The Brewed Palate On Tap: Bell’s Brewery Lands In NYC

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Towards the end of 2013 I was surprised to hear that Bell’s Brewery (Kalamazoo, Michigan), famous for beers such as Hopslam Double IPA and Expedition Stout, was finally going to start being distributed in New York. Also, that their beers would first be sent to upstate NY and slowly make their way to New York City and be distributed by Union Beer Distributors. With open arms NYC beer bars jumped at the opportunity to host Bell’s Brewery events (between 2/10 and 2/14), most of them featuring 12 beers, ranging from year round offerings such as Two Hearted Ale to the highly sought after Hopslam. Though as an experienced craft beer drinker I’d tried quite a few of Bell’s Brewery’s beers in the past; the plethora of events presented me with the opportunity to try both them and other beers I had yet to try, on tap for the first time.

After looking over my schedule for the week I realized that I most likely wouldn’t be able to make it to my go-to craft beer bar aka Blind Tiger Ale House for their Bell’s event on Wednesday 2/12, so as planned I headed downtown on Tuesday instead and got my “Bell’s fix” at two great bars. In the end I tried 7 beers that day and made sure to snap pics and write down tasting notes as I enjoyed them. Then on Wednesday my plans changed a bit and a was able to make it to the event at Blind Tiger Ale House. I should note that despite having already tried all the beers that I hoped to try at events I attended on Tuesday; I don’t regret spending the money at my third Bell’s event of the week one bit. When I arrived I was relieved that Hopslam hadn’t kicked and quickly ordered one, then I was informed by Katherine, Blind Tiger’s manager, that Larry Bell (founder and owner of Bell’s Brewery) was there. After introducing myself I asked him if he’d be willing to record an interview with me; but shortly after he finished an interview with another blogger I was informed that the distributor reps were soon going to be taking Larry to another event and therefore we’d have to wait for another opportunity to record an interview. So we exchanged our contact info and agreed to stay in touch. Before leaving to go to my local home-brew shop (Bitter & Esters), I ordered one last Bell’s beer, their Java Stout (review below).

First Stop: Beer Culture (328 West 45th Street New York, NY 10036) –  Before heading to my second stop to meet up with my wife and try some more Bell’s beers I decided to check out Beer Culture, a relatively new craft beer bar / bottle shop located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. To my surprise none of the Bell’s beers that they tapped for their Monday (2/10) event had kicked and I quickly grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered my first beer.

IMG_2444While most beer drinkers would tell you to start with a lower ABV beer I went straight for the big guns and started with Hopslam, a 10% abv Double IPA brewed with a ton of hops and a bit of honey to help balance the beer’s assertive bitterness. Having enjoyed Hopslam in the past I had an idea of what to expect in terms of the beer’s aroma and flavor profile. But after drinking bottles from a “bad batch” last year and taking all the hype around this beer into account; I took a minute to make sure I was going into this drinking experience as open minded as possible.

It poured a burnt orange to copper color with an off white head that stuck around and left attractive lacing on my glass. At first the aroma was all hops, with big grapefruit, orange, and pine notes galore. However, as it warmed malt and honey sweetness peaked in the aroma and taste. The taste followed a similar progression to many other well crafted double IPAs that I’ve enjoyed. Upfront I picked up sweet / juicy grapefruit, peach, and orange notes; those were quickly followed by a “slam” of a resinous piney bitterness, and just the right amount of sweetness to keep the beer’s assertive bitterness from overwhelming my palate. To my surprise my wife, who isn’t a huge fan of highly hopped beers picked up on the balance of flavors when she tried this beer later in the evening.

As noted above, I was able to enjoy Hopslam yet again the following day and took the opportunity to gather my thoughts on this famous double IPA. With a medium body, fresh hop aroma and taste, and just the right amount of bitterness; there isn’t much I would change about this beer. However, having tried many other great examples of this beer style, I wouldn’t put Hopslam on my list of favorite double IPAs like many other craft beer drinkers have. I will however keep it on my list of beers that I make sure to try every year when they’re released and agree that it is a double IPA that every hop-loving craft beer drinker should try. Rating: 8/10

Side Note: Nowadays, I prefer a bit more juicy citrus / tropical fruit flavor to last through the entire flavor profile (sip), less of a floral / pine resinous bitterness, and for the beer’s malt backbone to enhance and smoothen the citrus / tropical fruit hop flavors.

IMG_2446Going from one end of the beer flavor spectrum to the other my next and final beer while at Beer Culture was Expedition Stout, Bell’s Brewery’s famous Russian Imperial Stout (10.5% abv). In true stout fashion the beer was opaque black in color and was topped by a light brown head made up of small compact bubbles that left behind lacing after each sip.

Both the aroma and taste exerted the youth of this fresh Imperial Stout with assertive roasted malt and hop bitterness. However, they did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the beer. Its slick full body washed flavors of tobacco, dark fruits, dark chocolate, and cocoa powder over my palate with each sip. One advantage of drinking this big beer on tap was that the carbonation level was just right and prevented the beer’s body and complex flavors from fatiguing my palate…In addition to its complex flavors, Expedition Stout is known for its “age-ability”. Compared to other imperial stouts which are commonly described as being as thick as motor oil; it is my opinion that Expedition’s smooth yet full body makes it one of the most approachable imperial stouts to age and share with craft beer drinkers of all experience levels. Rating: 8.5/10

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Second Stop: Rattle n Hum (14 East 33rd Street New York, NY 10016) – After an overall great experience at Beer Culture in terms of the beer and welcoming atmosphere I headed over to my second Bell’s event of the evening at Rattle n Hum, one of my go to NYC craft beer bars.  Luckily, I got there in time to grab a bar stool and order a flight of four Bell’s beers that I hadn’t tried before.

