We receive a whole lot of beer in the mail at Paste these days. Too much beer for any one person, or group of people, to reasonably drink. So given that volume, if I specifically make a point to write something about how a beer is packaged, then you can be certain it’s in some way significant.
Kalamazoo, Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery, beloved to many Midwesterners, is putting out a new “session pale ale” called Oatsmobile this month. This is a new year-round beer, and as such, Bell’s is committing ample resources to its launch. Actually, ample resources does not do it justice. Bell’s has seemingly put as much time and calculation into this one beer release as I’ve ever seen a single craft brewery commit to a new year-rounder. To whit: The press kit for Oatsmobile, which contains a rather ridiculous number of different little products. They are:
- A custom wooden box that everything arrived in.
- Oatsmobile pint glass
- A gallon bag of stratified beer ingredients that represent the Oatsmobile mash and hop bills, including malted barley, flaked oats and hops.
- Oatsmobile coasters
- Two different kinds of Oatsmobile stickers
- Oatsmobile pins
- Oatsmobile ChapStick. I repeat, craft beer branded promotional chapstick.
Even as one of the nation’s largest regional craft breweries (now #7 in the nation, according to the Brewers Association), that’s a huge expenditure and commitment of resources. Bell’s simply wouldn’t do this unless they felt this beer was supposed to be huge for them—the session equivalent of Two Hearted Ale, perhaps? A way to retire the old Midwestern Pale Ale in favor of a new product that better captures the ethos of the day? And while we’re at it, what is a “session pale ale,” exactly, and how does it differ from the definitions of “American pale ale” and “session IPA”? These words certainly aren’t chosen at random—more likely they’re the result of repeated meetings and market analysis. The concept was presumably boiled down to something like: “A session IPA, but with less hops. And with oats.”
But forgive me for going off on such a tangent, in what is ostensibly a beer review and not an essay on craft beer marketing. Let’s actually talk about the beer itself.
The nose on Oatsmobile, which pours a bright ochre shade, is hop-forward and pleasant. The brewery’s description notes various tropical fruits, but what I perceive more strongly is clean, pure citrus—orange in particular. You also get some graininess on the nose, or a suggestion of biscuit-like malt. “Do oats actually have an aromatic signature in beer?”, I couldn’t help wonder. Is it possible to detect oats with a sniff? I certainly can’t tell.
On the palate, carbonation is high and hop flavors are light-to-medium in intensity, with low bitterness that is notably different from what one would likely expect to perceive in a session IPA. This unsurprisingly boosts drinkability, which was presumably the whole idea. Hop flavors again show up as predominantly citrus, although they’re not as assertive as the initial aroma would suggest. Malt flavors are grainy and slightly unusual—although oats are typically perceived more via texture than flavor, I wonder if that oats are making themselves felt here in providing more of a cereal grain flavor. The brewery says the oats are meant to give it “a body that you don’t see in most other session pale ales,” but this is still 4.3% ABV beer—it’s going to be light and drinkable no matter what.
Tasting this beer completely blind, I expect I would peg it for what it is: A pale ale. The hop character isn’t over-the-top enough to make one think of a session IPA, but the flavors are well balanced. It’s not necessarily the most thrilling new offering, but it delivers what it says it’s going to deliver.
And it even keeps your lips from chapping as well.
Brewery: Bell’s Brewery
City: Kalamazoo, MI
Style: “Session pale ale”
Availability: 12 oz bottles, year-round
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.