Beer: Pugachev's Cobra Brewery: Hangar 24 Craft Brewery Style: Imperial Stout ABV: 13.8 percent
The creation tale of many leaders of the craft beer industry began with a hobby; homebrewing. In need of a downtime activity, today's master brewers started cooking up and bottling beers. They soon found they were good at it -- so good that they could brew for a living. Their hobby became their passion, and their passion became their profession.
But after the mountaintop is reached, what replaces the hobby? What does a brewer do with his spare time? Jeff Brown, the president of Boulder Beer Co., is a master cyclist who's competed in several bicycle racing events. Adam Avery of Avery Brewing Co. loves to go rock climbing. But Ben Cook, founder and master brewer at Hangar 24 Craft Brewery, may have the coolest hobby of all.
Airplanes, that is. The story of Hangar 24 began, appropriately, in hangar 24 of the Redlands Airport, where Cook (a licensed pilot) and his friends would often meet after a day of flying to talk planes and drink beer. Eventually, that more earthbound hobby won Cook's interest, and he followed it from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys, California, where he worked quality control, to the Master Brewers Program at the University of California-Davis. After graduation, Cook picked up some brewing equipment and opened Hangar 24 Craft Brewery right across the street from his favorite airfield.
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The brewery, which flew into Arizona's burgeoning craft beer fleet on March 20, is known mainly for two things. The first is its popular flagship, Orange Wheat, a refreshing dram brewed with California-grown oranges. The second is its Barrel Roll Series, a group of strong barrel-aged brews that first saw distribution in 2010 with the release of Immelmann, a bourbon-aged porter. Some of the beers in the series were one-time deals, while others come out every year. So far, there have been seven unique Barrel Rolls, but the most popular is Pugachev's Cobra.
To make this substantial imperial stout, brewers combine three different roasted malts and maple syrup throughout the brewing process, then place the fermented beer in freshly emptied bourbon barrels for eight months. Variations in the aging process have toned down Pugachev since the beer's first release in December 2011. The brew that year came out at a brain-melting 16.5 percent ABV; the December 2013 version is only* 13.8 percent.
Each of the beers in the Barrel Roll Series is named for an aerobatic maneuver, and Pugachev's Cobra is no different. The move is pulled off when a pilot suddenly raises the aircraft nose to near vertical while the plane is still moving forward, then drops back into attack mode, like so:
Badass, no? It's a dangerous and breathtaking maneuver -- much in the same way that taking on a bottle of Hangar 24's Pugachev's Cobra is dangerous and breathtaking.
Poured into a snifter, the brew is, paradoxically, fairly thin and unimposing in appearance. It's dark, sure, but watery, and the head is nearly nonexistent, with bubbles as fizzy as those in a soda, popping away in no time at all. A whiff, however, gives the first glimpse of what's to be the theme of the evening: sharp, woody whiskey. The bourbon character is strong, though notes of sweet vanilla, brown sugar, butterscotch, and marshmallow can be discerned beneath.
Tangy, bittersweet dark chocolate coats the tongue as the beer is sipped. The whiskey flavor is again wood-soaked -- drinking this is like sucking on a oak chip. Alcohol flavor is likewise impressive -- this is almost more whiskey than beer -- but the sharp stuff is smoothed out mid-palate by tones of vanilla and buttery toffee.
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Though the body is smooth and soft -- a fleece blanket of beer -- it does come with a similar layer of heat from the substantial alcohol. This is a brew that we'd call "hot," which means it could stand a few months of aging at least. If you can find a bottle, put one in the ol' cellar to settle down while you spent some time on your hobby, whatever it may be.
*Still a shitload of alcohol.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.