Complexity can be good or bad for a beer. Two weeks ago I reviewed a messy IPA. Aged in chardonnay barrels and with no sense of balance, Nebraska Brewing Company’s Hop God Reserve Series was a lesson in bigger not always being better. A Belgian tripel recklessly hopped and aged in chardonnay barrels doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Not all complex beers are bad, however. It is possible for a brewer from the Midwest and one from the West Coast to collaborate, to age a beer in barrels, to combine disparate ingredients, and for everything to be all right. Terra Incognita, a collaboration between Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing and California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing, renewed my faith in highly involved beers.
A limited release, Terra Incognita celebrates the homelands of the two breweries and combines ingredients from each. Starting with an ambitious grain bill of pale malt, amber malt, and wheat, the beer is hopped with Bravo and Styrian Goldings, dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings, then barrel-aged for three months. Brettanomyces yeast provides a funky bass note.
“This is a tough beer to dial in, but we have a lot of fun with the challenge,” said Sierra Nevada’s head brewer, Steve Dresler.
Pop the cork on this one and foam comes gushing out of the 750-ml bottle. That’s a sign that the beer was tilted from vertical at some point (we regret the error). I press on, pouring the beer into a tulip glass to reveal a big, dirty-brown head.
What a nose on this one. I smell tart cherries, brown sugar, and banana bread. Nothing out of whack about this aroma, which is a good start. Chocolate, plums, and a touch of coffee are present in the first sip. The head sticks in the glass as you sip; I get some on the tip of my nose.
Mouthfeel is an underrated aspect of beer enjoyment. The feel on this one is robust at first, but tart yeast and a layered hop bill dry out the beer without adding bitterness. The result is a clean finish. Overall, Terra Incognita has the tendencies of a Belgian dubbel with the modern twists that two of America’s great brewers can provide. It’s supremely balanced in addition to being complex. That’s something every barrel-aging, IBU-wielding brewer should tuck in their back pocket when trying to push the boundaries of new releases. Seek this one out if you can. Even better, get a couple of bottles and cellar one to bring out even more subtle complexity.
San Diego’s Alesmith Brewing Co. makes a concisely named IPA with a clean label. It was recommended by the beer buyer at Social Wines in South Boston, one of my neighborhood go-tos (if you like rose wine, they carry about 40 of them). The buyer, Isaac, said it was the freshest, most floral IPA he’s had in quite some time. He pointed to the bottling date, which was less than three weeks old, and it didn’t take much arm-twisting.
Alesmith is best known for its “Speedway Stout,” a sneaky-drinkable imperial stout clocking in around 12 percent alcohol by volume. Alesmith IPA is more approachable at 7.25 percent ABV. That’s still potent, but compared to some West Coast IPAs it falls in the middle of the road.
The beer pours a faded orange into a tulip glass, though there’s nothing muted about the electric white head. There’s a truckload of citrus in the nose. Grapefruit and pineapple sing above a bed of damp earth.
The first sip is bitter and juicy, wet and floral. It’s smooth, and it’s supremely balanced. To me the contrast of bitter and citrusy elements most closely resemble that of Ballast Point’s Sculpin, an amazing beer in its own right. IPAs are my favorite kind of beer, so maybe it’s a stylistic thing, but I could happily drink this one forever.
Alesmith IPA retails for about $7.50 for a 22-ounce bottle. It’s distributed elsewhere in the state, but be careful of bottling dates. I saw a six-month-old bottle on a shelf on the South Shore, which is just barely acceptable but definitely not ideal. Freshness is key to the aromatics of these types of IPAs, and you’re going to appreciate this one more if you get a newer bottle.