Vacations, beer-wise, mean attempting to find breweries not available at home. When in Rome, right?
I recently traveled to Florida to visit Ma, venturing from there for a Christmas present-day trip to Savannah, Georgia. Knowing the paucity of beer options in Ma’s part of Florida, I used this opportunity to pick up some old favorites recently back on the market (as well as other beer not found in New York, but that’s a post for another day).
The story begins in the 1970s. Bob and Ellie Tupper, mild-mannered husband and wife, take an interest in beer, and begin traveling the world, touring breweries, and tasting thousands of beers along the way. They develop a couple of beer recipes and, armed with these, convince Old Dominion Brewery in Virginia to brew first the Hop Pocket Ale in the mid-1990s, followed a few years later by the Pils. The beers are a hit, winning medals and legions of fans for more than a decade, including yours truly, who drank more than his share on virtually every visit south since the late 1990s — Tuppers has never ventured north of the Washington, D.C. area, so Mohammed had to go to the mountain, as it were.
Everything ran smoothly for years: beer was brewed, beer was sold, the cycle was repeated. In 2007, however, Old Dominion was sold off to a different brewing concern, Coastal, and the new owners eventually shut down the brewery and brewpub, dropping many of the Old Dominion beers from its lineup and with it, the contract-brewed Tuppers’ beers. It took a couple of years to find a new brewer, but finally, the beer was relocated to the St. George Brewing Company in 2009, and the beers were reborn in 2010. Although they are now found as four-packs ($6) instead of the standard six (I used to pay $7.50), and there’s no date coding on the labels, my history with them meant I needed to purchase these when I spied them on the shelf in a beer store in Savannah, Georgia.
Naturally I picked up a four pack of each — I didn’t mix, tempted though I was. The clerk seemed surprised they had restocked, which I took to mean that the beer was rather fresh. Always nice to taste the best a brewery can offer, right?
The Hop Pocket Ale is intended to be a pale ale, on the strong side at 6% alcohol by volume; pretty much a standard beer in any brewery’s repertoire, and one that shouldn’t be too hard to brew consistently well. I fondly remember drinking a lot of this beer before it disappeared, and hoped the new guys didn’t screw it up.
The first bottle, I forgot that just like the Keller Pils, which advertises it in the name, the Hop Pocket Ale is unfiltered, so there’s a bit of yeast sediment in the bottom of each bottle. It isn’t really meant to be poured into the glass. So after I figured that out, I poured more carefully, and then took notes (and pictures). The Ale still pours a little cloudy, hence the murky orange-amber beer you see there, topped by a thick finger of beige head. Initially very little of the dry-hopping (Mt. Hood and Cascades hops) is evident, as it’s more of a soft, fruity nose instead of a citric, spicy blast, so the yeast profile has taken over. Grumble. I let the beer sit for a few minutes, and the yeastiness sort of died down, replaced somewhat by a mild orange-grapefruit aroma.
After letting it sit, the Hop Pocket flavor wakes up, too. Gone is that mealiness of the yeast; a pleasant bitter bite greets me, with a real balance from the malt like the days of old: not sweet and caramelly, just a slightly grainy, bready flavor that counteracts that bitterness. I really like the hoppiness here. The Ale finishes palate-cleansingly, appropriately dry, readying me for my next taste.
Overall, the Hop Pocket isn’t quite as bright or focused as I remember, which could simply be my memory, but the move to St. George doesn’t seem to have had a major impact on the beer. I have to be more careful pouring it, apparently, but otherwise I’m pleased it’s back and available to me if I’m willing to travel a bit for it.
The Keller Pils, of course, is a different beast. Lagered and unfiltered, the Pils is unusual: there are few beers available in this country with that description (Southampton Keller Pils should again be around NYC shortly to remedy that). The key, as with the Hop Pocket Ale, is to limit how much yeast makes it to the glass.
The Keller Pils pours noticeably lighter than the Ale, a hazy, pale orange/light golden color, topped with a thick off-white head. Again with the estery, fruity, yeasty aroma, though, despite keeping the yeast out of the glass as much as I could manage, and this is joined by the smell of iced tea — not exactly what you want to find in a fine pilsner. Once again, I allowed it to sit, though not too long.
While the aromas did not disperse as readily as with Hop Pocket, the flavors in the Keller Pils made up for this problem. A nice background hoppiness, grassy rather than citric, greets my mouth, and provides bitterness to complement the still-somewhat-fruity malt backbone. This isn’t what I expected nor desired, and to Tuppers’ credit, its prominence declines over the course of a bottle. There’s a bit of malty sweetness tucked away in there but after a few sips that too is wiped out, replaced by the weedy, kind of spicy hop flavors I expect — it’s quite a “green” flavor component, and it struck me that this is pretty much exactly what friends mean when they say a beer tastes like chlorophyll. It’s apt.
The beer finishes much as how it tastes, not particularly cleansing, but decent. All in all, the Keller Pils wasn’t as clean and ‘sharp’ as I prefer, but it’s an easy drinker (at 5% abv) with a lot of hop character once it opens up.
Essentially, Tuppers’ beers are worth a look if you find yourself on the Eastern seaboard, and if you happen to know a person who’s enthusiastic about beer, that person would probably much enjoy sharing either of these with you. Are they the best ever? Maybe once upon a time, yes, but I think I’ll need another sample before I can say for sure whether either the Pils or Ale has that potential again. I wasn’t overwhelmed this first time trying it since the big brewery move.
In the meantime, your better East coast lager breweries serve up some tasty pilsners in similar veins to tide you over. Look to Victory Brewing for their outstanding (draft-only) Braumeister Pils series. The aforementioned Southampton Keller Pils is a definite winner, also, and newly-arrived Sixpoint Sehr Crisp lager — Sixpoint will soon spin its lager brewing into a new brewery name, rumor has it — is all over the city now as well. As for pale ale, well, everyone makes one, but enjoy Sierra Nevada’s for the Cascade hops, or Ithaca Pale Ale, and even Stone makes a decent, dialed-back pale ale.
The warm weather is just about upon us — if we all say that in unison, surely it will come true — and sometimes, you need that change in the seasons to start drinking refreshing, quenching beers. Patrnize your local beer store and see what they can recommend to you!