By Travis Hillier
We all know that 3 Floyds Brewing Co., a local treasure, produces some world-class beer. From their flagship beer, Alpha King, to their hard-to-find masterpieces Zombie Dust and Gumballhead, I think everyone who tries their beer knows that they’ve tasted something special.
To that end, everyone in the Chicago area who decides to make the jump into craft beer surely encounters 3 Floyds. I remember my first Zombie Dust from not so long ago – it was pure bliss. But as palates mature and tasters’ worlds of craft beer broaden, does 3 Floyds really deserve that spot in the pinnacle of every aspiring beer geek’s mind? On Sunday, May 5, 2014, a group of intrepid individuals put 3 Floyds to the test in a tasting of epic proportions, spanning styles, brewers, and palates of all ages and maturity levels.
A panel of seven assembled at John Scholl’s home that afternoon, determined to learn the truth. The included two experienced tasters, Travis Hillier and Jesse Valenciana, two novice tasters, Jesse’s sister Erika and Trevor Montavon, Tom Brooks, professional cook and chef, beer geek and home brewer John Scholl, and wine-drinker extraordinaire Anne Sayre. The diverse array of food experiences, or lack thereof, brought a semi-scientific approach to the tasting, along with one other element of surprise; except for one person, the pourer, the tasting would be done completely blind.
Five categories of beer were tested: Scotch Ales, Dortmunder Lagers, Pale Wheat Ales, Pale Ales, and Russian Imperial Stouts. After a brief introduction to the style and beers presented, the results of the tasting will be listed. All of the tasters’ input will be included, and distilled into most important questions: Would you buy this beer?
Traditionally, Scotch Ales enjoy a long boil in the brewkettle, thereby caramelizing the wort, the liquid extracted from the mashed grain in the brewing process, and producing a brown to ruby color in the finished product. Often, one can expect a more pronounced roastiness and malty caramel flavors. Representing the style are:
1. Founders’ Dirty Bastard
2. 3 Floyds’ Robert the Bruce
3. Oskar Blues’ Old Chub
Dirty Bastard emitted a boozy, sweet aroma laced with smoke, yeast, caramel, and vanilla. Deemed the hoppiest in the category, this rather thin beer’s flavor contained hefty notes of caramel and brown sugar that faded to a hoppy bitterness, with some noting hints of orange.
Robert the Bruce was found to be universally the mildest of the three beers here. A malty nose was complemented by the slight caramel sweetness and even more roasted malts across the palate, ending cleanly.
Malty, boozy notes mingled with dark fruit on the nose of Old Chub. This thick and syrupy beer backed up the powerful aroma with intense caramel notes
Dirty Bastard’s more assertive hop profile made it, by far, the most polarizing beer of the group, with some of the tasters preferring it whereas others shied away. Robert the Bruce was, with only one exception, the least preferred beer. The reason for that exception; Jesse is not a fan of scotch ales, and Robert the Bruce was perceived as being the least representative of them. Old Chub definitely took this one, as every other taster would make the purchase in the future.
Emerging from 19th Century Dortmund, Germany, these pale lagers exhibit a crisp, clean character with hints of malt. With bitterness similar to that of a Pilsner, these refreshing lagers are perfect for a hot day. Representing the style are:
1. 3 Floyds’ Jinx Proof
2. Great Lakes’ Dortmunder Gold
Jinx Proof exhibited a sharp, lemon-pepper aroma. Flavor was very similar, like a pilsner with hints of lemon. Some tasters picked up dry-hop notes, but the beer was universally regarded as fading to a lingering bitterness. It was also quite dry.
Dortmunder Gold was significantly different, with the lemon-pepper aroma mingling with a bready sweetness. Flavors were similar, with tasters picking up malty, bready, bitter-sweet flavors harmoniously balanced and capped off cleanly at the finish.
Dortmunder Gold, with one exception, was the beer of choice. With his chef’s palate, Tom Brooks preferred the pilsner-like qualities of Jinx-Proof, especially the bitterness. His caveat, however, was that he would not go out of his way to purchase Jinx-Proof in the future. Other tasters, however, agreed that they would certainly pick up that six-pack of Dortmunder Gold for a hot summer day.
American Pale Wheat Ales
The American Pale Wheat Ale can be equated to an Americanized hefeweizen, minus the banana and/or clove characteristics of the popular Bavarian-style ale. In the case of our two samples here, an assertive, tropical hop profile took the center stage, along with a subtle but discernable fruitiness. Usually low in bitterness, American pale wheat ales are often best enjoyed, like Dortmunder Lagers, on hot days with good friends. Representing the style are:
1. 3 Floyds’ Gumballhead
2. Lagunitas Brewing Company’s A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale
Though some of our tasters got hefty doses of citrus fruit from Gumballhead’s aroma, others found it bland and lacking in character. All tasters picked up on subtle maltiness, but again, those who perceived distinct citrus fruit on the nose tasted it as well, whereas those who found the aroma somewhat bland did not. The finish was very clean, and enjoyed by all.
A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale was regarded as having a boozy, grapefruit aroma with huge hop characteristics. Flavor was similarly regarded as slightly boozy, but backed up with more sweetness and citrus fruit flavors.
