling question stood in the way: can these beers be judged in the same way that one would judge a classic Bristish, German or Belgian style? Can they even be judged at all? To answer those questions, the proper thing to do is consult a beer style guide. Among several that exist, two prominent guides frequently accessed by pros and homebrewers alike are the Beer Judge Certification Program’s Style Guidelines for Beer, Mead, & Cider and the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines. The first of these has been widely-cited by periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer. These manuals are important because they are regularly updated to reflect the dynamic nature of the beer industry; as more US beer drinkers become turned on to craft beer, the demand for new and exciting beer increases. So, if the market is receptive to a new style and examples are brewed with frequency over a period of time, then a new style may be added to the BA or BJCP style guide. In fact, the first page of the BA guidelines clearly states that all published styles have been included only after intense scrutiny and multiple considerations.
I consulted each guidebook, and both “triple IPA” and “imperial white” are absent from the style list. However, both bodies observe a “specialty beer” category for out-of-style examples such as Imperial White, while Hop’solutely would qualify in the Imperial IPA field; in essence, no beer goes un-judged. While the specialty categories allow for plenty of submissions, they don’t set acceptable data ranges as you would find with the classic styles. For example, the BJCP guidelines stipulate that a Berliner Weisse must have a color on the SRM scale between 2-3, the bitterness must be between 3-8 IBUs, etc. These specific technical details are also considered against the example brew’s flavor profile. If Sam Adams’ Imperial White were being judged according to the BJCP’s specialty beer category, the judges would be looking for a cohesion of aromas and flavors, and more importantly, an adherence to the style the Belgian white style. Hop’solutely, on the other hand, would be subject to the strict details of the imperial IPA category.
Finally, my questions of judge-ability had been answered. If either of these ales were being inspected in competition, they would be held to the same degree of scrutiny as a well-crafted Trappist beer. I read the style specifications and recalled imperial IPAs and witbiers that I’ve tasted recently, and I thought about the two brews at hand. These brews, Imperial White and Hop’solutely, aren’t necessarily experimental, but they both (inherent in their titles) claim to push the boundaries of a traditional style. This is the sort of brewing that craft beer nerds love; it takes a traditional style that breweries have re-created thousands of times over, and emboldens it. Therefore I was expecting some serious flavor, strong malt backbones, a complex hop profile on the Triple IPA, and a fragrant aroma from Imperial White. Booziness is implied in both styles, and certainly each beer complied: Imperial White comes in at 10.3% ABV, while Hop’solutely boasts a sturdy 11.5%. For the sake of keeping my senses sharp, I tasted these beers on separate occasions.
We’ll start with Imperial White. This is a Belgian-style white ale, known as a “witbier,” which gets its name from its very pale appearance. Always cloudy, it is pale golden in color with a dense, white, well-retained head. Witbiers have a hallmark spicy aroma which comes from the addition of coriander and orange peel. Zippy Belgian yeast also lends a strong clove characteristic to the nose. In the same way that hops balance the sweetness of malted barley, the spice is employed to counter the flavor of un-malted (raw) wheat. Many prefer to consume white beers in warm weather as thirst quenchers, and with a light/medium body, crisp carbonation, and low alcohol content, it’s no secret why they pair well with summer weather. This is a style that is overall mild, so the idea to give it an imperial boost is pretty intriguing.
When I poured Imperial White from the bottle, I noticed immediately that it had a dark orange/copper color – slightly too dark for the style. A substantial head failed to form. The aroma contained some spiciness, but not nearly as fragrant as I expect from a witbier (I would also have expected the spiciness to be more pronounced with this imperial version). Ripe banana, yeast and alcohol were most apparent in the nose. The taste was generally sweet with butterscotch and caramel notes encountered in many witbiers. Some spice characteristics were also present with a mildly sweet floral note in the middle, finishing with low bitterness. However, as the beer warmed, the booziness became very pronounced and overwhelmed the subtle flavor notes. The beer had a wonderfully creamy texture, but it was full-bodied and slick, therefore not appropriate for the style. Overall, Imperial White sacrificed the summertime drinkability and flavor for heavier texture and booze.
Imperial White was an interesting tasting experience, but I was generally disappointed with how far it had strayed from the traditional witbier style. I was hoping for a much more satisfying experience in Hop’solutely. I had heard plenty of great things about this beer, and Joe Sixpack’s praise had me intrigued even more. As mentioned before, Hop’solutely fits into the imperial IPA category. The term “imperial” is interchangeable – other breweries instead use “double,” but Fegley’s decided to use “Triple” to convey a mammoth dose of hops and barley. In this superstyle, a beer judge would be specifically looking for artfully-crafted layers of hop aroma and flavor that is the result of a combination of hopping techniques. A moderately sweet malt backbone is acceptable as imperial IPAs not only increase hops, but barley as well. Judges, however, do not want to notice the high alcohol percentage as a boozy flavor.
