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Thirsty Thursday: Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale

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Photo by Ed Miller

Welcome to Thirsty Thursday, a weekly column where we pick a beer from our fridge and review it, because in a world where two new breweries launch every single week, sometimes we need some help sifting through all of the hops.

As another week in quarantine continues, I decided to walk to my local bottle shop and replenish my beer supply.  The only problem is that my bottle shop had a little less than usual, so while I got some local stuff, it was all beer that I previously featured on this column.  So, while I encourage you to continue to drink local and support the small hyper-local breweries in your area, this week’s beer comes from a major producer and is considered by many to be one of the original gold standards when it comes to IPAs – it’s Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale.

Founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1985 by Larry Bell, the company originally began as a homebrew supply store in 1983 under the name Kalamazoo Brewing Supply Company but after commercially selling his first beer brewed in a 15-gallon soup pot, Bell’s dream was evident.  Within a handful of years, Bell significantly ramped up production thanks to a 15-barrel system and hired five full-time employees – he even opened the very first onsite pub at a Michigan brewery in 1992.  Fast forward to today and Bell’s Brewery employs over 600 people, brews upwards of 500,000 barrels per year and is the seventh largest craft brewery in the United States, as of 2019.

To continue to grow and evolve that much over more than three decades is extremely impressive and speaks volumes for the quality of beer Bell’s produces.  Bell’s has won a whole slew of medals over the years, including gold at the 2008 World Beer Cup for Porter in the Brown Porter category and silver at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival for Roundhouse in the Double Red Hoppy Ale category.

But it was Two Hearted Ale that earned the highest honor when it was ranked as the top beer in the country for three years in a row, from 2017 to 2019, by the American Homebrewers Association’s magazine, Zymurgy.  It finished second the previous seven years, behind Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder, so that should tell you something.

Photo Courtesy of Bell’s Brewery on Instagram (@bellsbrewery)

Originally brewed in 1987 with different ingredients, the Two Hearted Ale that the brewery now mass produces was perfected in 1997 as a winter seasonal but, because of its success, Bell’s elected to make it a year-round offering in 2003.  A decade later, it became Bell’s top seller.  It’s a 7.0 ABV American IPA – named for the Two Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – that is brewed entirely with Centennial hops from the Pacific Northwest.  According to Bell’s, this beer features aromas ranging from pine to grapefruit, thanks to massive hop additions in the kettle and fermenter, which is balanced out nicely by a malt backbone and the brewery’s house yeast.

The label of Two Hearted Ale is incredibly simple – and I am cool with that.  It features orange lettering and an orange background, with a realistic-looking fish – I’m not sure what type because I’m not much of a fish guy – that appears to be underwater, swimming along the river, as the focal point. Not only does the label explain that the beer features 100 percent Centennial hops, but it also gives the aromas, the shelf life and the ABV.  I always love it when all the information is there, so I can act like a wannabe snob.

While it comes in bottles and various size cans, including a 19.2 ounce beast, I’m enjoying the more traditional 16-ounce “pounder” can for this review.  It had been a year or two since I’d enjoyed it but I remembered it was one of the best of its category.  When I cracked it open, I immediately went in for a honking whiff, knowing that all of that aroma was still jam-packed into the can.  I noticed a pretty serious citrusy aroma, that had the hint of grapefruit, along with a little pine, both of which Bell’s mentioned in the beer’s description, but there was also this underlying smell of biscuit brought about by the malt.  It all mixed together well but might be the only category that just doesn’t completely shine for Two Hearted Ale.

As far as the pour goes, I wanted to go full-nerd , so I used my 20-ounce nonic glassware which was recommended for Two Hearted Ale by Bell’s on their website.  It poured a rich copper color with just a little straw coloring when the light hit it the right way, all while the head was an off-white, slightly brown color.  The head was fluffy and really got me excited to take my first sip.

From that very first sip, it’s clear this is a well orchestrated beer.  There’s no arguing that it’s a medium-bodied effort, providing just the right amount of carbonation to complement the taste.  I feel like it almost coats my throat and leaves me salivating to finish the remainder of the can.  The carbonation isn’t overdone and takes a backseat to the star of the show, the rich malt flavor and abundant hops which are beautifully balanced, creating a biscuity, floral taste with a splash of that citrus from the nose and a burst of dry bitterness on the back-end – a burst that makes it difficult to put it down.  It’s incredibly drinkable for a slightly higher ABV effort and, to be perfectly honest, it’s probably the definition of an American IPA.

With my mind already made up about my score after the first half of the beer, I went to BeerAdvocate to see what others had to say about it.  The website itself scored Two Hearted Ale an impressive 95 out of 100 and it has an astonishing average score of 4.3 out of 5.0, based on a whopping 15,384 reviews.  I would score this beer an 8.7 out of 10.  The only spot it doesn’t completely blow me away is the aroma but other than that it’s a dynamite beer, one I could drink anytime of year – and one I could drink several of in one sitting.  A friend of mine calls Two Hearted Ale one of the “OG” beers, because it’s been around since we started drinking and it’s really the standard on which many others have been scored.  It was good then, it’s good now, and it’ll continue to be world-class for the foreseeable future. 

Stay tuned for next week, because I might just try something from your favorite brewery.