I’m obsessed with expiration dates. Be it cream cheese or a carton of milk, I’m the dude in the dairy aisle carefully eyeballing containers, ensuring that the 'best by' has not passed me by. My quest is for peak freshness, which goes double for beers, in particular double IPAs.
IPAs are the beer world’s butterflies, both beautiful and fragile. That’s ’cause they’re mobbed with hops, the singular flowers that confer beer with bitterness and aromas and flavors that, depending on the variety, might evoke pine trees, papayas or blueberries. As with sniffing a fresh floral bouquet, the initial scent is an aromatic charge through your nasal passageways. But as the days and weeks fade, the beguiling qualities slowly vamoose. What was sharp and vibrant becomes duller than safety scissors.
Which boomerangs back to expiration dates. A milk jug is clearly marked when it’s destined for a drain. Beer ain’t so simple. Sometimes, breweries mark cans and bottles with the packaging day and month, no end in sight. Other times, breweries opt for a best-by date, no mention of the beer’s birthday. Concerning IPAs, the month and day matter most.
IPAs are the beer world’s butterflies, both beautiful and fragile.
Generally speaking, beers stronger than 8 percent ABV—imperial stouts, barley wines and other intoxicating delights—don’t require race-the-clock consumption. Time can sand rough edges, dampening alcohol’s burn as flavors coalesce. Double IPAs rock stratospheric ABVs due to loads of malt. The downside is sweetness that’s balanced by a hoppy abundance. Wait too long too drink a double IPA, you’ll be sipping a malt milkshake.
To underscore the importance of freshness, breweries have equipped double IPAs with Mission Impossible–style self-destruct codes. San Diego’s Stone started this is in 2012 with Enjoy By, a charged-up IPA loaded with peaches, pine resin, tropical fruit and a 35-day lifespan. The expiration date was built into the label design, stoking gotta-sip-it urgency and the embers of a new trend. Blink and you’ll miss Lagunitas’ Born Yesterday and BrewDog’s Born to Die, while double IPAs such as Grimm Artisanal Ales’ Tesseract and Shane’s Big DIPA, from Westbrook, implore drinkers to consume the liquid lickety-split.
The latest brewery to enter the sip-it-now ring is as large as it is unlikely: Boston Beer, better known as Samuel Adams. Before bandying about words like bandwagon, let’s pause to recall that, in a not-too-distant past, Sam was a trailblazer. Back in 1992, it concocted the head-spinningly potent, barrel-aged Triple Bock, followed a decade later by the port-like Utopias. The brewery is also stylistically ambitious, if slightly scattershot, turning out everything from a blackberry witbier to a smoky rauchbier, strapping Belgian quad, funky sour and range of IPAs, released under the Rebel mantle.
... these fragrant nectars blaze like the brightest fireworks, fading to blah if you dawdle before cracking ’em.
Not every release tickles my taste buds, but I’ll applaud Sam’s efforts—and distribution, spreading from supermarkets to gas stations and convenience stores countrywide. Uniquely, the brewery can introduce drinkers to new styles, be it a salty, coriander-spiced gose or, pointedly, a novel double IPA. Amped-up IPAs used to mean aggression, dank bruisers that chiseled the enamel right off your teeth. Today’s double IPAs, especially those performed by Northeast breweries such as Brooklyn’s Other Half, Massachusetts’ Tree House and Vermont all-stars the Alchemist, Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Hill Farmstead, are smooth, hazy and hella juicy, high in aroma and low in bitterness.
Often sold in 16-ounce cans, these fragrant nectars blaze like the brightest fireworks, fading to blah if you dawdle before cracking ’em. That’s not usually a problem; sourcing them is the struggle. Many highly rated, lusted-after double IPAs are nigh impossible to procure, relegated to brewery-only releases and scant distribution. Word of their glory spreads like a fable, breathlessly unspooled on beer rating websites. Imagine, then, if a new-breed double IPA were available to the masses.
Enter Sam’s recently revealed Rebel Raw, a faithful, if slightly slavish riff on the fashionable IPA. Naturally, the double IPA—10 percent ABV means business—is packaged in pint cans decorated with hops and the phrases "keep cold," "drink now" and "hazy from hoppiness." The can’s text also instructs drinkers to check the can’s date. (Like Stone, Sam preaches a 35-day consumption window.) Hard-core hop heads will likely eye-roll. What’s this, Double IPA 101?
Slithered into a glass, the dark-gold nectar is cloudier than Dublin in December, festooned with fine, slowly disappearing foam. The scent reels you in with Pacific Northwest pine trees, primo weed, grapefruit and tropical fruit, an appealingly familiar formula. Taste-wise, the beer’s name is truth in advertising, a visceral, rocky charge of earthy dankness that’s more intense and bitter than I’d prefer. I like my double IPAs lush and juicy, the alcohol secreted beneath a smooth pillow. Rebel Raw is more jagged, demanding taste buds’ subservience and attention.
As an educational tool, Rebel Raw is a marvelous primer to the modern IPA, cult beer created for the everyman. Judged against standard-bearers, it falls short, destined to never climb atop rating sites. Judged solo, especially by IPA initiates or adversaries, it might rewire hoppy-beer belief systems. To formulate an opinion, I’d suggest taking Raw on a first date.