Thoughts on the Mikkeller Single Hop IPA tasting, Friday July 16th
A background on what this is all about; Mikkeller is a small batch brewer in Belgium who makes some rather esoteric brews. Among them is a series of 10 American-style IPAs each using a single variety of hops at all stages of hop addition. Why this is unique is that most brewers have found certain varieties of hops best suited for certain stages of hop additions. Those known for depth and bittering qualities being added early when those qualities are most likely to be brought out, those known for aromatics added late when that is what is going to be coaxed from the hops. The cool thing about these is that there seems to very much be a sameness to the process so all of the beers seemed about as hoppy as the next. If one seemed more subtle than the next, it wasn’t because of the amount of hops, but rather the nature of the hops.
So, first, a very major distinction needs to be made between single hop IPAs and single vineyard wines or single origin coffees. In the case of the wine and coffee, the choice to blend away from single source is typically done to cut costs or use up the least desirable lots from a site. In Burgundy, for instance, the best grapes from a particular vineyard are always put into a batch to make a single vineyard cuvee, the next cut down will be blended into the second tier grapes of other nearby vineyards to make a “village-level” wine and, if there’s still another tier below that (perhaps the youngest vines on the plot), they’ll be blended with other lowest tier grapes from all over Burgundy to make the least regarded wines in Burgundy.
Certainly there are a ton of examples of blending different varieties of grapes to make fine wine, but I’m just talking about the automatic assumption that the word “single” in the description tends to means something good when you’re talking wine.
I know less about coffee, but would imagine that the deal is somewhat similar there.
This would not seem to be the case with beer. These guys are buying hops from all over the place and having them shipped to the brewery. Whether they choose to use a blend of 3 or 4 of them or just one would appear to be a matter of choice. If going with a single hop variety was obviously better, everyone would do it. I mean, why not? It’s certainly no harder to dump the contents of one bag in to a kettle than the content of two different ones. So, I guess the first order of business is to dismiss the notion that these beers are, by definition, automatically better due to the single-hop process. In fact, one could argue that, unless the centuries of testing and tasting that led brewers all over the world to identify certain hops as best suited to certain applications in the brewing process and thus, that using a blend of hops in the brewing process makes a better beer are misguided and wrong, that these IPAs should be somehow lacking in one way or another.
So why make them? I think the answer there is reasonably obvious, to provide for the beer drinking public, the unique opportunity to actually taste the flavors each variety of hops brings to the table. To give geeks like us an excuse to get together and taste them all. Of course, one thing that sort of stands in the way is that they’re rather pricey beers, the other is that only 6 are easily available in the state and only 2 of the remaining 4 were even available at all from the supplier via special order. The last two, it turns out, I actually found while on vacation in Vermont and schlepped back.
So, we sat down and tasted them all. Unfortunately, I was a bit too busy actually conducting the dinner to take the level of notes taken by others, but pens were certainly scribbling away. There were some profound flavors pointed out. The Tomahawk, for instance, was all about blueberries. The Chinook, at least for me, tasted of tomatillos and mango. The Nelson Sauvin, as promised, had rather vinous tones and, to me, was the prettiest. It was no surprise that the Simcoe was the most complete as that is the hop that most brewers who only do one single-hop IPA tend to gravitate towards.
One thing that does get lost when tasting 10 different highly hopped beers is the ability to keep up. All those IBUs do a number on the tongue and make the job harder and harder. Which is sort of a fundamental issue with these beers. Given their nature, you’d think they’re made with this sort of tasting experience in mind, and yet trying to taste through all at once is bloody hard.
Then there’s the Mikkeller 10. Which is cool enough I suppose and something that you’d think would simply have to exist as a cap on the series. But, even if you can justify the practice of ignoring accepted wisdom of hop usage in beer to create the series of ten, it’s really hard to justify taking all ten hops and slamming them into one beer. I mean, you’ve simply got nothing on your side there. No study on single hop flavors and no real intention in terms of using certain hops for certain purposes.
So, what’s the take away for me? I like these beers. I think this guy certainly knows what he’s doing and makes a damned fine beer. Mind you, he also makes it in a manner that costs a lot of money and that is certainly passed on to you. So, I think the few of 10 that really spoke to me are worth splurging on from time to time and I’m certainly happy to have experienced all of these beers in one seating. That said, you can buy a sixer of Dogfish 60 minute for what 2 of these babies will cost you and, well, I’m pretty sure I’ll be taking the sixer almost every time.