Hops and Reconciliation: Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

This was the worst beer I'd ever tasted. I'd heard it talked about in such hushed, almost reverential, terms that I barely hesitated to shell out nearly a buck per fluid ounce of the stuff at Spec's Downtown. Later, as I poured about $7 worth of the beer down the drain, I wondered what the hell everyone was going on about.

That was nearly a decade ago, most of which time I spent telling everyone, whenever it came up, how resoundingly awful Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA was. When bottles started appearing in local shops recently, I figured it was high time to give it another try, especially given that my sole experience with the stuff had come when I was a decided craft beer virgin. I felt differently this time.

120 pours a dark, clear orange brown, with quite a bit of gradient from top to bottom. A rather aggressive pour yields a voluminous head that can't decide if it wants to be rocky or creamy. In either event, it settles down quickly, opting for a thin, pockmarked but gently textured cap. Significant, Swiss-Cheesy lacing follows the beer down the glass.

The aroma leads with citrus and booze-soaked cherries. Then there's more booze. It's actually boozy enough that when I spilled a bit and some got in a cut on my hand, there was a telltale sting.

As the hops turn resinous, a sense-memory flashes through my brain: the sticky scent of pine tar, welded to our hands after climbing ponderosas for an afternoon, pelting each other with prickly cones. Then molasses, with its faintly tart edge. A deeply toasted grain aroma undergirds everything, like the last viable seconds of a roux before it's burnt. A dangerous, thrilling smell that speaks of promise and peril.

The first sip surprises with a wallop of almost shockingly bright, citrusy flavor up front, almost aerosolized on the alcohol it rides in on, like orange-oil Binaca. The bitterness is bracing, though matched by sweet malt. The sweet/bitter/citrus combination reminds me a lot of some sort of Italian Amaro. Amaro Nonino, in particular. The heavy malt component adds depth and a framework for what might otherwise be a cloying sweetness and overpowering bitterness. Here, it's more like a richness that provides justification.

Halfway in, and I'm starting to feel the 15-20 percent ABV estimate. I suppose it doesn't help that I also knocked back a comparison shot of Amaro Nonino. It wouldn't do to draw that line without verifying its validity. Science and journalistic integrity are crosses I bear for you.

As it warms, its woodiness and hoppy bitterness come out more, along with a much more upfront rendering of its high alcohol. The finish, though, rounds out dry and tasting vaguely of strawberries.

Looking back, I can see why I had such a strong reaction. This is, after all, a strong beer. There's a lot going on, none of which is subtle, and much of which is downright challenging. That challenge also makes it an interesting beer, once you're ready for that sort of thing. Ten years ago, I wasn't. These days, I'm always up for a challenge, though at such a steep price, I don't think I'll take this particular one again.

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