FACEOFF: Bell’s The Oracle vs Kalamazoo Hopsolution Ale
Double IPA vs Double IPA
10.4% ABV vs 8.4% ABV
We haven’t done a faceoff for quite a while, and we love the idea of making beers defend themselves against their similar bretherens. You’ll remember that last time we forced Bell’s Hopslam to go head-to-head against the Troegs Nugget Nectar. Today we’re making Bell’s face off once again, with another contender – itself. Sort of.
The Kalamazoo Brewing Company emerged in Illinois back when Larry Bell yanked all his product out of the Land of Lincoln. We here were sadly Bells-free for a pretty long time, until Bells dipped their toes back into the Illinois market with some semi-Bells beer. The KBC released some pseudo-Bells clones like an “American Unfiltered Wheat Ale,” obviously an Oberon clone, amongst some others.
Karl spoke with Larry back when that happened, which you can read about here . Fast forward to three years later, and Kalamazoo has changed its attitude from “tiding you over” to “Illinois exclusive.” Indeed, the Hopsolution is an IL-only beer and Oracle is available in most of the Midwest…except for Illinois. Somehow we got the two under the same roof – so which state(s) will emerge as the lucky ones? Will we be forcing Illinois to suffer the lack of Bell’s The Oracle? Or will we Chicagoans be sneering at the rest of the Midwest saying “neener-neener, we’ve got the better beer”?
Two different Double IPAs, essentially from the same brewer, for different markets. Who will reign supreme? Let’s find out!
Before we start the real head-to-head, let’s get the physical description out of the way. Both these beers are actually surprisingly similar in color and general appearance. There’s a touch more head and lacing on the Oracle, and the Hopsolution is definitely hazier, but not completely opaque. They both have the same deep orange copper color, however – so much so that we had to be very careful not to get the two glasses confused.
Here’s where we start seeing differences, so let’s split off and handle this separately.
Sayeth the Guys:
Karl: Even before the first taste, the smell alone is startlingly different. Well, the smell on one of them – because the Hopsolution didn’t have a hint of scent. The Oracle, on the other hand, kicks your face in the ass with pineapple and hops, hops, hops. This bodes poorly for the Hopsolution – if I don’t get any hops on the nose, will there be any in the glass?
Thankfully, yes. The taste on the Hopsolution offers considerably more than the nose. For a fairly lightbodied beer, there’s a surprising amount of complexity here. Hops at the front, then a caramel flavor develops, and then, at the end in an overwhelming wave, the taste of miso. Yes, miso soup right at the end. As the Hopsolution decants and opens up, that caramel flavor begins to dominate and drops in intensity. It almost feels like the body continues to lighten up as well.
Now, the Oracle has just a couple things hammering away at you. First, it’s almost pineapple extract right at the front – pure bright sweet citrus, not too tart but almost sugary, followed by a truckful of piney hops. It’s a lumber yard full of hoppy pine that hangs out on your palate and signs a yearlong lease. This flavor will not leave. Within 2 sips my palate was burning out. The Oracle asks permission for nothing and then offers no apologies. It eventually turns to spice, pepper and pine, with that pineapple dying off. That murderousness doesn’t stop, tho – no quarter is given throughout the full pour. The high ABV is very present, though – the boozy burn always hangs out as well.
You could have probably seen this coming, but I’m deeming this Faceoff victory to the Oracle. Overall it’s heavier, more intense, thicker, and plain ol’ dominant. I don’t want to get too conspiratorial, but could the Kalamazoo be a slightly extended middle finger towards Illinois? Congrats, Michiganders – you win this round.
Ryan: My beer-geekery was still in its infancy when I was introduced to both Bell’s and the Kalamazoo brand of beers. Bell’s, which at the time was not available in Chicago, was a complete unknown to me. In fact, knowing I could not get it is what piqued my interest in the brewery. When I would make trips to Michigan for work I would constantly be on the lookout for Oberon and, actually, just Oberon. The flag pole wasn’t even planted yet to allow my beer geek flag to fly high so I didn’t know about Hopslam, Expedition Stout or Bell’s other offerings. The Kalamazoo brand, on the other hand, was everywhere in the Chicago area and seemed like a reliable substitute for Bell’s. So, I did what anyone former news reporter would do; I did my due-diligence and sat down with a six pack of Bell’s Oberon and a six pack of Kalamazoo’s American Unfiltered Wheat Ale. They, sadly, were not the same beer. Close – but not quite. The same goes for the Kalamazoo Hopsolution Ale. It was not a Two Hearted clone.
So imagine my surprise when word started to trickle out this fall that Illinois would not see Bell’s The Oracle this year, which was a Michigan only release in ’09, but we would see Hopsolution re-appear in the market. And low-and-behold a few weeks later I picked up the Hopsolution a day after coming back from a business trip to Michigan where I snagged The Oracle. Not really remembering much about Hopsolution and being impressed, but not overwhelmed by The Oracle last year, I was excited to see how these two would fair head-to-head.
The Oracle gives off a nose full of pineapple. There are loads of citrusy hops here mixed in with some passion fruit. It’s almost like opening a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. Citrus dominates on the palate; mango’s, peaches and tangerines. A bit of caramel then kicks in to balance things out followed by black peppercorns and a boozy finish. The flavors of The Oracle are so robust and commanding. The pineapple and citrus up front are pucker inducing and the malts give you a brief reprieve before you get smacked by the spicy, pepper finish and then the alcohol burn that you can feel all the way down your throat.
Hopsolution was not quite a younger brother to The Oracle, as it was a second cousin. A distant one. The two are fairly close in appearance and ABV but that is about it. Hopsolution doesn’t give much away in the nose. In fact, it doesn’t give anything away. I can’t smell much at all which, frankly, is disappointing. The first few sips perked up my spirits with a smooth and citrus hop profile and borderline dominate caramel flavor. The finish is far less abrasive than The Oracle. Hopsolution is very laid back and the 8% ABV isn’t detectable.
So who takes the cake? The Oracle. Hands down. That’s not to say Hopsolution is a bad beer, and maybe I’d like it more on its own, but The Oracle stole the show.