Exbeeriment: A Tale of Two Hopslams
My hypothesis is that fresher Hopslam tastes better than older Hopslam. So much so that days make a difference. I am comparing some bottled 12/27/2013 to 1/11/2014. Both bottles opened at the same time (1/23/2014) so that they are 27 and 12 days old, respectively. Is there a difference or is it a mind trick implanted by marketing schemes at other breweries? I set out to find an answer on a cold Thursday night.
How This Started
Like many, I became caught up in the Hopslam hype (and contributed to it) this past Monday, January 20th. The day that comes but once a year when our area is blessed with a bounty of a hops in the form of a double IPA. I went to my trusty local craft beer spot and caught the delivery driver as he was unloading 25 cases of the green goodness. I plunked down a bunch of cash and walked out with a bunch of jingling bottles of hop syrup. After running a variety of errands with my family I finally opened the box to inspect my precious. I was a bit taken aback when I saw the packaged date of 12/27/2013. That was like three plus weeks ago! A mild wave of douchey beer snob anxiety overcame me. Had I just burned all that money on a beer that was sure to be an inferior product? Well, I would have to taste it to be sure.
So, I did. I thought it was good but it didn’t taste as bright and sweet as I had imagined it would. 360+ days ago, when I had it last, I had remembered as being different.
I then wondered if I was somehow “slighted” and my retailer was given “old” product. I was a bit surprised to learn others in the area had received 1/11/2014 bottles in addition to the 12/27/2013 batch I had received. That was it. I was convinced I was now in possession of old, inferior beer.
This led to a lively discussion with Aaron Ataman, a Certified Cicerone and the Corporate Chain Manager with Premium Beverage Supply who distributes Bell’s beers in Ohio. He pointed out, “Bell’s spends more money, pound for pound, on their quality control research that any brewery in the nation, possibly the world. There is no discernable drop off in quality within a three week period. If anything the quality on a big beer like Hopslam has improved and then remains relatively stable over the next few months.”
Being a bit of a skeptic, challenge accepted! I was going to do a side-by-side blind taste test to prove my memory correct and the pros wrong.
I had to get to the bottom of whether or not 15 days makes a difference. Surely it has to, right? I enlisted my eye-rolling wife to take the two bottles and secretly pour them into a cup A and cup B. She was then sworn to complete secrecy in our empty house for at least five to ten minutes as I went through this exercise. She also felt compelled to start a Facebook group message with some friends to point out how nerdy and ridiculous this exercise was. Anyways, I digress.
I want to point out I am not a professional sensory analyst and this wasn’t a scientifically valid controlled experiment. However, it was a reasonable attempt to test my own palate to see if my angst was warranted.
The two beers were pulled from the fridge at the same time and were exposed to the exact environment for the same amount of time. The temperature was the same and the vessel was the same. They were poured within seconds of each other. All things being equal, there weren’t any serious environmental contaminants or flaws
Both cups have the same light copper color and thin, white head that dissipated pretty quick as one might expect from a beer of this octane. They are virtually identical.
Cup B was first and it provides fairly harsh bitterness up front that fades quickly and then washes down with some boozy heat. There is obviously a boatload of bittering hops to match the ton of aroma hops. Why do they call this Hopslam again?
Cup A provides a little less harsh bitterness up front but finishes a little more bitter with less pronounced heat. This swallow makes me realize that honey really dries it out on the finish, equally so on both accounts.
I also begin to think some of the bitterness perception has to do with how I approached the sip and swallow (i.e. which parts of my tongue it lingered). So I alternated small sips between the two and find there is a negligible difference in the bitterness perception.
I don’t detect a difference in the carbonation or mouthfeel. Both provide a nice creamy finish as it rolls around the mouth.
My wife reveals to me that Cup B is 12/27/2013 and Cup A is 1/11/2014. If you’re still on pins and needles, let me spell it out for you: I cannot make a discernible distinction between the two bottles.
So, there you have it. I’m way wrong, the pros are way right. If you’ve been sweating about the $75 you dropped on your case of 12/27/2013 bottles – fret no more and start enjoying those beers. You’re not missing anything over in 1/11/2014 land. Seriously.
I will caveat my findings, with this official statement put out by Bell’s regarding my dilemma:
We at Bell’s do want this beer to be as fresh as possible so we will continue to work on shortening the time between bottling and releasing. Hopslam will definitely change over time, with only 65 IBU’s its more prone to losing the aromatics that define it, allowing the bitterness to come through as it ages. As a result, we want it consumed as fresh as humanly possible.
Wow, you’re still reading? Today’s your lucky day as I decided to bust out my 2013 bottle for some additional research. This one was bottled 1/2/2013. It’s been 386 days since this was first bottled. I must be out of my mind, right? No, this was a purposeful experiment that I planned last year.
The color is pretty close with the old bottle perhaps looking a shade darker. There is no hop aroma to speak of but lots of honey. As an inexperienced mead imbiber, I say this smells almost like a mead in terms of the honey aroma content. Is it a braggot or hydromel or sack mead? I have no clue. Mead night at the homebrew club was a long, intoxicating journey.
Here’s what I do know. This has taken on a very barleywine-like characteristic. The ABV is very mellow and nearly imperceptible compared to the fresh stuff. It still has great carbonation and a medium-thin mouthfeel. The taste is dominated by honey and it still finishes very dry. As a fan of barleywines, I can appreciate this and probably wouldn’t mind busting one out from time to time. I’m even wondering how a little time a bourbon barrel might transform this a la Bourbon Count Brand Barleywine.
This definitely isn’t for everyone and probably isn’t worth the effort unless you’ve got spare bottles and like to see what age will do to a fine beer.