This category ended in a draw. While one could make the argument that the rather substantial difference in ABV makes these two beers different styles entirely, as one of our tasters mentioned, in the head-to-head each taster saw the strengths and weaknesses of each. Whereas Gumballhead might shine better as a standalone beverage, A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’s heft and booze make it an ideal beer to pair with food.
American Pale Ale
Though the pale ale may have been of British origin, the style has certainly taken root in America. Often highlighting assertive hop profiles and a clean finish, the APA can span a myriad of flavors, from floral to fruity to bitter and malty. Representing the style are:
1. 3 Floyds’ Zombie Dust
2. Founders’ All Day IPA
3. Three Floyds’ Alpha King
4. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale
5. Goose Island’s 312 Urban Pale Ale
6. Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter
As you might expect from the beer that began the Citra Hops craze, Zombie Dust performed admirably. The citrus and floral hops aromas were overwhelming, and backed with a well-balanced, sweet and bitter hoppiness. Zombie Dust definitely earned its world-class rating.
While technically a session IPA rather than a pale ale, All Day IPA clocks in at a middling 4.7% ABV in contrast with many of its heavier brethren, making fit in with hoppier American Pales. Some tasters got fruits and vegetables on the aroma, whereas others perceived a brown-sugar like presence as well. Flavors were crisp, light, and fruity, with slight maltiness and a clean, dry finish.
Alpha King began with an assertive floral nose, but in contrast with Zombie Dust, showcased a maltier backbone on which floral hop flavors and a lingering bitterness were built. It was definitely well-rounded and enjoyable, but overshadowed by other beers in this category.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is regarded as an American staple, both a gateway beer for those who are just finding their way into the craft beer world and a classic to be enjoyed by the seasoned taster. Unfortunately, the less assertive beer was found wanting in this category. The floral hop aroma, while pleasant, did not stand out, and the maltier flavor was universally described as the most boring of the offerings in the style.
312 Pale Ale, by far the newest release of the beers to be tasted, was almost certainly the dark horse in this category. It was clear that Goose Island has produced another very solid beer. With its unique sweet floral and tropical fruit aroma, it stood out instantly. The flavor was sweet and well-balanced, with hints of fruit, brown sugar, and according to some tasters, hints of onion and yeast.
The final beer was Half Acre’s flagship pale ale, Daisy Cutter. With its unique, wet, fresh, citrus hops aroma, this beer was universally enjoyed. One taster described the aroma and flavor as dominated by wood, whereas others noted primarily the citrus characteristics and bitter hoppiness. Regardless of the differences in perception, all noted Daisy Cutter as an exceptional beer.
With such a large category, a number of favorites were selected. Zombie Dust, of course, was vindicated as a world-class offering. But it was far from alone on its pedestal. All Day IPA was middling, and stood out but ultimately was only the preferred beer of one of our tasters. Alpha King was ultimately outclassed by Zombie Dust and others, though again certainly acquitted itself well. Sadly, SNPA was found wanting. It lacked the assertiveness of the other pale ales, and when coupled with a flatter mouthfeel, was universally regarded as the weakest offering despite its legendary status. 312 Urban Pale Ale was certainly a surprise. Even those tasters not affiliated with Goose Island (Jesse works in marketing for them, as does John’s wife) freely admitted that this was truly a remarkable beer, showcasing excellence in its unique and assertive floral and tropical flavors and aromas. Finally, Daisy Cutter was regarded as on par if not better than Zombie Dust. The two beers, despite their different hop profiles, ultimately found themselves on the same level.
Russian Imperial Stouts
Created in Russia in the 1800s, this style is characterized by huge roasted maltiness, supported with plenty of chocolate and coffee flavors. An American take on this style can result in generous infusions of hops, though this was not the case with our offerings today. Representing the style are:
1. 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout
2. North Coasts’ Old Rasputin
3. Smuttynose Imperial Stout
Dark Lord was, in many respects, utterly undrinkable. The aroma was sweet, boozy, and dominated by soy sauce. The flavor and mouthfeel were so sweet and sludgy respectively that not one taster wanted to finish his or her 2 oz. pour. Our chef described it as an ingredient, and I see it as merely a component in a barbecue sauce. Dark Lord was disappointing for a beer released only one day a year.
Old Rasputin gave off a far more pleasant aroma of toasted malts and cocoa. Far more balanced than Dark Lord, Old Rasputin’s flavor contained pleasant hints of bitter chocolate, coffee, and burnt caramel. It was regarded as the superior beer in this category.
Smuttynose Imperial Stout found itself in the middle; sweeter than Rasputin but far more palatable than Dark Lord, this beer sported a boozy, caramel aroma backed by a malty, bitter flavor. Decent, though regarded as inferior to Rasputin.
For a beer that is available only one day a year, Dark Lord was certainly a disappointment. It was described as trying to be too big. Old Rasputin, however, certainly lived up to its hype. The rather obscure Smuttynose was adequate, according to our tasters, but was nothing special. In sum, all but the Rasputin were described as too big to be truly drinkable.
3 Floyds is clearly capable of producing some world class beers. This tasting, however, demonstrated where 3 Floyds truly shines. Hoppy Pale Ales and Pale Wheat Ales, clearly, stood out among the offerings, whereas other of the Floyds’ beers certainly fell short of the competition. Even then, however, none of the 3 Floyds offerings stood alone. For all the hype, it is clear that there are plenty of world-class offerings for the aspiring craft beer geek in Chicago!