When I discovered two years ago that New Glarus Brewing Co. was discontinuing Hop Hearty, I began buying up six-packs in the hopes of clinging to one of my favorite beers as long as possible.
I was not ready to accept the fact that this India pale ale that I had taken as a permanent option on my beer menu was going away. It was probably the first IPA I liked.
I remember it as a brilliant, copper-colored beer with a powerful, piney hop bomb aroma that carried through to the flavor. But the defining memory was of sweet, viscous malt that went beyond balancing all those hops to become a force unto itself.
So I was understandably excited when New Glarus resurrected Hop Hearty, the first bottles hitting shelves last month. But after that first sip, I found I was wrong about the beer I had loved for so many years.
Something changed, right? Definitely a lighter body, maybe a different hop mix. Even the color seemed different. It wasn't bad, just ... not what I had remembered. Some other Hop Hearty fans agreed; others said I was crazy.
So I turned to the man best qualified to settle this question: New Glarus co-owner and brewmaster Dan Carey.
Nope, he said, almost apologetically. Same beer. Same malt bill, same hop schedule, same yeast. He did throw me one tiny bone: Raw materials do change, he said, and the barley would be from a different crop year.
But did he taste any difference? "I think it's pretty much the same beer," he said.
It wasn't the beer that had changed; it was me. In those years, my appetite for beer had become more adventurous, and I had tasted maybe a hundred other IPAs that imprinted on my memory of my first favorite from that style.
So my first bottles of Hop Hearty, 2011 edition, were the object of many months of romanticized longing. The further away from those first bottles and nearly impossible expectations, the more I like what it actually is. Much to my relief, I hadn't outgrown Hop Hearty.
My takeaway is that beer memory can be fickle and unreliable. It's a lot tougher to get a taste stuck in your head for two-plus years than, say, a song. And even then you might sing the wrong lyrics.
Style: India pale ale
Brewed by: New Glarus Brewing Co.
What it's like: "It's a beer that's meant to be between the lines of a really mild English IPA and a West Coast IPA," Carey said, "not over the top."
Where and how much: Hop Hearty's return may not last, as the brewery bills it as a one-off this time. The six-packs — mine was $8 at Harley's Liquor and Bait on Monona Drive — might last through April, according to the schedule on the brewery's website. I'll take the under on that.
The beer: Hop Hearty pours an orangeish amber color, with an aroma of boozy, floral pine that's assertive but more muted than some of its contemporary IPA kin. The use of an English East Kent Goldings hops and its subtly earthy, almost funky flavor sets it apart as well. Even if the body isn't as thick as I remember it — a smooth, repeatedly quaffable medium weight — the malt is indeed the star of this show. "It was always a little bit malt-forward, biscuity," Carey said.
Booze factor: You won't find it on the label or online, but Carey reports it weighs in at about 6.5 percent.
The buzz: I was always curious why Hop Hearty went away back in 2009. Turns out that if I had begun hoarding it sooner, it might have stuck around. Carey said demand alone dictates New Glarus' brew schedule, and Hop Hearty just wasn't selling at the time. But since then, the beer's fans kept calling for its return, and IPAs have caught fire. Since 2009, sales of IPAs are up 81 percent at grocery, convenience and drug stores, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group that tracks such numbers. "I think the market changed, people started to miss it," Carey said of Hop Hearty. "The interest in hoppy, aromatic beers has changed a lot since 2009."
The calculus here isn't very complicated: If people like a beer and buy it, New Glarus will keep making it. "It's all 100 percent dictated by the customer," Carey said. So, if you like Hop Hearty — or Laughing Fox, or Back 40, or any of those Thumbprint brews — buy it. They'll make more.
Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of four)