Because it is my hometown brewery, I spend a lot of time talking about the Harpoon Brewery with friends and visitors. And while people often perceive my thoughts as being critical of the brewery, I consider them given more in a constructive vein. See, I want Harpoon to succeed, but I also want the brewery to offer a little more in the flavor department with its beers (although this criticism mainly related to the brewery’s year-round offerings). So it was with some excitement that I reported last summer about the brewery’s foray into stronger beers, with its Leviathan series. At that time, I wrote:
The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.
So far in the series we’ve seen a revamping of the Triticus, originally brewed with the BeerAdvocate guys, a nice Imperial IPA, and a very solid Baltic Porter. So this month has seen availability of the most recent release, the Harpoon Quad. Listed at 11.75-percent alcohol on the label (although brewer Scott Shirley told the good folks at hereforthebeer.com that it was actually 12.6-percent alcohol), the Quad is a bruiser. But we’ll get to the flavor in a moment
The Quad style bears a moment of mention, not so much for what it is but perhaps for what it is not. If not a creation of American craft brewers than at least a rebranding, the quadruple/quadrupel style has a pretty sketchy history, even compared to other styles about which it turns out we know very little. Up until a few years ago, beer lovers used to call quadrupel-style beers either trappist ales, trappist-style ales, or abt-style. There was inevitably a bit of friction with the seven, then six, now seven again European trappist breweries. So a name change was required to describe this strong, malty, phenolic beer.
The style doesn’t appear in the Brewers Association’s recent 2009 style guidelines release (though curiously a quadruple Pilsener is referenced, whatever abomination of man that might portend). The BJCP folks also do not list quadrupel as an independent category, but instead place it in the Belgian Specialty Ale grouping. BeerAdvocate lists beers of the style as Quadrupels and it lists nearly 90 examples, including some of the site’s most highly regarded beers, such as Westvleteren 12 and Rochefort 10. BA describes the style this way:
Inspired by the Trappist brewers of Belgium, a Quadrupel is a Belgian style ale of great strength with bolder flavor compared to its Dubbel and Tripel sister styles. Typically a dark creation that ranges within the deep red, brown and garnet hues. Full bodied with a rich malty palate. Phenols are usually at a moderate level. Sweet with a low bitterness yet a well perceived alcohol. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 9.0-13.0%
It’s not really clear how quads are distinguished from Belgian Strong Dark Ales, which the site describes as:
On the same path as the Belgian Dark Ale but obviously higher in alcohol with more of an all around character. The alcohol character can be deceivingly hidden or can be very bold and in your face. Look for lots of complexity within a delicate palate. Hop and malt character can vary, most are fruity and may have mild dark malt flavors. Phenols will range from minimal to high and most will be light on the hops. All in all most are spicy and alcoholic. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 7.0-15.0%
So maybe this is one of those times where we put style guidelines aside and just decide whether we enjoy the beer on a personal level (a bit of a rarity in this rate-happy world). Harpoon describes its Leviathan Quad this way:
[F]ermented with a blend of two traditional Trappist yeasts. A mixture of two-row pale malts, caramel malts, and special aromatic malts gives the Quad its richness and texture. The subtle hop flavor imparted from Brewer’s Gold hops lingers in the background and provides just enough bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. The addition of imported Belgian Dark Candi Syrup rounds out the beer, giving the Quad its full body and deep auburn color. Expect notes of honeyed dry fruit with peppery phenols in the aroma, a velvet-like mouthfeel, and a superbly drinkable beer…Original gravity 26.2, ABV 11.75%, 44 IBU’s.
So let’s get to the beer. I bought a 4-pack of the brand for about $10 at a local package store, stored cool. Pours with a slightly murky/hazy purplish rouge color, mild but active carbonation. Aroma is very complex and playful, with immediate notes of the classic Trappist yeast strain, big deep sweet malts, and numerous fruits and phenols, from banana to bubble gum. A real pleasure just to smell. There is the slightest hint of a peppery spiciness deep in the beer but is pretty overwhelmed by a substantial but not overbearing alcohol note. The alcohol is not hot in the aroma but adds a pleasant warmth. Mouthfeel is medium to heavy and easily coats the entire mouth with malt sweetness, with some carbonation bites rounding out the edges. As it warms, I’m noticing some slightly sour notes in the aroma. Flavor waits for a second and then explodes in all directions, unleashing a torrent of banana and fruity tones, then a splash of European malt sweetness, followed by that previously hidden black pepper spiciness, and then ends with a surprisingly bitter finish mixed with big alcohol notes. With these descriptions, such a beer could easily devolve into a completely undrinkable mess. The Harpoon Quad doesn’t; instead it just shows you sharp glimpses of each before retracting into a balanced finish. While all of these notes mellow as the beer warms (and it sweetens considerably), I think the Harpoon Quad is still a pretty young beer. I’m going to lay down my remaining bottles for a few months and check on their quality. I would imagine that the beer could easily lay down for a few years. And considering that I had a nearly five-year-old bottle of Harpoon’s Barleywine (Release Four of the 100 Barrel Series) that aged beautifully, it’s a pretty safe bet.
The next beer in the Leviathan series, a huge Bohemian Pilsner, will be out in a couple of months. Using German pilsner malt and Saaz hops, the beer will clock in at 10-percent. I’m generally not a fan of imperializing classic German styles but look forward to trying the next release after the solid to excellent Leviathan releases I’ve had to date.
With its year-round line, the brewery has proven that it can make very approachable beers for a wide-audience, often as a bridge from macro brands to the craft world. With the Leviathan series, Harpoon has demonstrated its ability to break out of that mold and to craft solid versions of styles popular with beer geeks. For its next act, I’d like to see Harpoon show mastery of the ground in-between. While I look forward to trying the UFO White when it debuts at the end of this month, another addition to the brewery’s regular portfolio of IPA, Ale, Brown Ale, UFO hefeweizen, Munich Dark, and Raspberry Hefeweizen is sorely needed. With its sustained sales and trim portfolio, I appreciate that the brewery likely has no real interest in adding to its year-round offerings. But that can’t keep local beer drinkers from hoping…