Beer: #9 Brewery: Magic Hat Brewing Co. Style: American Pale Ale ABV: 5.1 percent
There are a few ways to judge the strength of beer culture in a city. One would obviously be the number of breweries operating within the community (and judging by recent events, we've got this one). But another important indicator is the number of beers available brewed outside the state. Established breweries (usually) only expand into new territories when they determine there's a healthy market and enough demand for their offerings.
Which brings us to Magic Hat. Based in South Burlington, Vermont, Magic Hat began brewing in 1994. Sparked by the popularity of their mysterious flagship, #9, the brewery continued to grow until it was acquired by the Rochester, N.Y. parent company North American Breweries -- which also owns Genesee Brewing Co., Dundee Brewing Co., Pyramid and MacTarnahan's -- in 2010. Magic Hat's beers have been available in the West before, but in beer-centric cities like Portland and San Diego. Phoenix was passed over for greener pastures.
Until now! Beginning this week, Magic Hat beers will be available throughout the Valley. A small selection of brews will be available to start, including the fall/winter seasonal stout, Heart of Darkness, and Circus Boy, a hefeweizen. But you'll want to start with the brew that made Magic Hat famous: #9.
"The significance of #9," the brewery's website says, "is that it is far better than numbers 1 through 8. Number 2 was a Bamboo Wit; #5 a Grape Dubbel; #8 a Rainforest Nut Lager. They did not sell well."
The truth is, not even the guy who created the beer knows the significance of number 9. He does know how to craft a good-looking beer, however. Number 9 boasts perfect clarity, shining a pale tangerine-almond hue while a silky white head recedes slowly. Malts make the nose at once biscuity, bready and sweet. Some earthy hops balanced with caramel nearly perfectly.
Number 9 might be like any other pale ale if it weren't for its secret ingredient...people! Actually, it's apricot. Less exciting, but more acceptable. Not-so-secret ingredients include Cascade and Apollo hops as well as English ale yeast. In the flavor, these combine in a swirl of almond, caramel, wheat bread and ritz crackers with an earthy bite that kicks off a clean, fairly dry finish. Just a touch of sweet apricot is noticeable, which is nice -- it feels good to not be overpowered by a flavor additive. A fluffy, whipped body expands in the mouth but maintains softness with mild, massaging carbonation.
Now, if you had asked me to rank the breweries I would most want to see on Arizona shelves, Magic Hat wouldn't have been on the top of that list. It wouldn't have been in the top ten. Probably not the top 20, either. Magic Hat doesn't have the draw of Russian River, the solid base of Founders, the originality of Short's. What it does have, however, is an incredibly drinkable flagship that casual craft drinkers will find delightful. Go get some, now that you can, and take heart that we have a culture strong enough to bring in big names. Who knows what's coming here next?
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.