Posted by: Scott | March 8, 2010

Fighting Flagships

A flagship is a fleet’s best or most important vessel, so titled because its size, speed, weaponry, or armor surpasses all others in the armada. In the same way, a brewery chooses its flagship beer (or beers) because, for one reason or another, they believe it best represents their brand. You might assume that most flagships are flavorful, but that’s not always true; mild session lagers or accessible amber ales often steal the title.

Fighting Flagships, a new series, will pit three flagship beers against one another. If one sinks, I’ll suggest a superior beverage from that brewery. Let’s start with the most renowned brew of the three.

Fat Tire | New Belgium

New Belgium is one of America’s most popular craft breweries, and Fat Tire is why. Legions adore this amber ale. Beers in this style often feature smooth, mild flavors, which make them a popular choice for flagships.

When you pour Fat Tire, you’ll see an ordinary-looking ale. Clear. Amber. Unremarkable. But a sniff reveals some bold aromas: biscuit, heaps of it, so much that it steamrolls the faint scents of flowers and green vegetation. The taste, despite its mildness, finds an odd balance between a bitter, grainy undercurrent; sweet malt overtones; and that bready onslaught implied by the nose. Some ambers lack distinctive characters, but Fat Tire ain’t one of those; not all of its flavors work for me, but it wears them without repentance, which I admire.

I can understand the nationwide affection for Fat Tire. Its uniqueness and drinkability make it an easy transition into expansive galaxies of craft beer. For me, however, it’s slightly superior to average; something I’d drink (and enjoy) if nothing better were available, but one that I rarely search for. I prefer the brewery’s Abbey Ale or 1554, or perhaps something from their Lips of Faith series.

Racer 5 | Bear Republic

I remember this beer from my second or third date with the India pale ale. After Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA convinced me that the style could actually taste good, Racer 5 launched me deeper into the style.

The bottle fills my glass with bubbly orange liquid. Foam sits in a film on top, releasing aromas of pineapple and grapefruit. On first taste, oily Cascade hops assault the tongue with bittersweet citrus – mostly grapefruit – and then the sweet and bitter separate as Columbus hops break through, letting us glide between the two flavor profiles like skiers in a hop slalom.

Racer 5’s hops don’t destroy for destruction’s sake like some west coast IPAs: Subtle earthy malt enhances and tames the citrus, sharpening each flavor before tapering into a spicy finish. Hops stride back in for a bitter after-bite.

This beer embodies hop-heavy west coast IPAs. Not the best gateway beer — the hops can be a bit overwhelming for newbies — but if you’re looking for a big, boisterous beer to enjoy alongside some oven-roasted salmon or orange chicken, Racer 5 won’t disappoint.

Amber Ale | Bell’s Brewery

Like Fat Tire, this ale looks docile. One smell alters that conception: Someone’s sugar-coated the beer’s smell, dousing it in caramel and mild hoppy sweetness. Intense, but still less brazen than New Belgium’s Husky Wheel.

Textures and flavors wobble between vague malty sweetness, a buttery mouthfeel, and medium carbonation. Hints of liquefied sugar transform into toasted bread and then into tart and grassy hops. Despite these blooming adjectives, Bell’s Amber is low-key and nicely balanced — in fact, it’s too nice.  The flavors crawl instead of leap. You can track them down, or you can kick back and enjoy them all at once.

Is this a flaw? Not if you don’t critique beers all day. I seek beers with intense tastes and smells, but lovers of laid-back brews will probably enjoy this. It’s a solid, average craft beer. I love Bell’s, so I guess I just expected more from them. If you share my weakness for extraordinary flavors, try Hopslam (their double IPA) or one of their many stouts instead.

Thursday: A follow up to Reader Input Day!

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Responses

  1. Great theme for a (series) post. I never really thought about the fact that a brewery’s flagship is never their Imperial Stout or DIPA. It’s beers like these here that bring the masses and introduce them to the world of “good beer.”

    Appreciation for all beer is necessary when becoming a craft beer enthusiast. No doubt that these three will be some of the first brews a newbie tries as they enter our world filled with extreme flavors and ABV worthy of a 747s altimeter.

    You make some good points here. I hope to see more posts like this in the future. Keep ’em coming!

    Cheers

    • Thanks! I plan to try to find a few breweries with more intense flagships (if there are any) in future articles.

  2. I have never heard of an ipa as a flagship beer…I will have to find and try it! Although it sounds like i would enjoy the bells amber better. I agree with James, this series should be continued…when will you review Alaskan’s flagship, I wonder…?

    • Bear Republic actually has two flagship beers: Racer 5 and Red Rocket Ale. Both are serious business for flagships.

      I’ll probably pick up Alaskan’s Amber next time, now that you mention it!

  3. tried out racer 5 today, as i found it on tap. a bit harsh for a starter ipa and definitely something to savor. i liked it a lot, but i don’t know if i’ll be able to talk tomorrow.

    • Glad you liked it! Definitely not a starter IPA, haha.

  4. […] Monday: The second installment of Fighting Flagships! […]

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