That fact that Boston Beer Company chose to name their American IPA “Rebel” is not without irony, given that at its heart, the product is a direct concession to popular demand that the company never really wanted to make.
It’s no secret that the Sam Adams line, unlike many American craft brewers, was not built on the altar of IPA. In fact, the company has always been notable in its general apathy toward intensely hoppy beer, at least in the American sense. Before Rebel IPA was widely released in 2014, the company made no widely available, American-style IPA, despite having existed since 1984. The closest thing was the Latitude 48 series, which, like most Sam Adams beers, tended to feature hop profiles from the U.K., Germany and the rest of the European continent first and foremost.
On one level, it was a brewery simply sticking to its guns. Jim Koch has clearly never viewed Boston Beer Company as a maker of hop bombs, and for years he resisted giving in to marketability—one might even call that admirable. American IPA is, after all, the standard-bearer and most popular style in all of American craft brewing in terms of its consumption. That the largest American craft brewer didn’t bother making an American IPA was a notable statement of their principles and personal taste.
Still, all things must change, and with the beginning of production on Rebel IPA, Boston Beer Company officially announced a changing of the philosophical guard. One still gets the sense that it’s not Jim Koch’s personal taste, but you can’t blame the company for no longer wanting to turn a blind eye toward the writing on the wall. American IPA is here to stay, after all. It was time for the venerable Sam Adams line to snag itself a piece of that pie, and they didn’t stop with simply the original Rebel. Rather, acknowledging the full range of IPA’s popularity, they’ve now created three beers to take advantage of the full ABV range: Rebel Rider Session IPA, Rebel IPA and Rebel Rouser DIPA.
One could be forgiven if the similar labels and names would lead you to believe that these are essentially the same recipe brewed to different strengths, but that isn’t quite the case. In reality, they may be similar, but the recipe components differ substantially, with different hop varieties used in each iteration. The iconography may be shared, but Sam Adams was clearly trying to make each entry fairly distinct.
And so, when we rummaged through the Paste mail bin earlier this week and discovered a shiny new tasting paddle and some samples of each beer in the Rebel line, it was only natural that we conduct our own little tasting, sampling each beer side by side. What we found were three fairly solid, if not mind-blowing entries into their respective styles, which in all reality is probably exactly what the nationally distributed Boston Beer Company was going for. Below, find our thoughts on each entry.
Rebel Rider Session IPA
Reading the fact sheets for each of these beers, you can’t help but note just how many hop varieties are crammed into each one, presumably for the sake of uniqueness and complexity. Each features at least five varieties between the kettle and dry hop sessions: For Rebel Rider, it’s Citra, Topaz, Cascade, Centennial and Simcoe. Combined, it makes varietal characteristics a bit tough to pick out because each beer features differing or dueling aspects of an eclectic blend of varieties.
Rebel Rider is obviously the lightest of the three in body, and in color by a barely perceptible margin, clocking in at 4.5% ABV. The aroma is lightly floral and a bit spicy, more characteristic of the noble European hops that Sam Adams has so often used in the past than one might expect, given the varieties I listed above. Regardless, the floral side of Cascade and Centennial come through in a pleasant way. It drinks very easy, with medium-low bitterness, but you can’t miss that it’s a hop-forward ale because it’s pretty much bone dry and purposefully unbalanced in favor of the hops. In a blind tasting, most would probably peg it as a fairly mild, low-SRM American pale ale.
The full-strength Rebel IPA clocks in at 6.5% ABV, and it bears a number of similarities to its little brother. The additional malt comes through in a significant way, creating an ale that feels notably fuller and creamier, with a honey-like sweetness that takes the edge off the dryness of the Rebel Rider. Floral and grapefruit flavors are still highlighted, but it comes closer to balanced than the previous beer, with an intriguing aroma that also touches on spicy woodiness.
Once again however, these comparisons are relative to each other—in comparison to most American IPAs on the market, Rebel IPA is still on the conservative side in terms of pure volume of flavor. As is unsurprising for a large brewer with a national footprint, Boston Beer Company set out to create something that would be fairly close to the platonic ideal for the style without challenging the average drinker’s palate too much. That’s what Rebel IPA is for better or worse, but for the money, it’s probably one of the more solid options available in the average liquor store. Both Paste editor Josh Jackson and I agreed that by and large, the original Rebel IPA was our favorite of the three samples.
Rebel Rouser DIPA
Where the Rebel IPA might be mistaken as an offshoot from the Rebel Rider Session IPA, one would not make that mistake with the Rebel Rouser. Easily the most unique of the three in terms of how much it stands out in the lineup, this DIPA is a little funky and catty on the nose—perhaps that’s the Zeus hop aroma peeking through? It’s funny that this is one without the Chinook varietal, as it smells the most Chinook-like of the bunch.
In flavor, though, a lot of intriguing fruit notes come out to play. It’s surprisingly boozy and a bit hot for 8.4%, but that harshness is tempered by fruity flavors of apricot, orange and finally a spicy pine. It’s by far the fruitiest and most challenging of the three, but perhaps not the best executed. One would assume they were probably going for the same approachability, but the booze in particular makes it a bit harsher than was likely intended. Still, it’s an interesting offering that is miles away from what one would have expected from the Samuel Adams line only a couple of years ago.
The obvious question is, “Will beer geeks care? And will beer geeks accept these IPA permutations as bona-fide?” Samuel Adams’ biggest concern these days, after all, is the implacable loss of craft beer street cred that comes with being the biggest player in the game. It’s an issue that has clearly been pestering Jim Koch in particular, and it’s easy to understand why: You built one of the definitive American craft brewers, so it’s understandably difficult to hear that the cool kids have left you behind in the dust.
From a business sense, there’s no denying these beers will be a success. Tasting them and rating them on their own merits, my own taste buds also tell me they’re a sucess—a moderate success. Would I buy a pint of Rebel IPA while out at the bar? Probably not, given that I’ll likely be focusing on what’s new, exciting and novel. But would I reach for one in a friend’s fridge, or bring a six-pack to a cook-out? Sure. I’d do either of those in a heartbeat. And I highly suspect that’s exactly the reception the sales associates at Boston Beer Company are hoping for.
If we’ve subtracted any points in this tasting, it may simply be tangentially linked to the fact that Boston Beer Company didn’t include any artisanal mini-cheeses in this particular package, as they did on one notable occasion in the past. If you’re reading this, BBC representatives, please take note: Send more cheese. We like cheese. We would not mind opening another package to find surprise cheese. Just sayin’, guys. Ball’s in your court.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, a massive beer geek and still enjoys a cold Boston Lager from time to time. He thinks Jim Koch seems like a fun guy to party with, but he’s not sold on yeast and yogurt as a pregame snack.