Craft beer drinkers don’t need to look at a calendar or step outside to know what time of year it is. All they need to do is go to their favorite haunt to see what new beers are appearing on tap and they’ll be able to tell you the weather. Roasty, chocolatey stouts and porters signal winter, pumpkin beers herald fall, maibocks announce spring, and refreshing, crisp beers help beat the heat of summer.
Throughout the year, too, come special release beers, those beers that are at the top of every craft beer lovers must-try list, the ones that are endlessly debated, that have songs and poems written in their honor (that last might be a stretch, but who hasn’t wanted to sing about their favorite beer from time to time?).
Russian River Frenzy
Arguably, the most famous of these is California-based Russian River’s Pliny the Younger. An almost hysterical frenzy takes hold of cities lucky enough to be on the limited distribution list; the Bay Area gets it, as does Portland, Seattle and Denver. Philadelphia is the only city east of Chicago to be granted this honor. Until those rare sixtels are all tapped and accounted for, Pliny fans talk, tweet, and fall over one another guessing as to when and where the next one will appear.
The near-mythical reputation of the Younger is unequaled. Bars hold special events to celebrate the tapping of this beer beauty, from ticketed events to contests to determine who will be a lucky recipient. People stand in line — sometimes for hours — for the chance to get their own 10-ounce pour. One question that’s often asked by the uninitiated is, “is it really that good?”. The answer for most is a resounding “yes!” Fans of hoppy beers love this triple IPA as much as non-IPA drinkers do.
Alternative Seasonal Favorites
Despite all this, Pliny does have its haters, those people who aren’t afraid to voice their opinion as to which beer reigns more supreme than what has been called by some “the best beer in the world.” Sticking with the hops category, the two most often cited are Michigan-based Bell’s Hopslam and Pennsylvania-based Troegs Nugget Nectar. These are both limited releases that come out around the same time as The Younger, making what is usually a very dreary time of year (late February/early March) very exciting for hop heads who can get their hands on all three.
I was one of the lucky ones and, within a three week period, had the holy trinity of hops — actually having the Hopslam and Nugget Nectar in the same night.
The Face Off
It’s hard to pick a favorite among these three. Each has its own distinct flavor and personality, and one can’t really replace another. Each brewery provides something a little different with each of these, and it’s not a true apple-to-apple comparison. But if you want to compare, here are some key points of each:
Pliny the Younger
Pliny is the biggest coming in at 10.5% ABV. One of the things I’ve always found is that for as big as this is, it’s still very drinkable; however, it’s not a beer that I’d drink all day, even if I could get more than one or two pours off the sixtel. Russian River takes a regular IPA and adds almost the triple amounts of hops. Even with this, it’s very well balanced — starting off sweet and ending bitter — and not overly tasting of alcohol, all of which makes it so damn good!
Hopslam is the most aggressively hopped beer in Bell’s repertoire — starting with six different varietals in the kettle and finishing with a dry-hop addition of Simcoe hops — and it comes through in the taste. In addition to grapefruit, pine, and resin you get a nice flavor of the honey they use to help keep everything in balance. This is a really smooth, extremely enjoyable double IPA. I could easily drink this all day, although the 10% ABV does a pretty good job (usually) of limiting me to just one or two.
Nugget Nectar is the baby of the bunch, coming in at just 7.5% ABV. Troegs uses their Hopback Amber Ale as the base for this hoppy revelation, adding Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk hops to create a taste sensation. Not surprisingly, this is incredibly drinkable and truly delicious.
So there they are – three of the most sought-after beers of our time. Big, beautiful, and balanced these are three brews that deserve a spot on your “bucket list”.
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