This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
It’s sort of funny how, over the years, beer geeks have regularly associated Three Floyds (or “3 Floyds,” if you prefer) with IPA, despite the fact that the brewery has often been without a year-round IPA in its roster … in name, anyway. Rather, the real key to the Three Floyds beer roster has always been the combination of higher-than-usual ABV “pale ales” and reliable DIPAs, which simply didn’t leave much room in the middle for what the rest of the beer community was labeling IPA. After all, when you make pale ales the way Three Floyds has always made them, how are you supposed to tell an IPA apart from one?
This is still the case to a lesser extent even now in 2020, when the Three Floyds lineup technically features two year-round IPAs (Lazersnake and Necron 99) but three year-round pale ales (Alpha King, Zombie Dust, Space Station Middle Finger), all of which are 6% ABV or more. Suffice to say, hops are still the straw that stirs the drink at Three Floyds, aside from the yearly fervor for limited releases such as Dark Lord Imperial Russian Stout. Events like Dark Lord Day might draw beer geeks from all around the world to Munster, IN for a day, but for the other 364 days of the year this is a brewery built largely on pale ale. And it’s safe to say that none have been half as important overall as flagship Alpha King—not even the incredibly popular Zombie Dust.
For many years, Alpha King was the undisputed standard bearer for the image of Three Floyds—an aggressive, bruiser of an American pale ale, weighing in at a gaudy 6.66% ABV (a very Floydian marketing decision) and featuring a hop presence that was unmatched by many less bombastic breweries’ IPAs. I distinctly recall having an opportunity to sample some as an Illinois college student in the mid-2000s, only to recoil in horror from the sheer bitterness of it all, unaccustomed as I was to the style at the time. Back then, I was more likely to partake in a malt-forward beer like Three Floyds’ own Robert the Bruce Scottish ale, but slowly, over time, the allure of Alpha King became more pronounced. And I certainly wasn’t the only Midwesterner to be molded into a lover of hops by Alpha King.
To be certain, this beer registered as a punch in the face/palate to drinkers of an earlier era in the late 1990s or early 2000s. That same statement is also true of some of the other pale ale/IPA flagships in this series, but unlike many of those other entries, the sheer hoppiness of Alpha King is still quite apparent today, some 20 years later. Although the market for hop-forward beer styles has largely left behind such fancies as “any kind of malt balance” or “a dry finish,” in terms of sheer assertiveness alone, Alpha King really doesn’t feel as dated in terms of profile as one might expect. In a field of older flagships where we’re usually peppering descriptions with words like “delicate” or “subtle,” Alpha King is still a very assertive, flavorful beer, plain and simple.
With that said, let’s re-taste some Three Floyds Alpha King.
Tasting: Three Floyds Alpha King Pale Ale
It is perhaps helpful to first revisit Three Floyds’ own description for this beer, which states the following: “A bold yet balanced American Pale Ale with slight caramel sweetness and aggressive citrus hoppiness. This is our flagship beer.”
To which I can only reply: Alpha King is a lot of things, but it’s not really “balanced” in any meaningful way, unless you’re really looking at the beer exclusively from the POV of a 2020 hazy IPA drinker. Only in that context, in which any hoppy beer that contains any hint of malt presence is often described as “balanced,” could you really think of this beer as anything other than a hop bomb. At the end of the day, Alpha King is meant to be redolent in American hop aromatics, and that’s exactly what it is. But there are indeed hints of a malt presence as well, and it’s a better beer for it. Balanced? No, not really. Delicious? Absolutely.
On the nose, Alpha King immediately surprised me with a wave of intensely dank, weedy aromatics, evoking grass clippings and sticky pot buds, before segueing into pineapple juiciness and hints of toasted malt. I had genuinely forgotten just how dank and resinous (like a fir tree) this beer would register on the nose since the last time I sampled it, although this may be a factor of my very fresh 16 oz can. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely nose for lovers of big, dank, resinous, fruit-accented APA, which I certainly am.
On the palate, this is a big, punchy, flavorful pale ale that features another explosion of dank hop notes, followed by flashes of grapefruit and pineapple juice. There’s a modicum of malt for sure, but less than I remember in Alpha King in the past—some toast and toffee, but perhaps not as much as you might be expecting in a “throwback” flagship beer with a deep amber/red color. Once again, I can’t help but wonder if this is a case of having significantly fresher Alpha King than I’ve consumed in the past, but overall the profile is more vivaciously hop forward than I recalled, and I am digging it. Bitterness, meanwhile, is medium-high, but with enough malt sweetness to take the edge off.
All in all, drinking fresh Alpha King in 2020 has the immediate effect of making me wish I had access to this beer (assuming it’s this fresh) on a more regular basis. It makes a fantastic counterpoint to the one-dimensionally juice-driven IPAs that have been proliferating for the last five years, while still featuring an intensely hoppy profile that allows the drinker to get their fix of green, dank, resin/citrus flavor notes, while dipping a toe into the maltier side of the spectrum at the same time. Perhaps this is a case of Three Floyds having adjusted the Alpha King recipe over the years to suit the ever-building American tolerance toward hops, but even if that’s the case, the company has done a wonderful job of preserving this beer’s particular identity. Even in the company of hyped fellow pale ales like Zombie Dust, Alpha King occupies a position that is both unique and utterly indispensable.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.