Craft Beer of the Week

Bell's Mars: Music-Inspired Beer

Beer: Mars, The Bringer of War Brewery: Bell's Brewery, Inc. Style: Imperial India Pale Ale ABV: 10.1 percent

Optional musical accompaniment to this post. Listen while reading and the review will sound WAY more epic.

Like most artists, brewers draw inspiration for their work from many different sources. Sometimes the spark is found in the people and animals around them; on other occasions, they may be influenced by a particularly delicious dish. For most brewers, however, the most important muse is music.

See also: Old Bisbee Salut: After Thousands Of Beers, This One Is Unique

Dogfish Head may be the most prolific beer-maker in this regard, having produced a number of musician-inspired ales including Bitches Brew (a tribute to Miles Davis), American Beauty (Grateful Dead), Positive Contact (Deltron 3030), Faithfull Ale (Pearl Jam) and Hellhound on my Ale (Robert Johnson). But Dogfish is hardly the only brewery to take its cues from song. In 2012, the Lost Abbey released a 13-track "Box Set" with beers inspired by songs like Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. Every year, The Bruery puts out another link in its 12-part series of beers inspired by verses in The 12 Days of Christmas. All over the country, craft brewers are weaving music into their own creations. One form of artistic expression begets another.

While hard rock and metal are the main musical genres connected to beer, Bell's Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan went a slightly different route and found a composer to orchestrate its next crop of limited releases. The series, called The Planets, was inspired by Gustav Holst's orchestral suite of the same name. Written between 1914 and 1916, the arrangement has seven movements (Holst left out Earth, which isn't observed in astrological practice, and Pluto, which isn't a planet despite what you were taught in grade school), with each movement showcasing a different celestial body. To Holst, each planet had its own character and personality, and, as a result, very different musical attributes. The series will be released in the order of Holst's piece -- Mars to Neptune -- and will look something like this:

  • Mars, The Bringer of War, which we'll get to below.
  • Venus, The Bringer of Peace: a blonde ale brewed with honey, apricot, cardamom and vanilla bean. Released in October.
  • Mercury, The Winged Messenger: a Belgian single. Released December 2014.
  • Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity: a malt-forward brown ale. Released February 2015.
  • Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age: a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine. Released April 2015.
  • Uranus, The Magician: an imperial black IPA. Released May 2015.
  • Neptune, The Mystic: a "mystical stout." Released July 2015.
The first release in Bell's Planet Series, Mars is an imperial IPA developed from a test batch called Larry's Latest Double IPA first brewed at Bell's original brewery in downtown Kalamazoo. Its source material is the first movement of Holst's piece -- a booming, crashing arrangement that sounds like the backdrop to every epic movie battle you've ever seen. Composer John Williams said he used Holst's "Planets Suite" as inspiration for the soundtrack to Star Wars -- listening to Mars, you can't help but picture the Death Star loading up and firing on an unsuspecting Alderaan.

"Bringer of War" is an appropriate name for this aggressive ale, which was bittered at a ratio of about 3.4 pounds of hops per barrel. The resultant hop character is resinous, almost sticky, with aromas of candied grapefruit, grass and lemonheads backed by a sugary malt character. Hazy and burning orange, the liquid is capped by a dense, sticky off-white head with a good amount of cling. Move into the brew's flavor and you'll notice a more-pronounced maltiness led by an almost funky sugary quality, like a Caribbean rum. Lemon zest arrives alongside prodigious bitterness and very noticeable alcohol fumes. Lively carbonation bubbles things up in the medium body before a surprisingly clean and balanced finish.

For fans of hops (and fans of classical music), Mars is a must-grab. Venus is next -- to get your anticipation-meter up, here's a photo of brewers "dry-beaning" the blonde with 60 pounds of hand-sliced vanilla beans.

Look for her in October.

Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle