When Rob LoBreglio, brewmaster and co-owner of the Great Dane brewpubs, recently cut an interview short because one of his brewers was in the midst of making a beer and was calling to ask his advice, it made me curious. It turns out the beer in question was destined to become one of the biggest and strongest lagers the Dane has ever made.
The beer, named Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner, turned out great. It's bold, rich and flavorful -- and yes, it's very strong. This beer may be in the same family as pilsners made popular by large American breweries, but it's more like the distant relative you can't imagine being related to. There is a pilsner at its core, but all its qualities are turned way up.
Style: The imperial pilsner is considered a bigger, bolder version of the core style, and as such it gets the regal appellation. It's basically made with more of everything. Imperial pilsners are often rich, golden-colored beers with a firm, hoppy aroma, and their strong malty background provides a balanced sweetness. Along with the more assertive bitterness and malty backbone is a higher alcohol content, ranging from 6.5% to 9% ABV. The imperial pilsner is growing in popularity, although, as an emerging beer style, it's not yet widely recognized.
Background: "I took the whole notion of the pilsner as a stepping-off point and escalated everything in a really big way," says Nate Zukas, brewer at the Great Dane-Hilldale. He has been with the Great Dane just over four years, and relishes the creative freedom he's been allowed at the Hilldale location. Zukas is responsible for Heavy Head, but consulted with other Great Dane brewers, including Rob LoBreglio, as he was making it.
"When I'm thinking about making a new beer, I look for niche aspects to styles and recipes," says Zukas. "We like to be innovative, but we are kind of traditionalists and proud of that." He was intent on making a bold example of a lager based on traditions and influences of brewers in Germany who are known for crisp, hoppy pilsners made with Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops and German malts. "When I pitched the idea to Rob, I said that I wanted to make the most Hallertau hop expression you're ever tasted," says Zukas. And that's just what he has achieved with Heavy Head.
Hallertau are among four Germany varieties referred to as noble hops. They are known for their soft, firm, spicy qualities of bitterness, and are often inherently tied to traditional German lager brewing. Mittelfrüh connotes that the hops were grown in its original Bavarian region of Germany. "Hallertau is one of my favorite hops, and I wanted to see what the limit is that you could bring them to," says Zukas.
Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner is made with six separate additions of Hallertau hops, including one filtering the beer through whole-leaf hops (using a hopback process) when it's being transferred to the fermenter. "We had no idea what Hallertau was going to taste like in these volumes; we were definitely wandering into the unknown and relying on our collective experience," Zukas adds. He was among several Great Dane brewers who joined LoBreglio for a week-long tour of Germany this past fall. This beer, and several others about to be unveiled during the upcoming Great Dane Bockfest 2014 celebration, are a result of ideas from that trip.
Making Heavy Head certainly had its challenges. Zukas says while brewing it he accidentally added too much malt. "We miscalculated completely, and it totally got away from us," he says. That's why the beer ended up so strong. "Making sure this thing fermented out right, I was scared to death of it. We definitely learned a lot by doing this beer, and at the same time we made an extremely unique beer," Zukas adds.
Heavy Head gets its name from a line in Shakespeare's Henry IV: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner ranks among the strongest lagers the Great Dane has made, topping off at 12.18% ABV. It also has firm bitter flavor from the Hallertau hops, with its 30 IBU (International Bitterness Units). It's available at the Great Dane-Hilldale, where it sells for $6.50/snifter. This beer is not sold in growlers. Heavy Head just went on tap this week and should be found at the Hilldale location well into March. Zukas also plans to hold back a few kegs to see how it ages. "I'm curious to see what it tastes like in a year or two," he says.
Heavy Head will also be among 14 beers (12 will be bocks) that will be part of the Dane's Bockfest on Saturday, March 8 at the Hilldale location. Tickets are available online for $30.
- Aroma: Firm spicy-hoppinesss.
- Appearance: Hazy, light orange-golden color; just a little darker than what you might think of as Pilsner. It also has a thick, soft, tan head.
- Texture: Full-bodied, round and bubbly. The warmth is felt early, lightly in the background, and it continues to linger into the finish.
- Taste: There is a firm hoppiness throughout, from its early aroma to the spicy main flavor. This is not an intense resin-like bitterness that stains or stings the tongue. It has a more modest hoppiness overall, more like herbal-spiciness. There is also solid maltiness to the background that lends sweetness and balance to the hops. Overall, these flavors are quite complex and interesting to think about over a snifter.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The spicy hoppiness blends with honey-like sweetness, and you'll notice lingering smooth warmth.
Glassware: The Great Dane will serve Heavy Head in a snifter, which allows you to appreciate the distinctive aroma of Hallertau hops. It's also a good way to respect its 12% ABV.
Pairs well with: Look for a dish that compliments the spicy-bitterness of the Hallertau hops. It's ideally suited for tomato-based pasta with modest spicy-heat. From the Great Dane-Hilldale menu, it's pretty good with the Southwest Tortellini because of the combination of cheese and spinach tortellini with blackened chicken accompanied by a touch of cilantro pesto cream sauce. The Nakoma Nachos are right up there too, with a heavy dose of salsa and sour cream; but you may want a few extra jalapeños on the side.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Heavy Head Imperial Pilsner is a beer with a complex flavor, thanks to the spicy bitterness of German Hallertau hops and the accidental overload of Germany malts, which lend serious biscuit-breadiness and honey-sweetness alongside all those hops. This beer distinctive for the way it blends all those flavors. It's big, and it pays to remain aware of its strength, with the high level of alcohol evident in the warm finish. But while it's bold and strong, there's an elegance to the way the Hallertau hops lend their herbal and tangy bitterness in such a full-bodied beer.
If your palate appreciates the nuances of hops, and if you are intrigued by a big beer that showcases lots of Hallertau flavor, then you'll want to taste Heavy Head.