Variations on a Theme (Part I)

In my spare time, when I’m not drinking beer, I fancy myself as a somewhat serious amateur musician, enjoying both performing with a couple of different choirs and listening to a range of musical styles that features classical and jazz. One common classical musical form is the “Theme and Variations,” in which a composer starts with a simple melodic line and then dresses it up in various ways: change the meter, turn it upside down, add some ornamentation, switch from major to minor (or vice versa), or any number of other possibilities. The original tune can be something well-known to the listener (last week I heard a high school choir perform a clever set of variations on Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah)–it’s the composer’s creativity in turning something familiar into something new that generates interest and excitement in the listener.

On the beer front, I’m exploring a couple of mix packs that could also be described as variations on a theme, where the theme is “IPA.”  My first IPA mix pack comes from Boston-based Harpoon breweryIMG_0254[1]Harpoon is one of the bigger players in the craft brew world (somewhere near the bottom of the top 10 nationwide) and their web site credits the introduction of their standard IPA as what catapulted them into the upper echelons of the craft brew world.  Though it seems totally standard now, at the time (in 1993) it was considered a bold experiment, and Harpoon has continued to push the envelope in other ways, including a series of hefeweizen-style unfiltered beers with the imprint “UFO” (for “Un-Filtered Offering”) and another series of big flavor and big alcohol beers named “Leviathan” (whaling imagery is the gimmick here).  I’m not a big fan of the unfiltered beers, and the Leviathan series is sometimes over the top, but Harpoon’s regular offerings are usually quite enjoyable, though I can’t remember bringing anything of theirs into the house for awhile, so I suppose this was overdue.

The flagship IPA is nicely balanced with plenty of hops but not so much that it overshadows the malt–this is not in the style of some West Coast “hop bombs.”  In fact, the web site specifically identifies this as the pioneer of a distinctive East Coast IPA, and they also use the term “balanced” in their description (which, for the record, I didn’t look at until after I had formed my own impressions).

The Black IPA was the least memorable of this group, nothing unpleasant but also nothing that made it stand out from the pack.  The White IPA (“The Long Thaw”), on the other hand, IMG_0256[1]was more interesting and one of the more enjoyable wit beers I’ve come across, with enough body and hops to get me past the wheat finish.  It probably helps to have it with a meal–I still don’t think I am going to be going out of my way to pick out beers like this just for the sake of enjoying a beer.

I particularly enjoyed the Rye IPA, and I am finding that “pepper” is the best descriptor for what rye does to a beer.  IMG_0257[1]This is one that I probably would enjoy by itself, though maybe less so as the weather warms up–it has been a cool spring here in southern New England so full-bodied beers are still in heavy rotation here at maison Dr. Dave.  The rye did go really nicely with grilled swordfish (using our friend Fran’s secret marinade, namely the cheapest Italian salad dressing you can find at the grocery store), which is a common summertime meal in our household.

In terms of the theme and variations idea, the common thread among all these was a substantial amount of hops, which along with relatively lightly roasted grain is what usually defines an IPA.  It has been interesting to contrast these with some American pale ales, which share the same malt but don’t stress the hops so much, and also some India Pale Lagers which use a bottom-fermenting yeast to get a different finish.  There is another set of variations waiting in the fridge to further explore some of these contrasts in an increasingly popular style.

Finally, just to wrap up some loose ends and keep the tally fairly current, a couple of other beers that I sampled away from home were the Mayflower Golden Ale and the Sam Adams Summer Ale.  The Mayflower was new to me and didn’t make a great impression (it may not have helped that I had it straight from the bottle at an outdoor party), but enough acquaintances have said favorable things about the brewery that I will need to try one of their other styles when I have a chance.  The Sam Summer I have had before, but though I was expecting something light and fizzy, I was surprised at the body and the creaminess when I had this with a meal at a local Indian restaurant.  (We have an established family tradition of dining out here on Mother’s Day Eve.) Often I will go with a beer from India like Kingfisher in this situation, but I’m trying to go with mostly draft beers when I’m away from home and, as is frequently the case, the Sam Adams seasonal was the most adventurous beer on the draft menu.

These six bring the tally for the year up to 59, with a few more from home to discuss before I go away on business for a week and, most likely, try out a couple of brew pubs on the road.  Cheers!

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