My strategy for this flight was to start with the lowest abv beer and work my way up. As such, my first beer was Smitten, a 6% golden rye ale. True to its description Smitten poured an attractive gold color with a small cap of white foam. After admiring its attractive appearance I’m sad to say that this beer went down hill for me. Upon my first whiff and sip I was met my characteristics that I usually find in spice Belgian and holiday ales. I know rye malt is known for adding a peppery spice not to beers, but the spice character that I picked up was closer to a mix of nutmeg, cardamom, and coriander (earthy/floral spiciness). In the finish there was nice malt sweetness, which reminded me of a Belgian pale ale, rather than an American Pale i.e. the style that this beer was brewed as. Though, to be fair many other people who have reviewed this beer have been able to pick up a citrusy hop character. Therefore, I’m definitely willing to give Smitten another chance when I see it again on tap or on the shelves of my local bottle shops. Rating: 6/10

Next up in my flight was a beer that I had heard mixed, but overall good reviews on Cherry Stout, one of Bell’s Brewery’s Winter seasonal beers clocking in at 7% abv. My hope for this beer was that it would have a balance of tart cherry flavors and chocolatey stout flavors. At first it was quite cherry forward in both the aroma and taste with a mix of sweet and tart cherry notes joined by with a nutty almost marzipan-like flavor, which left me searching notes of chocolate and roasted malt come this beer’s stout base. However, as the beer warmed up I was happy to pick up hints of milk chocolate and roasted malts (coffee-like), along with a more tart cherry note. For me this beer would be great for dessert pairings such as fudge brownies and chocolate mousse cake. On its own though, I’m not sure if I’d want to drink a whole 12oz serving. Rating: 7/10

As noted above I drank the next beer both in my flight at Rattle n Hum and as a full serving at Blind Tiger the next day. Java Stout, a 7.5% American Stout brewed with “a custom blend of coffee beans, roasted locally for us by Water Street Coffee Joint”, is definitely a coffee lover’s delight. It poured an opaque dark brown color and had an attractive cap of dark brown head. As is with many other ingredients that are commonly added to dark beers; adding coffee has comes with the risk of dominating a beer’s flavor profile and contributing a bitter and or astringent character that is not so pleasant. This was not the case in Java Stout, upfront I was met with smooth coffee flavor, a touch of astringency, and some dark fruit. Then in the finish semisweet chocolate and cocoa notes rounded things out…With its medium body and high drinkability (for its alcohol content); as a coffee lover I could see myself drinking a couple of bottles of this when in the mood for a coffee stout. Rating: 8/10

For my final beer of the flight I moved on to yet another malt forward beer style. Third Coast Old Ale, a 10.2% abv, dark brown colored, and full bodied American Barleywine released throughout the Winter and into early Spring; that to me tasted and smelled closer to an English Barleywine in that the malts rather than the hops were the star of the show. Moving from the aroma to the initial taste (before giving the beer a chance to warm up a bit) I was met by a sweet and complex palate of caramel, faded citrusy hops, dark fruits (cherry and date), and toffee. Though at first I felt the beer was a bit too sweet and confectionary, some hop bitterness and earthiness did creep in as the beer warmed and the toffee notes mixed with the hops to add a welcomed dryness to the finish. It is this redeeming characteristic that made this beer hard to rate. In the end I decided to go with a 7/10 over a 6.5/10 because I could see this beer aging well and I’d like to try a really fresh bottle to get a better picture of Third Coast Old Ale’s hop character.

IMG_2459After finishing my flight I asked my wife if I could take a sip of a beer from her flight and she relunctantly allowed me to do so. The beer I wanted to and did take a sip of was Two Hearted Ale, Bell’s Brewery’s year round IPA (7% abv, all Centennial hops), a beer that I’d enjoyed a few times in the past. Upon taking that sip I was blown away by how fresh and juicy the hop character was. Having by that point moved to a table, I went up to the bar and quickly ordered myself a pint so I could prolong my experience of those amazing hop flavors. Both in the aroma and taste I was met by a juicy peach, grapefruit, and orange hop character and a toasty malt backbone. The punch of hop flavor was joined by a moderate bitterness at mid palate, but it never detracted from my enjoyment of how fresh and drinkable the beer was…

While many US beer geeks have had this great IPA available to them year round for many years. This drinking experience stood out at the best amongst the other Bell’s Brewery beers that I tried at the three events that I attended. Taking this point a step further; in my tasting notes on this beer I wrote “New go-to IPA?”. In other words, despite all the great IPAs that are available in New York City, Two Hearted Ale blew me away in a way that I haven’t experienced in a year round IPA in quite a while. Rating: 9/10

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About The Brewed Palate - Barry

NJ (formerly NYC) based home brewer and craft beer enthusiast sharing his brewing and imbibing adventures on thebrewedpalate.com. "Spreading the messages of craft beer one palate at a time."
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