When visiting San Diego earlier this year, a town known as perhaps America’s best beer city based on their invention and output of hugely hoppy IPAs, a surprise came to me. Visiting local bars, I always search for the common denominator between various establishments. Some places will all have the same video game in the corner, or share a dislike for jukeboxes. In Chicago, for decades you could go to almost any bar and find Old Style signage and tap handles. In California’s second largest city, Colorado based New Belgium’s flagship Fat Tire amber is the tie that binds. At local breweries, the hot style nearly everyone has begun brewing, sort of a bigger version of Tire’s amber, is ‘imperial red’ ale. Lagunitas Imperial Red, Port Brewing’s Shark Attack, Alesmith Yule Smith Winter, Green Flash’s Hop Head Red, Ballast Point Tongue Buckler, and certainly many more imperial reds have popped up in recent years in the land that invented west-coast and double IPAs. Bell’s This One Goes to 11 Ale is the newest imperial red ale to challenge the tastes of craft beer geeks.
But according to the BJCP, this isn’t a style at all. Beer Advocate calls these imperial red ales “American strong ales’. This umbrella term captures for them any high ABV brew that doesn’t qualify as a barleywine, for some reason or another. So why do so many brewers call their beers imperial reds? Well, for one, they are! These are highly hopped, high gravity, versions of red or amber ales. It seems a simple distinction, but things move slowly at BJCP. The Great American Beer Festival styles, which are far more dynamic and vast, do judge imperial red ale as a unique style, so that is good enough for me.
Bell’s celebration of its 11,000th batch, which they call an Imperial Red, pours a translucent ruddy orange with a solid, soapy head. The nose is hoppy, followed by a caramel sweetness, almost honey. The taste is a cipher of different floral and bitter hops, backed by roasted, biscuit-like malts typical of an amber. Bell’s tells us this beer is brewed with ‘massive kettle & dry-hop additions of Southern Hemisphere hop varieties such as Galaxy, Motueka, and Summer. The citrus & resinous pine notes of the Pacific Northwest hop family are also well represented, making their presence known through Simcoe, Citra, and the newly released Mosaic varietal, just to name a few’. This is certainly evident, blasting your taste buds with all sorts of flavors. The balance of malty sweetness detected in the nose comes through very nicely in the finish, reminding us this is a red ale. Not too bitter, and not overly sweet, this one goes beyond any imperial red I have tasted in terms of layered hop spiciness.
The bigger, the better, has been the American craft beer mantra for some time. American barleywines, double IPAs, American brown ales, and black IPAs all attempt to crank up body, booze, hop profile, and malts. With the imperial red casting its shadow on the scene as an established style, another style now cranks up these elements in an amber ale format to new levels of nummyness. Bell’s, always willing to take bold approaches to big styles in their commemorative releases, made another great big beer. It may not be easy for everyone to define, but Bell’s This one goes to 11 Ale tastes great under any definition. It is a limited release so look for this one right now.