Saturday, February 04, 2017

Rebels with Different Attitudes

When Sam Adams launched its Rebel IPA three years ago, it was met with an ovation from the general public but a bit more of a muted round of applause from beer connoisseurs. This was an IPA, after all, that had a very 1990s throwback feel of big malt that almost subsumed its hops, and it was somewhat hard to define its appeal in a world full of citrus, grass and experimental hop bombs.

So, proving that the oldest dog (nearly, at least) in the craft beer world still does want to learn some new tricks, Sam Adams scrapped that initial recipe this year and came out with an all-new version boasting of seven kinds of hops - including two experimentals - and describing itself as tropical and juicy, echoing the IPA buzzwords of today. But the beer still feels in some ways like a throwback - more mid-2000s than 20th Century this time - and while it's a quality beer, it pales in comparison to the more rebellious Rebel Juiced IPA that the brewery is promoting simultaneously.

First to Rebel. The reborn version ditched the caramel malt that over-bulked its body, leaving this new version cleaner and brighter. But the tropical flavors it promises are lacking, leaving a straightforward piny body that ramps up the bitterness and puts it more squarely into the camp of beers that IPA fanatics love more than a beer that will grab the attention of someone wanting to taste across all styles. In other words, it's a good beer, but not necessarily one that you'll consider at the 20-tap beer bar.

And now to Rebel Juiced IPA, which is both a blessing and a curse to be out at the same time as the reborn Rebel. The beer - a West Coast-style IPA made with mango puree - is a blessing because it's a phenomenal beer, the type of juicy, sweet and bitter, groundbreaking beer that others are sure to emulate for its combination of sturdy body and envelope-pushing additives. But it's a curse too because if you happen to drink this in the same setting as Rebel IPA, you may not even give the original rebel a second thought for the bounty of tropical flavors in Rebel Juiced.

The mixed blessing of releasing two new packaged beers almost at the same time is nothing new for America's largest craft brewery. It also put out two seasonals for early 2017  - a hoppy wheat by the name of Hopscape that is on sale in January and February and Fresh as Helles,, a classical helles brewed with orange blossom petals that just hit stores and will stick around through March. And while Fresh as Helles is a wonderful blend of a fantastic underlying sweet and malty beer with a pleasant but not overwhelming zing of citrus, Hopscape is a disappointingly bland, very light-bodied effort that absolutely disappears - at least in comparison to its fellow seasonal.

So, yes, the new Rebel IPA is an improvement on its predecessor, coming across as sharper and hoppier. But Rebel Juiced is the beer that really has a cause, breathing life into a sometimes stagnant IPA genre and showing just how fun the style can be again if you move past what IPA has been and re-imagine what it can be.

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