It's become a January 'craft beer' ritual in the Washington, D.C., area. Bells Brewing of Michigan ships its 'double IPA' HopSlam to the area, in limited quantities. In a frenzy, craft beer geeks scrounge for it. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook become agog with sightings of case displays, that are depleted quickly, sometimes within hours. This year, prices have ranged from $19.99 to some reported as high as $40 per 6-pack at some stores in Washington, D.C.
Here's how the brewery describes HopSlam:
Starting with six different hop varietals added to the brew kettle & culminating with a massive dry-hop addition of Simcoe hops, Bell's Hopslam Ale possesses the most complex hopping schedule in the Bell's repertoire. A generous malt bill and a solid dollop of Michigan honey provide just enough body to keep the balance in check, for a remarkably drinkable DIPA. 10% abv
Concurrent with the excitement of some is the grumbling of others. "Hype Slam," they gripe, isn't all that good. One of their arguments is not the taste of the beer itself, but disdain for the quantity of excitement over the beer. I'll dismiss that out of hand. That's snark without gustation, evidence without relevance. Hyped or not, what brewer wouldn't want such acclaim for her or his beer?
But, then, there's hesitation over the retail price of HopSlam. As there should be. The malt bill and the hop bill do incur a much higher production cost. Even with Bell's large size relative to 'craft' breweries, it's a small size relative to the mega breweries. Bell's doesn't have the economies of scale to rein in those expenses. Regardless that there are other beers more expensive, HopSlam, at $19.99 a six-pack, does not come cheap.
And, then there's what I call the reverse Christmas tree effect.
When I was young, my father would annually declare that that year's family tree was the best we had ever found, better than the one the year before, which itself was better than the prior year's, and, so forth. Reduction ad absurdum, but my, what a decrepit Charlie Brown-ish tree that first family tree, before I joined the family, must have been.
This year, as in the past, I read reviews and hear snipes that HopSlam isn't the same as it has been. It isn't as hoppy, or it just isn't as it was the year before, it's said. Ignoring the fact that hops are a crop whose flavors and aromas are subject to the whims of weather and other growing conditions, one must marvel at the amazing memory palates needed to discern a difference between a beer now from one then. And, back to that reverse Christmas tree effect: if each year's HopSlam were indeed a mere strutting shadow of the year's prior, what an amazing elixir that original HopSlam must have been.
Let's return to the issue of price. Let's stipulate to the increased production costs and diminished profit margins of the beer for the brewery. Let's ignore any retail price gouging, a practice, I''d be certain, the brewery would vehemently discourage. Then, let me ask you this. Would you travel a great distance to see a work of art? Would the cost incurred diminish the experience? Now, I'm not saying that HopSlam is or isn't 'liquid' art, but at what level would its price diminish the experience of drinking it? That's the $19.99 question.
John Mallet is the Director of Operations at Bell's. Many Northern Virginia fans of Bells beers may not know of their close degree of separation with Mr. Mallett. For several years during the 1990s, he was the brewmaster for Dominion Brewing, helping, in no small measure, to put that Ashburn, Virginia, brewery on the fastrack to regional importance, before it lost that, and was sold. Mallet's own description of his beer captures the HopSlam experience, in one succinct, hilarious, sentence:
It smells like your cat ate your weed and then pissed in the Christmas tree.
HopSlam —this year— is hoppy, piney, grapefuity, catty, malty, rich, sharp, exuberant. I can only have one bottle at a sitting —it's 10% alcohol, for goodness sake; it's twenty dollars for a 6-pack, for wallet's sake— but, oh what fun those 12 ounces are. Is it worth the price? Drink one, if you can find it.