I love beer trades! Today's beer I would normally never have had access to were it not for a trade catalyzed by "teh interwebz." The new trading partner responsible for this brew, Eric (http://itsmedoublee.wordpress.com/ ), assures me that this brew, Hoppin' Frog Hop Heathen (Imperial Black Ale) came right off of the bottling line and I'm not one to sit around and let the hops fade away. So let's pour!
The aroma is not as strong as I would have hoped for considering that this brew utilizes some ingredients that are quite easily accessible to olfaction. Pine is readily present as is a grapefruit citrus, but otherwise fairly clean as far as hops go with the exception of a distant, peppery, spice note. As this beer warms the malts take over and they do a fine job. The dark roast is first and initially seems somewhat mild (relative for the style) until the cocoa aroma blends with it and brings a bit of toffee along for the ride. The three together are an excellent harmony. Granted, I'm on the tail end of a cold, so my sniffer might not be 100%, but I can still breathe rather well through my nose, so I assume everything is in working order. Boy! Do those cocoa and toffee scents really ratchet things up as the beer warms! Even the ABV shows up to play! Spectacular. I only wish it was a more powerful smell, because what they have here they should be proud of.
All things appear to be black as night in this IBA, but when held to a window, the bottom of my glass revealed a nice coffee brown hue and even a ruby glint or two! Unexpected and welcome! The head is just over a finger high and the same creamy texture and tan shade you might find on top of a Guinness (ok, so initially it's more soapy). It leaves a little lacing on the way down and maintains a higher than average retention.
You're given a brief warning shot of cocoa and toffee before being flooded with burnt, roasted malts and a resinous hop. It's a great combination that is bitter and means business, even if it is eventually cut with a lactose. In any case, they settle down a bit and allow other flavors to play their part. The resinous hops also show a piney note and the toffee comes in to sweeten the lot. The reprise of the toffee is gently brought in, as well as an occasional, very authentic grain note, like toasted whole wheat bread (you know, the good kind with the nuts in it). As it is held in the mouth the charred, bitter malts are primary, but now bring a strong, peppery spice with them that settles all over the surface of the tongue. The finish enjoys the strongest collaboration of the brew as the pepper, charred notes, prickly alcohol warmth, and hop bitter all come together at just the right time and the result is fantastic! All those flavors even allow for a bit of the hops' grapefruit to peek out and truly showcase the complexity of this beer. Can't say enough about this beer's finish! The aftertaste is bitter and in a way that is more char and less hops. It doesn't linger long though and I attribute that to the other hops characteristics present in this beer. Please ensure that you only drink (or serve) this beer lightly chilled. Even as this bottle warms, the beer as a whole becomes so much sweeter as the toffee and lactose sugars become increasingly bold.
I'd say that the carbonation is dead on for this brew, even down to the end of the bottle. I also enjoy a lot of the tactile sensations that the beer gives: the eventual warmth, the peppery prickle, and the moderate-full body. Nothing is distracting and the things that are distinct go well together and contribute to the overall experience.
Overall Impression 9/10
The beer starts out as a solid IBA, but as it warms it truly sets itself apart as the sweetness of the contributing flavors rises to the level of the primaries and creates a more balanced, delicious beer that is both dark and hoppy. I've had some IBAs before, but this one seems to stand alone. It has slightly less sweetness that some of the super-agressive IPAs have (120 Minute, etc), an equal alcohol presence, much less hop profile, but replaces the majority of that hop profile with dark, roasted malty goodness. Excellent technical qualities (appearance & mouthfeel) only add to the experience.
While IBAs might not be my favorite style on the planet, it would be impossible to deny that this is a damn tasty beer. Now is this beer all hops? Despite the name, no. Rather, they are presented in a fashion that most are not accustomed to (including myself). Allow me to explain: most hop-laden beers are several groves worth of citrus, a pine tree or two, some grass, and a healthy dose of resin. This brew focuses instead on the hop spiciness and a lesser amount on the resinous quality. In fact, I get more of the dark malts than I do the hops. That said, hop heads might be a bit disappointed if they are looking for nothing but hops. However, those open to tasty experiences regardless of the label's description will be pleased nonetheless.