Something about springtime makes me crave hoppy beers. Maybe it's their similarity to the season. Hops give beer a brisk and bitter bite coupled with bright, fruity, spicy and earthy flavors and aromas that are suggestive of a sunny, summer day.
Those who share my hankering are in luck. This year's spring arrival has brought with it a bevy of bitter brews that are sure to satisfy even the most insistent itch.
Dark as night and boasting a warming 10 percent alcohol, Blakkr Imperial Black Ale from Surly Brewing Co. has one foot planted firmly in winter. High-level bitterness and strong pineapple and citrus hop aromatics, though, cast a glance toward the coming thaw. Blakkr — a collaborative brew with Indiana's Three Floyds Brewing and Real Ale Brewing from Texas — comes on strong with a full, creamy texture that leads into a surprisingly dry finish. In between, the palate is treated to a mélange of licorice and dark chocolate malt flavors along with orange, tangerine and tropical fruit hops. There is none of the dry, burnt roastiness that the inky color might suggest. It's a hefty snifter-sipper that will make the lingering chill a little easier to bear.
If you just can't wait for summer, try Go To IPA from Stone Brewing Co. This one falls at the opposite end of the spectrum from Blakkr. It pours a light and lovely pale-gold color and weighs in at only 4.5 percent alcohol. Despite its diminutive scale, it packs a walloping hop punch. Stone uses a technique called "hop bursting," adding the majority of hops late in the boil stage of the brewing process, to deliver smooth bitterness and maximum hop flavor and aroma. The nose drips with summer peaches, lemons, limes and grapefruit. The flavor follows suit. Malt is almost nonexistent, letting the bright hop character shine. Bitterness is high, but not abrasive. Go To goes out with a crisp, refreshing finish.
Somewhere in between those two beers is the Illinois Imperial IPA from Goose Island Beer Co. At 9 percent alcohol, it's a heavy hitter, but without the full-bodied richness and chocolaty flavors of Blakkr. Malt gives a sturdy, pie-crust-like backbone of graham cracker and brown sugar that supports a massive hop load. Prickly bitterness counters any tendency toward sweetness. Though it does have some orange-citrus highlights, hop-derived character is less bright than Go To IPA, leaning more toward sweeter fruits like mango, melon and apricot, along with earthy and floral undertones. The Illinois Imperial is big enough to handle the colder swings, but nimble enough that it won't weigh you down when a long-awaited warm front moves in.
Finally there is Empty Rowboat IPA from Minnesota newcomer Lake Monster Brewing. I like hoppy beers that don't ignore that malt. While hops are certainly the star of the show here, it's malt character that brings the beer welcome layers of complexity. Notes of toffee and toasted biscuit meld nicely with floral and orange-citrus hops, giving the beer a profile that falls somewhere between the English and American versions of the India pale ale style. Other more subtle hop notes include blueberry and melon. Bitterness is assertive, but not so abrasive as to cover up the other flavors.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.