The Boston Beer Co., the nation’s largest craft brewer, has a reputation as a maker of gateway craft beers: You try a Samuel Adams Boston Lager or Winter Lager, and then maybe you move on to something more aggressive, something more exciting - something from the likes of Founders, Stone, or Oskar Blues.
But Sam Adams has innovated more than just about any other craft brewer in the past year - introducing the champagne-like Infinium, a collaboration with Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world; rolling out the Latitude 48 IPA Deconstructed variety pack that showcased five different varieties of hops; and adding an excellent Belgian stout, Thirteenth Hour, to its Barrel Room Collection of wood-aged Belgian beers.
Sam’s not done. Now the brewery has unveiled its Single Batch series, comprising bold, strong beers bottled in 22-ounce bombers.
The Single Batch beers - which include a red IPA, a double IPA, a chocolate chili bock, and an oaked blonde barleywine, each of which sells for $5 to $7 a bottle - are among the most daring products Sam Adams has released. And here’s another surprise, craft beer fans: Every one of them is aggressive and outstanding.
In some ways, the Single Batch beers seem like Sam’s answer to the more recent wave of craft brewers that make their names on high-alcohol, hyper-hopped imperial ales. Suggest that to Sam Adams founder Jim Koch, though, and you can almost hear him wince.
“Hops have always been a big part of what we’re doing,’’ says the Boston Beer Co. chairman. “But I think it’s fair to say that we’ve always tried to use them in a balanced way.’’
The Single Batch series, he says, grew out of the experimentation that goes on constantly at Samuel Adams.
“We’ve always made unique and special beers, often just for ourselves,’’ he says. “In any given year, there are probably several dozen beers we make that we don’t release. I think the craft beer drinker has evolved to a point where we shouldn’t be keeping these things in the brewery. We should be putting them out.’’
When I visited Sam Adams’s Jamaica Plain headquarters two years ago to taste its new Belgian ales, Koch told me that the brewers there had recently tried to make a chocolate bock brewed with chilies - but that it was so bad they dumped the batch. The brewers kept experimenting, though, and that beer evolved into the Vixen, one of the beers in the Single Batch series. It won the silver medal in the chocolate beer category at this fall’s Great American Beer Festival.
“We’d been making it for years, and it never was really harmonious,’’ Koch says. “It showcased a lot of heat, but to me the heat wasn’t integrated artfully. But I’m delighted with the Vixen. There’s nothing else like it.’’
Koch says more Single Batch beers will likely be on the way, but he’s not sure whether any of the four produced in the first go-around will be back. “We’ll have to gauge the reaction,’’ he says. “I’d be surprised if all four of them were released again, but I’d also be surprised if none of them were released again.’’
Here’s a closer look at the first four:
The Vixen: A chocolate chili bock that’s 8.5 percent alcohol by volume, the Vixen is a pan-global beer, brewed with chilies from Mexico, cocoa nibs from Ecuador, and cinnamon from southeast Asia. Almost black with a hint of ruby and a creamy tan head, the Vixen boasts a malt-heavy aroma of chocolate and spices - but not cinnamon, oddly enough. It doesn’t taste like cinnamon, either. Chocolate is the dominant accent, the overriding theme.
Tasman Red: Sam Adams calls this a red IPA, but craft beer drinkers will probably want to think of it as a hoppy amber ale, along the lines of Oskar Blues G’Knight or Troegs Nugget Nectar, with just a tad less alcohol (6.75 percent ABV). Deep amber, almost opaque, Tasman Red pours with a fluffy, off-white head. Citrusy, piney hops - nearly a double IPA level of hops - spill forth on the aroma. Well balanced with a hefty malt backbone, this is an intensely satisfying beer.
Third Voyage: A double IPA with 8 percent ABV and more than 90 International Bitterness Units, Third Voyage is a multidimensional imperial India pale ale, not just a bitter hop bomb. Amber-orange with a plush cafe au lait head, it smells earthy and piney, with a lot of citrus, particularly oranges, in there as well. Does the world need another double IPA? Maybe.
Griffin’s Bow: This is the strangest beer in the series and almost my personal favorite. Not only is it the only oaked blonde barleywine I’ve ever had, but it’s the only blonde barleywine I’ve ever had. (Three Floyds Brewing, which does not distribute in Massachusetts, also makes one.) Golden amber with little head, Griffin’s Bow packs a lot of punch: 11.5 percent ABV. The aroma is uniquely pleasing and pungent: grapefruit, pineapple, coconut, honey, oak, and flowering trees. It sort of tastes like a pina colada, but without the sweetness. I’ve never had anything quite like this audacious, seductive brew.