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Beer Review: Starr Hill Four Kings IPA Variety Pack

Try something new with each bottle

Once upon a wobbly time, in a drunken land not long ago, buying beer was a spring breeze. Saturday nights, friends en route, I’d grab six-packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Lagunitas IPA, or a dozen Brooklyn Lagers and half as much Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA. Variety laid in conversation, not beer selection, typically a couple brands, consumed till the recycling bin bulged, as swollen as a wing-eating contest’s winner.

That era deserves an epitaph.

Before today’s gatherings, complicated by kids and adulthood, I hit beer stores to tweezer out distinct bottles, rarely replicated, providing boundless choice for pals with predilections. Some favor milk stouts, others tropical IPAs, or maybe a crisp lager to cleanse palates before imperial stout nightcaps. With infinite mad formulations, why go monogamous with one brand, even for a night?

Call it hookup culture in the beer store.

As consumers crave flavors of the minute, not month, breweries have countered with the variety pack.

As consumers crave flavors of the minute, not month, breweries have countered with the variety pack. Brewers from Sam to Stone, Ska to Upslope, Anchor to Great Lakes, release mixed boxes of beers organized around theme, such as IPAs or the season.

Pondered from a precise angle, brewers are saving you from the sweaty-palmed process of selecting two of this, three of that, eyes swirling like peppermints gone wrong. There’s a blizzard of beer choice, and finding a unique snowflake is downright overwhelming. Why not trust a familiar brand? The tactics common to the grocery store. Consider the snack-size chips mom stuffed into school lunch, Fritos one day, Lay’s the next, all plucked from the same rectangular coffin.

Variety packs work wonders for a crowd, but for me the drawback is that they’re everyday elixirs, repackaged afresh. Yup, some breweries slide new beers into variety packs, as 21st Amendment did last fall with its freshly year-round El Sully lager, yet I’d rather not slog through the same old for a novel nugget. Alternately, breweries view variety packs as vehicles for innovation. Stare at Sierra Nevada, whose Beer Camp Across America carton tabs the country’s best breweries to collaborate, or New Belgium, whose 25th anniversary Fat Tire & Friends Collabeeration Pack enlists breweries Firestone Walker and Allagash to riff on the Coloradans’ iconic Fat Tire Amber Ale.

Image courtesy of Starr Hill.

Need my credit card? I’ll gladly buy 12 of your beers, provided I’ve never previously purchased them.

Which is, admittedly, a super crazy statement that brings us to the story of Starr Hill. Born in 1999, the Charlottesville, Virginia, brewery has made many of the mid-Atlantic’s most medal-grabbing beers, encompassing Vienna-style lager Jomo; The Love, a German-style hefeweizen; and Northern Lights IPA, recently reformulated for a brighter, citrus-popped profile. Lately, changes have been legion at Starr Hill. The brewery freshened its labels and installed new brewmaster Robbie O’Cain, who’s pounding an experimental path paved with flavor. That means a coffee IPA, a peppercorn-pummeled farmhouse ale, and a citrus-zested witbier, some of which find homes in seasonally oriented mixed boxes.

Each beer is a speed date, delivering qualities that turn you off, and turn you on.

This spring, Starr Hill assigned an assorted cube to the King of Hop, a golden IPA singing with orange rind, grapefruit and tropical fruitcatnip to card-carrying IPA fiends. Like me. And millions. To heighten King’s hop-derived aromas and flavors, O’Cain altered a single variable, devising three distinct variants spiced with grapefruit zest, habanero, and lemon and lime zest. The grapefruit and lemon-lime versions smell like harvest-season forays into a citrus grove, while the habanero hits with lip-prickling heat, the pleasure-pain principle in your palm. Arrayed in a police lineup, the regal quartet provide a fascinating lesson in amplification, like a record producer tilting the mix to feedback-laced guitar solo or a drummer’s thwack, thwack, thwack.

Often the effect works, with grapefruit turning King into a sunny day refresher; other times everything’s thrown off kilter, as with the lemon and lime proving, yes, there’s such a thing as too much zest. Though I enjoyed the variants, I returned time and time again to regular ol’ King, each sniff sending a bellow full of citrus and tropical fruit to the ol’ olfactory cortex, a fast-acting reminder of the addictive power of a super-fresh IPA.

A variety pack’s triumph is not measured by betrothal to every beer, endless pints of polygamy. Each beer is a speed date, delivering qualities that turn you off, turn you on, and one day, maybe not today or tomorrow, are worth revisiting and getting to know just a little bit better.

That’s a pack mentality I’ll support.

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