Story last updated at 3/26/2014 - 1:36 pm
When Alaskan Brewing Company introduced their new IPA seven years ago, I liked it. I commented favorably on it in the Anchorage Press and took some heat because the big hop heads in the world who crave wrenchingly bitter beers thought Alaskan's new product was a bit pedestrian. I wasn't going to argue with them; every palate is unique. Still, I defended the beer vehemently, reminding those who disdained it that IPAs didn't start out as hop bombs.
Alaskan's entry into the IPA world happened 20 years after the brewery was established. The style was obviously something the brewery didn't want to rush into. Careful consideration went into a product designed to feed Alaskan's market and not necessarily the whim of the new wave of West Coast hop heads who felt that if a beer didn't contain at least 100 International Bitterness Units (IBU), it wasn't worthy.
The International Bitterness Unit is a measurement of a beer's bitterness through compounds that hops impart to beer if they're boiled long enough in the beer's manufacture. The IBU in a beer can be measured empirically using a spectrophotometer in carefully controlled laboratory settings, and most bigger breweries have them. IBU can be roughly calculated by mathematically deriving numbers provided by the hop producers. There are a lot of variables, however, and bitterness can be a relative term depending on how much malt is used in the beer's manufacture. Bigger beers hide bitterness better because the bigger malt beers temper the sensation of bitterness.
For comparison, the blander mass-produced light American lagers hold between 8-12 IBU. Barley wines can push 100 IBU. And, in a hop-crazy world, our intrepid brewers just have to push the envelope. Flying Monkeys Craft Brewing Company (Ontario) probably reigns hop-supreme with their Alpha Fornication, which weighs in at 2,500 IBU. Don't rush out to find some; only six bottles were made. This is silly: The human palate can only detect about 100 IBU, and anything else is just green fluff as far as I'm concerned.
Still, times change. The American - and especially West Coast - penchant for big hoppy beers has been steadily on the rise over the last decade. We especially love the bitter stuff up here.
Alaskan continued to tinker with its IPA style over the years. Interesting iterations came from the brewery's Rough Draft and Pilot Series programs where the staff experimented on the brewery's original 10-barrel system to produce beers just for fun or to ramp up toward full-time production. The full-time "regular" IPA weighs in at 6.2 percent alcohol by volume and has 55 IBU. A dark IPA, Double Black IPA, is a bit bigger at 8.5 percent alcohol and 60 IBU. The big one in the bunch, and certainly at hit for the hop heads is Hopothermia Double IPA at 8.5 percent alcohol and with 70 IBU.
And just recently, with an exciting new twist and a touch of heat, Jalapeno Imperial IPA kicks with 8.5 percent and 70 IBU. The Jalapeno Imperial IPA uses Hopothermia Double IPA as the base with a metered addition of the peppers in both the boil and in the finish. Oh, and fear not, although it's indeed a hoppy beer, the jalapenos don't add a lot of heat.
I got a call from an Alaskan sales rep and a hell of a nice guy, Andy Kline, who said he wanted to meet me and share a "secret beer" that was not on the market. I agreed to meet him, thinking I'd already beaten him to it because I was sure he was going to share Hopothermia.
We met at Café Amsterdam in Anchorage because Kline wanted to share the new beer with owner Ken Pajak as well. When he pulled out the samples, I was in for a big surprise. Instead of Hopothermia, Kline set bottles of Alaskan's newest entrant into the IPA mix, Icy Bay IPA, on the table.
But I was confused. I thought that way back when, as Alaskan IPA was released, it was called Icy Bay IPA. In fact, Pajak pointed to the wall where his collection of tap handles is proudly displayed. Sure enough, the original draft handle said "Icy Bay IPA" on the bottom.
Kline assured us that the Icy Bay IPA we had in front of us is a brand new product. I'll attest that it certainly looks and tastes that way. Gone is the more "fictional" looking "drawn" label. Instead, an actual picture of the photographer's brother surfing in Icy Bay adorns the label. This dispels the notion that surfing in Alaska's cold waters in the winter is just a dream. And, if you dream of hops, put this bad boy up to your nose and lips: it will deliver. This one's a far cry from its predecessor, which is going away in deference to this bigger, bolder IPA. It's a bit bigger at 6.2 percent alcohol by volume and boasts 65 IBU.
Icy Bay sports the same alluring orange hue as its predecessor. The beer's aroma is a great mixture of malt and hops. Compared to the IPA, which we drank side-by-side for comparison, Icy Bay Icy Bay's aroma is much more hop forward and features a citrus-y profile on top. The malt substructure can be found in the sniff as well, with just a touch of caramel essence to round things out.
Icy Bay's flavor is much more intense as well. Instead of the mostly Cascade hop presentation in Alaskan's IPA, Icy Bay is packed with five different hops including Bravo, Cascade, Calypso, Summit and Apollo. These hops are used in various parts of the beer's manufacture to achieve different results. The beer's hop aroma, flavor and bitterness are all heightened in this bigger, bolder beer. As a result, I enjoy a deeper complexity and bursting bouquet of flavor all the way across. The additional 10 IBU of bitterness is noticeable, and the bitterness extends deep into the beer's finish.
Still, I wouldn't call Icy Bay a hop bomb. It remains a pleasant, easy drinker that's stalwart but not biting. I'll be chasing this stuff down as it hits the market. Right now it's only available in 12-ounce and 22-ounce bottles in six packs, cases and half racks. I'm quite sure that as good as this beer is, we'll be seeing in on draught at select locations soon.
If you're a fan of the original Alaskan IPA, you'd better get after it. Icy Bay is destined to replace the original brew. Oh, and for you fans of Hopothermia? Don't fret; it's not going anywhere.