In the glass, Hop’solutely was a very hazy golden color with brown undertones. A bubbly head formed but didn’t retain its size for very long. The BJCP guideline for this style’s appearance is pretty broad, but it wasn’t the most visually enticing imperial IPA I had ever seen. Upon the first whiffs, this brew came off more like an American pale ale than a “Triple” IPA. The complex hop profile that I was expecting was barely present and struggled against a sweet cotton candy-like maltiness. The hop aromas that were discernible, however, were nice and fresh. Also interfering with the nose was a faint, solvent-like alcohol aroma in the background. The flavor was further disappointing – sweetness again went untamed with only a mildly bitter finish. Perhaps this was the result of Fegley’s attempting to achieve a very high ABV, but in the end, their efforts failed. On the tongue this brew is most pleasant; full-bodied and creamy, it only lacks in carbonation which runs a little flat. In the end, I wasn’t impressed – Hop’solutely has a long way to go before it can compete with the other imperial IPAs.
Back to the Drawing Board?
My experiences in tasting Imperial White and Hop’solutely left me wondering: are these beers, which were brewing forays in the “imperializing” of styles, failures in experimentation or examples of a much-needed practice to keep craft beer vibrant? Is there something profound in a brewery that just brews classic styles without any deviation? To answer those questions, one only needs to look at a list of the world’s most epic, sought-after, and legendary beers such as Beer Advocate’s Top 100. At the top is Russian River’s Pliny the Younger – a triple IPA. Among the top ten are bourbon, coffee, and vanilla bean stouts. And slightly further down the list are sour, flavor-packed “wild ales” such as Russian River’s Supplication. While the classic styles, like American pale ale and English bitter, are well-represented in the market, these intense styles combined with the use of unconventional ingredients are the reason why I and many others are so enthusiastic for the product. Craft beer is consistently and often dramatically changing. We’re fortunate to have local breweries like Dogfish Head of Milton, DE which has resurrected ancient brews and produces the world’s strongest fruit beer. Without boundary-pushers and style-benders, craft beer wouldn’t be positively growing at the rate that it presently is. While I may not have been particularly moved by either of the brews featured in this post, there’s plenty other of imperial varieties and experimental ales that captivate me on a regular basis, like Southern Tier’s Unearthly and Great Divide’s Yeti Stout. These are great examples of big beers that offer massive flavor without overwhelming the consumer, nor are they sickeningly sweet or solvently boozy. Still, I’ll always keep an IPA, brown ale, or porter on hand because these, among many other classic styles, are the foundation of craft beer; a well-constructed, balanced example of these styles takes skill and years of dedication on the part of the brewmaster. In conclusion, I say “cheers” to the brewers of extreme beers that challenge our palates and push the industry’s creative envelope. Brew on.
A few other noteworthy details about Imperial White and Hop’solutely:
- Brewery/location: Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams); Boston, MA (267 mi. from Philadelphia)
- Name/style/ABV: Imperial White; Imperial Witbier, 10.3%
- Availability: Year-round
- Serving temp. and glassware: 50F; tulip
- Pairing suggestion: Salads with fresh, crisp greens. Great with breakfast or brunch, goat cheese omelettes in particular!
- Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Great flavor characteristics until the booziness develops; appearance is way off for a witbier, imperial or otherwise.
- Bold statement: This witbier was imperialized so much that it’s a completely different style. I’d be terrified for anyone thirst-quenching with this one.
- My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: B-/B-
- Brewery/location: Fegley’s BrewWorks; Allentown, PA (48 mi. from Philadelphia)
- Name/style/ABV: Hop’solutely; Imperial IPA, 11.5%
- Availability: Year-round – it’s a flagship beer
- Serving temp. and glassware: 55F; snifter
- Pairing suggestion: Mexican food and spicy cuisine in general. Sharp and pungent cheeses; Stilton. Randy Mosher suggests rich desserts such as carrot cake.
- Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Great full body typical of an imperial IPA; overly sweet and not nearly a complex enough hop profile.
- Bold statement: It’s a somewhat hoppy malt liquor.
- My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: C+/B
No ownership of any image in this post is implied.
Hop’solutely image borrowed from
Samuel Adams image borrowed from