If you’re a beer purist, the term “adjunct” is a dirty word. You know, Reinheitsgebot and all that. But I gotta imagine it’s tough to be a beer purist in America these days. Especially in the last year or so, when everyone, and I mean everyone is putting fruit and other adjuncts in their IPAs. Case in point, Starr Hill took their perfectly awesome King of Hop Imperial IPA and added all kinds of tasty bits to it—grapefruit, lemon and lime and habanero. If you’ve ever had the chance to taste King of Hop, you might argue that there’s no need to add anything else to this beer. It’s that good. But when has craft beer ever been about need? Ballast Point didn’t need to add grapefruit to their Sculpin IPA, but they did, and the world is a better place because of it.
Starr Hill, out of Crozet, Virginia, has been brewing since 1999, well before the craft beer boom, and largely went under the radar for most of that time. But in the last couple of years, under the watchful hand of brewer Robbie O’Cain (who is now Starr Hill’s brewmaster), Starr Hill is coming into their own. King of Hop might be their best showing to date. We loved it when we had the chance to review it late last year. So when they sent us their new Four Kings 12 pack, with all four varieties of King of Hop packed together, we decided the only rational thing to do was to drink them all back to back and see if adding something like lime zest can make a great beer greater.
The standard King of Hop is loaded with citrus-forward hops from the Pacific Northwest, and delivers the requisite fruity nose and taste. It has a heavy, weighted mouthfeel full of sweet hits like orange and pineapple. The hop zest and bite takes over with some pleasant bitterness that lingers on the tail end of the sip, providing a bit of balance to all that sugary sweetness up front. It’s a stellar double IPA, even though it registers at a “measly” 7.5% ABV. I’m no purist, so I’m thinking King of Hop will make a killer blank canvas for Starr Hill’s adjunct experimentation.
So take the standard imperial IPA and add the zest of lemons and limes. If you were expecting a boozy, hoppy Sprite, forget about it. There isn’t a lot difference in this lemon lime version, at least not right off the bat. I didn’t catch the addition on the nose, and the profile is so full of citrus notes anyway, it was actually hard to find the lemon or lime during my first couple of sips. Then I started noticing the lime coming through in the second wave of the sip. It’s understated, but it’s there. When it warms, the lime and lemon come out to play a bit more, and there’s more tingling zest on the tongue. Ultimately, it’s a slightly juicier, fruitier version of King of Hop. It’s good, but I’m guessing a lot of people wouldn’t notice the difference in a blind taste test.
Replace the lemon lime zest with grapefruit zest and you’ve got a brand new beer. I get a lot more flavor out of the adjunct with this one, than I found in the lemon lime version. It’s so zesty, it’s almost spicy, which is interesting, because the sip starts out soft and sweet, as the grapefruit joins hands with the orange and pineapple that’s already present, then finishes with a tingling, bitter third act. That’s not to say Starr Hill is going overboard here. It’s juicier than the original, and there’s more bitter fruit rind than the original. But Grapefruit is still a restrained beer, as far as imperial IPAs with fruit additions are concerned. It’s probably hard for a brewer to know “when to say when” while they’re adding something as tasty as grapefruit zest, but Starr Hill hits that balance. Any less, and I’d wonder “what’s the point?” Any more, and I’d say they took it too far.
And then there’s habanero. There’s probably no way to add a “discreet” amount of habanero to anything. This beer has the strongest nose of all three, delivering cinnamon and even a bit of chocolate. There’s an earthy, almost savory element to the taste up front, along with the citrus sweetness that dominates the original King of Hop. Then the spice takes over. And it is spicy. The habanero hits hard and fast, but then it dissipates, like a magic trick. I’m not a huge fan of spicy beers, which come off as more novelty than anything else in my opinion. But this one is different. Not only does the spice dissipate at the end of each individual sip, but it gets less intense as you keep drinking, which is the exact opposite of what I found in Ballast Point’s habanero Sculpin. And the spice that lingers is compelling, forcing you to go back for more. As the heat mellows, the other flavors come back—the citrus sweetness and the hop bite—and they all mingle beautifully. The more I dig into this beer, the more I think this might be my favorite of the King of Hop varieties.