Laura Bell does not recommend aging Hopslam. She’s pretty opposed to the whole idea, actually. In a conversation earlier this week, the vice president of Bell’s Brewery and daughter of founder Larry Bell recalled how she, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, was once given a draft pour of the brewery’s popular, seasonally limited imperial IPA that tasted, well, terrible.
“I smelled it and said, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’” Bell says.
Turns out the keg was four years old—not exactly ideal for a beer dependent on bright, pungent hop flavor.
“It’s not made with that intention,” Bell says. “Some beers are brewed for aging, but Hopslam isn’t one of those beers.”
We’ve often wondered, though: What happens to Hopslam when it’s aged? Does the powerful hop character die down after time, melding with malts to become like a barleywine? Does the Michigan honey used in the beer become more prominent, lending the brew a braggot-like character? Does it all just become a rusty, oxidized mess?
Against Bell’s advice and all common sense, we dove deep into the cellar to find out just how well a cellared bottle of Hopslam could stand up against the über-fresh batch released in January.
Just two weeks old on the day we tasted it, the newest Hopslam—released for the first time in cans this year—exhibits a huge, wild hop aroma, almost funky with notes of pine resin, grass, and, after some time to warm, classic grapefruit. Pronounced malt sweetness, a touch of floral honey and a bitterness more aggressive than most contemporary IPAs combine to give the freshest batch of Hopslam an East Coasty, old school impression.
Though the oldest vintage of Hopslam retained surprising carbonation and clarity, its age is apparent. The hop aroma has all but evaporated, and what’s left has morphed into mint and soft cheese, while sugary honey has melded with alcohol and deeply fruity malts to give the nose the character of well-aged brandy. Some hop flavor yet remains, striking mid-palate with a citrus/pine combo that balances simple, bready malts before savory umami notes settle in at the finish. No longer a double IPA, this six-year-old Hopslam instead has the flavor of a (somewhat young) barleywine.
Nearly identical to the ‘10, with slightly more pine in the nose. Pronounced honey-like flavors—a consistent thread through all vintages, we found—sweeten the flavor, though moderate bitterness and a substantial increase in piney, grapefruity hop flavor make this one finish almost like the fresh stuff. The alcohol, however, seems better-hidden here, almost nonexistent. Carbonation is still quite active, giving the brew plenty of bubbles and life. If the 2010 vintage is like a barleywine, this one is closer to hoppy honey beer.
In this vintage, the malt aroma seems rounder than in all others, displaying a soft creamsicle- or pastry-like sweetness. A deep honey-like flavor is minimized by more-present bitterness and splashes of orange juice. Could pass for a fresh IPA.
And this one could pass for a fresh pale ale or session IPA. A little more caramel malt flavor and sticky alcohol appear in the nose, while bright pine and citrus flavors give way to a mild tropical sweetness at the swallow. Exceedingly balanced, clean finish, with bitterness that seems to slowly taper off.
Tied for the least favorite of the bunch, this bottle hadn’t aged nearly as well as the ‘13. A bouquet of woody, hops and overripe oranges interact with aged honey and fruits similar to what we picked up in the 2010 vintage. This one also seems to have a more substantial body and firmer, juicier hop bitterness than any of the aged bottles.
So what did we learn from this ill-conceived experiment?
- Fresh Hopslam is substantially cloudier in appearance than any aged vintage. We found this interesting—beers usually develop some haze and particulate (what many beer geeks call “floaters”) over time as proteins drop out of solution, but all the older batches of Hopslam were crystal-clear. This could be due to residual oils from dry-hopping remaining suspended in the freshest batch but having time to settle to the bottom of the bottle after time.
- Fresh Hopslam tastes best when tried against its older self. After working our way through the aged bottles, we went back to the 2016 batch and found in the nose a verdant wet grass note that wasn’t perceptible at the first pass. The flavor, too, had gained sweetness and a malt note that seemed almost doughy and cake-like. Are these flavors and aromas only apparent contextually? We think so.
- Hopslam is an incredibly consistent beer. Bell revealed that subtle changes are made to the beer’s recipe each year based on hop availability, but from our perspective the brews tasted like the exact same beer year over year—the older ones just tasted, well, older. There were no drastic differences in the flavor of each bottle, save those caused by oxidation and age.
- If you’re going to age Hopslam, put it away for three years. We found the 2013 vintage the most enjoyable of the aged bottles, exhibiting still-bright hop flavor and delicate malt sugars in pleasant balance. (Our rankings, in fact, looked like this: 2016, 2013, 2012, tie between 2014 and 2010).
All that said, Bell still suggests drinking Hopslam fresh if you want to experience the beer as the brewers intended.
“Choose your own adventure,” she says. “If you want to age it, age it, but if you email us and ask why it tastes weird, we’re going to say you should’ve drank it when you got it.”
Or you could be like the woman Bell says called her last year for advice about how many months she should wait before handing over each of the four cases(!) of Hopslam she bought for her boyfriend.
“Isn’t she great? I just said ‘Your boyfriend is a lucky guy!’”