Ahhh… the first review of a new year. The next beer on my schedule was going to be Dogfish Head Punk’n Ale, however that seems an odd choice to ring in the new year. Now DFH 120 on the other hand seems more than appropriate don’t you think? It’s a beer that needs no introduction to the initiated. To those still learning, it is the king of big, hoppy beers. It is big, bitter, rife with alcohol, expensive, and the probably the most hop-laden beer you will find any time soon in a brewery of this size. It sits around 18% ABV and at 120 IBUs (bitterness measurement), when most IPAs only rate from 40-80 IBUs. Make no mistake, this is not for rookies nor the weak. It is a hop bomb in every sense of the word and I’m ready for an explosion. Let’s pour!
Aroma 11/12: This is much sweeter than I anticipated with honey drizzled green apples bursting from the pour! Soon after is a fresh bed of pine needles, apricot flesh, and orange rind with lesser grapefruits and lemon zest. No citrus is safe. The alcohol warmth is plentiful without overpowering the delicate citrus. An area of concern is that the acidic citrus combines with this warmth and occasionally reminds one of a rubbing alcohol instead of a natural beer warmth. Thankfully, this fades relatively quickly as the beer warms. Hiding behind this virtual produce aisle of citrus is a bit of caramel and a roasted, grainy malt. It is not a dark caramel and blends excellently in with the hops.
Appearance 3/3: The head is rather diminutive from a rather aggressive pour, but what head is produced remains for a long time and leaves a sheet of lace on my glass. The beer is just short of being completely opaque; a bit of a surprise in an Imperial IPA. Usually, one sees them a bit lighter, but this is not a usual IPA. The color is rusty with lighter, squash-toned edges. Not a lot of hues here, since the center of the glass is so dark, but the few colors available are very attractive.
Flavor 19/20: Ummm… consider me very confused. This is supposed to be a hop bomb, but the initial flavors are gobs of rich, delicious honey and waves of creamy caramel. It is astonishingly sweet and absolutely delicious! The citrus makes it too bright to be maple syrup-like, but it only falls just short. Without letting up one bit, this beer rhinocerous-charges full speed into the backbone and dumps in a crate full of the fruits from the aroma: primarily apricot, but also hints of the brighter citrus are present albeit less distinct. When held in the mouth a peppery hop begins to show, as does the tingle of warmth, a bit of green apple, and a very light bitter. Keep in mind all of this is against the backdrop of the rich, sugary caramel. The finish is the first time the sweet, sweet malt begins to subside and allows the hop bitter a brief say in the beer’s composition. It’s also a showing of the beer’s hop content for such a sweet, potentially mouth-watering beer, to leave such a dry finish down the center of the tongue. The aftertaste barely hints at some “American” piney hop flavors, and leaves intense (but not loud) bitter. As if one accidentally chewed a small portion of an Advil, not the whole pill.
Mouthfeel 5/5: Of course with this level of sweet malts, it results in a supremely smooth, full-bodied beer. It doesn’t come close to being syrupy, and this is undoubtedly achieved by the drying hops. The alcohol that was worrisome in the aroma was hardly a factor in the flavor and never came close to overpowering the other monster flavors. The carbonation is appropriately low and the legs on this beer are ridiculous. It literally clings to every surface it can. I swear I see fingernail marks as it slides down.
Overall Impression 10/10: Big, huge, caramel-laden, full-bodied, experiment that pushes the boundaries of beer. The packaging as a whole is rather misleading. Instead of blatantly plopping a bottle of hop oils in front of the drinker, DFH has chosen to let other aspects the hop shine, especially in the aroma. The malts may have second billing, but they steal the show in a very surprising way. Not in a “this is here for balance” type way, but more like a “thank goodness the hops are here to balance out all this crazy sweet malt” type way. Big-but-still-able-to-show-nuance is not something that every brewery can manage, but DFH pulls it off here.
Total 48/50: “They” say that 120 isn’t a beer for everybody and I can only say they’re half right. If you’re a novice beer drinker, you may not enjoy this. However, if you have an affinity for craft beer this beer definitely deserves a try and some props. It’s not an over-glorified bottle of pine resin (though I’m not sure how fresh this bottle is), nor is is big for the sake of big. It’s a full-bodied, smooth, warm, sugary sweet, giant of a beer that shows us what else hops can do when they’re not being slammed down upon our palates.
My initial paragraph was clearly written on reputation alone. This bottle shatters it own reputation and provides a unique and surprising experience. My wife even found this drinkable! In fact, she sipped this more readily that some other hop aggressive beers that I have brought home. Needless to say, not the hop bomb that I was expecting. Buy it. Try it. You can’t miss this beer.
In finishing, I’ll simply quote the bottle. “What you have here is the holy grail for hopheads. This beer is continually hopped over a 120-minute boil and then dry-hopped every day for a month. Enjoy now or age for a decade or so.”
Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!