The 1990s were a good decade for craft beer. After early pioneers like Anchor and Sierra Nevada blazed a difficult trail in the 70s and 80s and proved small American brewers could thrive in a market dominated by giant corporations, a large wave of home-brewers decided to go pro in the 90’s. That decade brought us Dogfish Head, Stone, Avery, Great Divide, Weyerbacher, and many others.
At various points in their histories, many of these breweries started releasing special beers to commemorate the anniversary of their founding. Many craft brewers are drawn to the profession because of the opportunity to get creative with the beers they brew, and producing one-off batches is a great outlet for that creativity. Speaking as a beer geek, I get excited about new beers that fall outside the standard slate of American pale ales, IPAs, ambers, and browns that comprise the majority of craft beer sales.
Avery began a tradition of anniversary beers back in 2003 with the release of Avery Ten, a double IPA. Every year since, they have brewed a special release named for the number of years they have been in business. The beers are always unique and the list includes another double IPA, two saisons, a weizenbock, a Belgian strong dark, and an American wild ale.
This is the year for Seventeen, and Avery really stepped up the creativity by brewing the first commercial dry-hopped black lager I’ve ever heard of. The beer review websites classify it as a schwarzbier, but that doesn’t really fit because schwarzbiers aren’t dry hopped and they typically have between 4 and 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Seventeen is a hefty 8.7 percent ABV. Maybe an “imperial” schwarzbier?
Fermenting this beer with lager yeast is a surprising choice and I’m not sure how much impact it had on the finished product. I’m surprised the beer was made a lager because the chief advantage of fermenting at cold temps with lager yeast strains is the exceptionally clean, smooth flavor profile they create. Lager yeasts are basically neutral, and they allow delicate grain flavors to be showcased in a way that estery ale yeasts do not.
Thus, when you think of lagers, major domestic beers come to mind, as do pilsners, bocks, and Märzen/Oktoberfest style beers. The hoppiest of those are Czech-style pilsners, but even there the hops used are just a fraction of what you’d find in an IPA. The reason is that once you cross a certain threshold of hop flavor, the hops overwhelm the clean, crisp lager flavor and there ceases to be any discernible difference from an ale.
I think perhaps the folks at Avery flirted with that threshold, but didn’t quite cross it. The hops in Seventeen are not to IPA levels. They also are not piney or citrusy American hops that would overwhelm the subtle complexities accented by the alcohol. An Avery press release described the beer as a “Dark Study in German Hops.” Famous German hops include Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt and Hersbrucker. They tend to be earthy and spicy, and those qualities are definitely evident in Seventeen.
The other significant source of flavor in the beer is dark roasted malts. They’re what make it a “black” lager, and give it some coffee and chocolate notes. I also get some licorice, maybe even a hint of vanilla. It’s quite balanced and perhaps some ale yeast esters would have upset that balance. Maybe the beer needed to be a lager, after all. It’s a really well-made, interesting beer.
Unfortunately, Alabama’s archaic limitation on the package size of beer greatly restricts your access to Seventeen. As with all of their special releases and many of their year-round offerings, the folks at Avery package it in twenty-two ounce bottles, a full six ounces over Alabama’s sixteen ounce limit. So it can only be sold in kegs in our state. A couple of bars with exceptional beer selections will have it, as will some of the stores offering draft-to-go.
For more widespread access to future anniversary beers by Avery and many other popular craft brews, support the continuing efforts of Free The Hops. There is much left to be done to bring sanity to Alabama’s beer laws.
“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 email@example.com.