Ah, I can still smell the kitchen at my grandparents’ house in Upper Peninsula Michigan. Beer-battered fried fish; roast lamb; Grandma Jean’s curious, yet delicious, concoction of ground beef, pasta, tomatoes and bell peppers called Slumgullion. Memories. To this day I can’t imagine a world without the powerful sense memory of coffee and raisin bran permeating every pore of that kitchen and breakfast nook.
My grandmother loved to eat healthy. It was she, in her maternal and all-knowing manner, who would insist I had, whenever possible in such non-tropical climes, fresh grapefruit for breakfast. No way I could eat that stuff raw. Such an unappealing presentation. Half a sphere just sitting in a bowl staring up at me… waiting for me to wince at its painfully bitter bounty. Reach for the sugar bowl and scoop scoop. Funny how life works out where, decades later, I can pour myself a pint of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale and time travel back to those childhood memories of breakfast disdain only to suddenly find myself absolutely adoring this incredibly flavorful ale.
The beer itself is named after the Two-Hearted River which flows out of western Upper Peninsula Michigan and into Lake Superior. This is Larry Bell, owner and brewmaster extraordinaire, proudly representing his Michigan roots by taking one of his most dynamic creations and putting a little geography into the name. The beer, like the land through which the river winds, is rugged and expressive. To travel through the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula is to be given a lesson in beauty. Untouched acreage of old-growth forests, lakes formed from ancient glacial activity, deeply-rolling hills stretching for miles and wildlife to launch a thousand hunting permits… or nature-lovers’ cameras, whichever the case may be. Larry founded his project in 1983 as a home brewing supply store but quickly changed concept to full-scale brewery just two years later. For the last 27 years he’s witnessed the changes in trends, paid close attention to resources and requests within the craft ale community and, ultimately, arrived at the most simple, yet genius, observation about beer I’ve heard in a long time.
While paying his second visit to Pensacola, he and I had a chance to sit down and talk shop. In fact, it was the very same Two-Hearted Ale I’m reviewing now which was the topic of discussion. I remarked about how he seems to fully understand the chemistry behind ingredients to craft such a wonderful beverage. He was quick to correct. “It’s not chemistry, my friend, it’s biology!” Epiphany. Of course! Natural ingredients with proprietary strains of yeast to enact fermentation upon the choice hops. Living things becoming something greater. An eye-opening statement about a simple beverage most of us tend to overlook.
So where did the grapefruit go, you ask? All over this complex India Pale Ale. Straw-to-gold color pour with a beautiful head of dense thin bubbles. The lacing hangs down the sides of the pint glass like antique curtains. The nose is an almost candied grapefruit with big malt sweetness present despite the heavy spiciness of the hop oils. Flavor is a perfectly-balanced dusty citrus rind bitterness with giant, tangy pink grapefruit notes tempered flawlessly by a malt backbone of biscuit-and-hint-of-maple sass. One quality never truly dominates the other, rather the two flavor dynamics keep circling each other like West Side Story switchblade knife fighters. I even pick up the faintest hit of chamomile tea towards the finish. Another memory facet of my time in the U.P.? Perhaps.
Mouthfeel is smooth with a very noticeable carbonation fizz; crisp but slightly slippery thanks to those abundant hop oils. Ultra-clean finish with the flavor profile lingering around long after each sip. Completely drinkable ale with a slight, 7.1% alcohol by volume kick… one could easily sit down with a few of these and feel satisfied. The juicy citrus quality of Two-Hearted keeps the mouth watering and asking for more making this a perfect ale to pick up with the weather growing more and more sticky and just-west-of-Hades-like.
This beer is a kid spooning heaps of sugar onto his healthy breakfast to balance out the bitterness of grapefruit. What a jog down that gravel road to the family house called memory lane.