The guys at Terrapin traveled a long road to open their brewery in Athens, Ga. For most of the years I’ve been enjoying their brews, everything was contract-brewed (they were Terrapin’s recipes, but brewed by other breweries) because they had no brewery of their own. But in 2007 they finally opened their own facility in Athens and have been brewing great beer there ever since.
Gamma Ray is a new addition to the brewery’s “Monster Beer Tour.” As the name intimates, the Monster Beer Tour consists of big (high alcohol) brews. There is actually a bit of controversy surrounding this beer because for the past few years the slot in the Monster series now taken by Gamma Ray was occupied by the All American Imperial Pilsner. There aren’t very many imperial pilsners around, and I was a fan of Terrapin’s version. But apparently not everyone shared my love for that brew, so they took one of their “Side Project” beers from last year and slid it into the imperial pilsner slot.
Fortunately, they replaced one underrepresented style with another: wheat wine. This relatively new style is named after a more common one, barley wine. Wheat wine is simply a high-alcohol beer with a large percentage of wheat in the mash. Neither it nor barley wine are brewed with grapes; the word “wine” in these styles simply indicates an ABV comparable to that of real wine.
As a still-emerging style, with wheat wines anything goes. They may be hoppy or not. They may be spicy or not. They may be dark or light in color. Any yeast strain may be used. In other words, the only common thread among them is wheat and plenty of alcohol content.
With Gamma Ray, Terrapin decided to start with a Bavarian hefeweizen, double the alcohol, and add huge amounts of honey. The end result is a very unique beer, and one we are fortunate to now have access to (for a limited time, until next year!).
It’s a massive 10.8% ABV, so it’s a slow sipper and will cellar well. Apart from the significant difference in alcohol contents, you may notice a striking similarity between this beer and its little brother, Sunray Wheat. That’s because when they hatched the idea for Gamma Ray, they brewed Sunray Wheat for the first time to serve as a “yeast starter” in order to grow enough yeast cells to ferment such a big beer. So Gamma Ray is fermented with yeast taken directly out of a batch of Sunray. Not surprisingly, the dominant flavor is banana from the hefeweizen yeast. Then you’re hit in the face with all that honey. The hops are minimal and there is plenty of sweetness.
I’m very curious to find out what happens to this beer after a couple years of aging. I am going to put one in my beer cellar and maybe I’ll revisit this column in 2011, comparing the aged and fresh versions!
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org