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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/17/2011

Beer: Retailers are slammed over Hopslam Ale

By Greg Kitsock
hopslam_opt.jpg Hopslam Ale: Can't touch this. (Photo by Bell's Brewery)

Every true beer geek has a bucket list of bottles that he or she wants to sample this side of the hereafter. Heading mine is Hopslam Ale from Bell’s Brewery in Galesburg, Mich.

Even at $20-25 per six-pack, this midwinter seasonal sails off shelves so rapidly that if you hesitate, you’re lost. And I’ve never been quick enough.

“As we speak, I’ve got 76 people on my waiting list,” reported Jon Brandt of Rick’s Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria. He said his allotment of 20 cases came in an hour before I called last Wednesday and “basically, it’s all spoken for.”

He added, “I’m crossing my fingers that more will come my way.”

Larry Robinson, beer buyer for Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits in the District, said he had more than 1,100 brands in stock ...but Hopslam wasn’t one of them. He was expecting to receive a shipment shortly, “but I don’t know what my allocation is and I don’t know what my price is going to be.” He added that there has been so much pre-ordering this year that “I’m skeptical any will make it to my shelf.”

Devin Hicks of the Westover Market in Falls Church flew through 30 cases in one day but hoped to get more soon. “They need to make more of it,” he sighs. “This is getting ridiculous.”

Larry Bell, founder of Bell’s Brewery, said he brewed 4,000 barrels of the imperial IPA for 2011. That equals about 55,000 cases, but over an 18-state market, the supply still gets stretched thin.

“I got an e-mail from one person saying that drinking Hopslam was like kissing God,” said Bell. “People get a little out of control.”

Given that local shelves are bulging with other IPAs and double IPAs that are equally packed with malt and hops, what is the big deal with Hopslam?

The beer weighs in at 10 percent alcohol by volume and boasts slightly less than 70 international bitterness units -- impressive figures but hardly record-setting.

According to Bell’s Web site, Hopslam has six hop varieties added to the brew kettle and receives “a massive dry hop addition” of Simcoe, a strain noted for its pungent piney and fruity flavors. “There’s a lot of tropical fruit in there, not just citrus,” comments Bell. “I get a lot of comments about pineapple.”

The recipe includes one ingredient that’s quite unusual for an IPA: Michigan wildflower honey, added to the whirlpool tank through which the beer flows from the brew kettle to the fermenter. The honey rounds out the beer, contributing a little sweetness to mute the hop bite and adding its own subtle aromatics.

Brandt, who happened to be sipping on a Hopslam when I phoned (don’t rub it in), believes the honey accentuates the “bright, floral hoppiness in the same way that a pinch of salt accentuates the flavor of food.”

Does scarcity make the heart grow fonder? “There are two beers that come in around this time that people get excited about,” noted Robinson. (The other, Troegs Nugget Nectar, isn’t due out until February.) “Everybody knows that these beers will only be around a week. People have learned that if you don’t inquire ahead, you won’t be able to get them.”

Bell credits D.C. bar owner Dave Alexander with commissioning the beer. In 2004, Alexander got the idea of pitting East Coast brewers against their West Coast colleagues in a contest called the Lupulin Slam (named after the sticky, yellow resin inside the hop cone that contains the aroma- and flavor-producing compounds). Three brewers from each coast would face off against each other at R.F.D. Washington in Chinatown, with the audience voting on which of their hop-monster beers they liked best. Bell was tapped to represent the East, but while driving across Ohio he was halted by an ice storm. Forced to head back home, he decided to put the kegs on tap at his bar in Kalamazoo. His customers raved about the beer so much that he’s been forced to give them their hop fix every year since.

(Incidentally, Bell expressed sadness about Alexander selling his other establishment, the Brickskeller. “The Brick’s always had a special place in my heart. My older brother got me in there when I was 17. I drank five beers, and collected the cans. I remember one of them: It was Brew 102, ‘the beer perfected after 101 tries.’”)

My own quest for Hopslam ended (I hope) when the beer department at the Whole Foods in Alexandria offered to put aside a six-pack as soon as the new shipment arrived this week. Additionally, Norm’s Beer & Wine in Vienna reported that it was expecting another 10 cases, which as of last week were still unspoken for.

Good luck getting yours.

By Greg Kitsock  | January 17, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock  
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Note: I like Hopslam.

But yeah, welcome to the underside of the most recent microbrew renisannce - hype. Put out limited release extreme beers and watch the internet go crazy. While this does lead to increased visibility for certain brewers, we know what the next step is: backlash. Eventually consumers will tire of having to spend so much time and money hunting down such beers. Much like how many California wineries are now struggling to sell their high end product (see how many Cali wines are now available at Corridor Wine?), breweries who live by the hype are likely to die by the hype. If Hopslam was a year-round release, would the hype be that great?

For a while, sure, much like what happened with Torpedo from Sierra Nevada. But note what happened then: they kept on making it and now it's a good beer that is priced well and is widely available. The beer lovers across America are better for it.

Can we same they same for Hopslam? Will it still be respected (or even around as long as) as much as Sierra Nevada is?

Posted by: pppp1 | January 17, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Adding honey pre-fermentation will make a product drier, not sweeter.

Posted by: mike494949 | January 17, 2011 6:22 PM | Report abuse

ppp1: Your comments are ridiculous.

Posted by: mike494949 | January 17, 2011 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Westover Market is in Arlington (market and neighborhood share a name)

Posted by: kipper72 | January 17, 2011 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Franklins IPA is some of the best out there.

Posted by: pgchustla | January 17, 2011 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Being a local to the Bell's brewery, I just find the comments about rarity a bit amusing... but the further away you get, I would assume that limited supplies tend to dry up.

pppp1: The reason for limited-run brews is to increase the variety of the end product. Either a brewery can have a series of seasonal beers, giving their customers something relatively new on a nearly constant basis... or they can use the same brewing capacity to make one or maybe two more year-round beers, at a likely lower profit margin. While such a strategy would likely prevent runs on product, it would also simultaneously disappoint customers and put a brewery in a far tighter financial position...

Posted by: rogue_econ | January 18, 2011 12:53 AM | Report abuse

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