Hop Slam vs. Ray Slam

Cloning a favorite beer is a tough task.  Trying to figure out a recipe by the seat of your pants, i.e., tasting and guessing, can be fun but the odds of early success are long.  Often you can find a clone recipe in a book or on the intertubes, but you have to be careful of the provenance, sometimes those recipes are good, sometimes not.  I have actually heard a number of success stories simply based on calling or e-mailing the brewery in question.  Brewers are generally a good lot, and often they are willing to give you some pretty strong clues to their recipes.

Ray, a good brewing friend and beer brewing mentor loves Bell’s Hop Slam, and he took the latter route and got some good feedback from the brewery.  Recently he acquired a couple of cases of Hop Slam and made his own clone.  He offered me a bottle of each, and I decided to put him into the cold light of a serious one on one comparison.

What are the rules of calling a beer “cloned”? After all, it is easy to find subtle differences in different batches of the same commercial brew.  I think the concept that was used on the Brewing Network’s “Can You Brew It?” show is a good one: if you were drinking the commercial version of the beer at a party or a bar and your second beer was the cloned version, would you notice a difference?  This is a pretty fair metric and it is consistent with the spirit of home brewing.

So how did Ray do?  Well, lets first look at color:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture is almost unfair.  Ray’s clone, on the left, looks very much darker than the Hop Slam.  And it was, but the photo does exaggerate the difference.  But it had a nice white head just like the Hop Slam.  Would a person enjoying a casual beer notice a difference?  Maybe, maybe not.  Side by side, sure.  But if you had finished your glass and a second beer was brought to you, you might not notice.  Certainly if Ray were brewing this again I might suggest adjusting the grain bill just a bit to lighten it up, but all in all, pretty close.

Aroma?  Well, some differences emerged.  The Hop Slam gave me a slightly resinous aroma with apricots and maybe a little mango.  These aromas were not as strong in the Ray Slam, and there was also a slight ethanol sweetness that was not as evident in the Bells.  Noticeable in the casual setting? Maybe.

The flavor differences were another story.  The Hop Slam was slightly piney in flavor with apricot and mango.  It had a nice light body (for a 10% ABV beer!) with a slightly catty and cloying finish.  The Ray Slam had more subdued hop flavors that were dominated by some alcohol warming that while not unpleasant was certainly different from  the Bells.  In fact the Bells has a bit of an earthy hop bitterness in the finish that in some ways is similar to the alcohol warmth from the Ray Slam.

So cloned or not cloned?  Well, I am afraid I will tell my good friend that it is not cloned.  Not that he made a bad beer, but it is noticeably different from the Hop Slam when compared side to side.  And I think a discerning beer drinker would notice that difference, too.  The alcohol warming was not strong enough to be called solvent like or unpleasant, it just stood out as different.

Why the difference? I point to fermentation, which I think is often the difference maker in home brewing.  Hop Slam is a 10% ABV beer, and it uses some honey to lighten the body. With that much food, the yeast will go to town and it is easy for the fermentation to proceed a little hot. Even in a cool room the wort can build significant heat during fermentation.

So how do I like the Hop Slam?  I don’t think it is my favorite IPA.  Of course, I also prefer a chocolate cake with chocolate icing over a white cake with chocolate icing.  Do I hate white cake with chocolate icing?  Nooooo.  I will eat it up.  Same way with the Hop Slam.  It is a great beer, but I think if you offered me a Southern Tier Unearthly IPA, well, my choice would be clear.  Hop Slam is the white cake.

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