08 January 2018

Express delivery

The Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop 12-pack was boxed up on 31st October 2017, around the end of the hop harvesting season, I guess. It arrived in Ireland five weeks later and I was lucky to get to try a few when brewery co-founder Steve Grossman was over visiting.

The trilogy begins with Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop Session IPA, with thanks to the UnderDog crew for sharing from their stash. It's pale gold with a powerful weedpatch nose, all nettles and rocket. The flavour brings an intense acidity, much too harsh for my liking. A growing oat-cookie grain taste emerges as it warms, but does nothing for balance or drinkability. Balancing the hops is always the major challenge of session IPA, and this should have had plenty of scope at 4.8% ABV. Sadly, it doesn't manage it. Moving on...

Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop IPA is a surprisingly murky beast: the company is renowned for the way it keeps yeast stuck to the bottom of the container but this one had skeins of grit floating through it. Thankfully that doesn't get in the way of the hops, which start their day's work with a brightly bitter aroma, all eye-watering citrus spritz. The flavour is an entirely predictable mix of grapefruit and jaffa, sharp and hard, though softened by a big malt base (it's 6.4% ABV) that provides texture without adding unwanted sweetness. This is an absolute classic of US flavours, with all the pith and pine we've grown to love, in a balanced and approachable package. No gimmickry or trend-chasing from Sierra Nevada here.

I was surprised by the brownness of Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop Double IPA, though it settled in the glass a clear and handsome amber colour. Hey, SN: fresh means it's supposed to be murky! What are you playing at? An aroma of hazelnuts and coffee does not say double IPA to me, fresh hop or otherwise. The flavour is bitter, almost to the point of being acrid. The roasted note I got in the aroma turns ashen on the tongue and the whole tastes the very opposite of "fresh". At least it's not boozy: the texture is surprisingly light for 8% ABV. This is a dramatic turn away from the previous two beers, and one I don't care for. At least you don't have to worry about freshness with this one: I doubt it has anything to lose as it gets older.

All three of these, and the Fresh Hop Celebration which completes the set, are available at 25% off in the Stephen Street News January sale which runs until 10pm this evening. Worth a detour if you're in the area.

There were a few other specials on rotation during Mr Grossman's visit to UnderDog. The highlight was the first opened: Cocoa Coconut Narwhal, from the brewery's "Trip in the Woods" barrel-aged series. The base imperial stout is 10.2% ABV and that has been boosted to 11.9% here, turning even more unctuous and gloopy. There's a huge dollop of coconut in the foretaste, then a long a smooth rich fudge middle, before an invigorating spirituous finish. All is classically elegant and balanced, with just the merest hint of oak. My only niggle is that the stout itself is a little lost in all the fripperies: I recall Narwhal being properly bitter, and that seems to have been ushered away without ceremony. The texture is still that of a big imperial stout, though, and maybe that's enough. At least it isn't pretending to be a cake.

That set the standard for the other Trip in the Woods beer, Ginger Bigfoot, which unfortunately couldn't match it. It's another bruiser, at 11.4% ABV, though I think the added ginger contributes more than the whisky barrel. The aroma is like freshly baked ginger biscuits, warming and spicy, while the flavour put me immediately in mind of Canada Dry ginger ale. The texture is sticky which adds a medicinal tone to the whole thing, and more than a hint of herbal mouthwash. The barley wine is buried far too deep in the woods to be tasted any more, only the sickly sweetness remains. This is very much a gimmick beer and by no means an improvement on the original. A small sample was loads.

A different Bigfoot variant pre-dates the Trip in the Woods series, going by the simple name of Barrel-Aged Bigfoot. Once again, however, it succeeds in simply dirtying-up a perfectly good clean and hoppy barley wine. The aroma here is immediately off-putting, all hot and sticky. A foretaste heavy with sappy oak segues into syrupy toffee before finishing acridly bitter. There are no smooth edges or added subtle complexities, which should be the point of barrel-ageing. You get all of the downsides and none of the bonuses. Bigfoot ages much better when left to its own devices.

Finally, a beer that isn't a version of something else, just a plain old Cherry Chocolate Stout. This seems modest by comparison, at just 8.5% ABV, and the flavour is similarly reticent. There's not much by way of chocolate, beyond what you might reasonably expect in a stout of this calibre; and almost no fruit: a wisp of pink cherry creeps in at the very finish. What that leaves in the middle is a perfectly decent, simple, strong stout: cleanly dry and with an assertive hop bitterness. I like how, despite the showy label, the novelty features haven't been allowed to spoil it, even if they're all but redundant.

It's great that an establishment player like Sierra Nevada is still bringing us new things, instead of resting on one or two iconic beers. Steve certainly had that air of restless energy about him which is always good to see in a brewer; even more so in an owner. A big thanks to the folks at Grand Cru Beers for introducing him, and the beers, on the night. Now go out and grab all of that Fresh Hop IPA wherever you see it: it's not getting any fresher.

No comments:

Post a Comment