I got hold of Samuel Adams Rebel Raw, an excellent (if somewhat unoriginal) beer from a big brewery, that got me thinking about how fricking awesome beer is.
Name: Samuel Adams Rebel Raw
Style: Double IPA
Numbers: 10% ABV, 100 IBUs
Brewer: Boston Beer Co.
Everyone knows Samuel Adams, Boston Beer and its iconic founder Jim Koch. Most people – some begrudgingly – acknowledge the pioneering role all three have played in reinvigorating the American beer industry. Jim Koch – feisty, Harvard-educated, ex-management consultant entrepreneur – is a billionaire on paper, and rightly so given that he did an enormous amount to create the $20BN craft beer industry whose fruits we enjoy today.
Many people also know that the Samuel Adams brand is not so hot these days, and that Jim Koch sometimes gets a little frustrated with this. His business grew on the back of Boston Lager, a malty, balanced, best-in-class Vienna lager based on a recipe Koch’s great-great-grandfather designed in the 1870s, but over the past five years the craft drinker’s taste has veered away from old-school malty beers toward aromatic hop-bombs.
Indeed, Koch was quoted in 2013 saying (in reference to the popularity of Heady Topper and other fashionable Double IPAs) “They’re big IPAs. There’s 100 of them. Are they new or interesting? Not really. I mean they’re good, but there’s nothing I’m going to learn from tasting that. There’s not a huge set of skills to make an 80-IBU beer.”
But then Boston Beer launched Rebel IPA, a West Coast style, 6.5% ABV, 45 IBU IPA that looked decidedly different to the usual founding father imagery of the Samuel Adams brand. The following year Rebel Rider and Rebel Rouser – the session IPA and Double IPA versions respectively – were launched, and Boston Beer had a successful IPA franchise on its hands.
Is that success satisfying to Koch himself? The champion of East Coast malt versus West Coast hops, the spirit of New England craft beer – is he happy at having to ape the style, taste and imagery that was created by his peers at Sierra Nevada and later popularized by the likes of Stone and Lagunitas?
If not, the final capitulation comes in the form of the latest in the Rebel IPA line: Samuel Adams Rebel Raw, a hefty, unfiltered Double IPA that comes in four packs of 16oz cans. There can be no disguising that this beer is firmly in the image of The Alchemist’s phenomenal indie Double IPA, Heady Topper.
The pack looks low budget (though unlike Heady Topper, it does have colored ink on it), with instructions to “KEEP COLD. DRINK NOW.” round the top of the can, and a big graffiti style “RAW” nestled among bright green hop cones in its center, almost obscuring the rather tiny Samuel Adams logo. The romance copy tells the reader that “hoppiness is happiness” and that if you don’t like “big hop bitterness” then “this beer is not for you”.
The main message on the pack is that fresh beer is good beer, and that the contents should be drunk within 35 days of release. (Both the release date and the best by date are clearly labeled on the packaging). According to an interview with Koch on Brewbound, the need for freshness (including a statement that Boston Beer will “pull” any inventory not sold at retail within the 35 day mark), the 16oz can and the style of the beer are all because they’re right for the beer, a beer which the Boston Beer brewers are really excited about. But anyone familiar with Heady Topper knows these are the exact hallmarks of that beer.
But…so what? When I bought this beer (a very reasonable $12.99 at Wholefoods in Manhattan) I was really, really excited to try it. And I wasn’t disappointed.
This is excellent beer. It pours out a vibrant, hazy orange with an unbelievably large head of ivory foam, suggesting a pretty mean malt bill. It smells delicious: swirling aromas of grapefruit, orange peel, pine resin, mango, cut grass, straw, light sage and rosemary. You name it, there’s a hop aroma waiting for you in this beer. Worth noting I drank the beer almost three weeks after its release date, which is an eternity in the world of mega-hop beers. I can imagine the aroma was even drier and more robust right after canning.
The mouthfeel of the beer was thick and luscious, and very, very bitter. There was plenty of malt character trying to balance the bitterness, but the hops dominated, and there was some undesirable, slightly acrid acidity at the back of my throat. (Versus other unfiltered DIPAs, especially Heady Topper, this is an area where Rebel Raw didn’t quite measure up. Heady Topper prides itself on its juicy drinkability, and – speaking as an unashamed Heady fanboy – I find it’s one of the most quaffable beers out there.)
I was expecting to be impressed – Boston Beer is no fledgling, feeling-their-way brewery after all – and I would say my expectations were exceeded. Rebel Raw isn’t as good as Heady Topper, no, but then Heady Topper wasn’t as good two years ago, let alone four or five. (It takes time to perfect a complex brew.)
And I can’t buy a four pack of Heady at Wholefoods in NYC. Hell, you can’t buy a four pack of Heady in Burlington six days out of seven.
Despite any misgivings Jim Koch may have about “having” to brew a beer like this (and without talking to him in private, how would I really know what he thinks anyway) or any misgivings beer fans might have over the copycat style of it, I’m very grateful it was made. I’m extremely grateful beer like this exists, full stop. Maybe 15 years ago Jim Koch couldn’t imagine ever making anything like it, but 15 years ago no-one could imagine a beer like this.
And that’s my final thought about this beer: it’s amazing that the unbelievably dynamic beer industry of today, formed by the dialect between drinker and brewer, has led to beers of such vibrant flavor as Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead’s Susan, Lawson’s Sip Of Sunshine, Grimm’s Tesseract, Pliny The Elder and…Samuel Adams Rebel Raw. We should all appreciate the hyper-fresh pack of expertly brewed, hop-loaded beer available for under $15 at Wholefoods.
It just gets me wondering: what’s next? How much better can beer get?
I look forward to finding out.