Beer Review: New Belgium Hemperor HPA

New Belgium Hemperor, courtesy New Belgium Brewing

New Belgium Hemperor, courtesy New Belgium Brewing

I’ve tasted a lot of different IPAs over the last few years, including many from the recent fad of flavor-infused ales. Breweries, in an apparent effort to capture the palates of a broader audience, are adding things like tangerine and mango to help ease people into hoppy beers. New Belgium Brewing is one such brewery, with entries like its Voodoo Ranger Juicy Mandarina. But the brewery’s latest might take (or even bake) the cake: The Hemperor HPA.

My first question was, “What’s an HPA?” My assumption is it stands for “hemp pale ale,” versus “India pale ale,” so we can presume there is an attempt here to create a new sub-style, similar to the Northeast or New England IPA craze going on right now.

Brewed with hemp hearts to bring out the aromas and flavors of the controversial plant, a New Belgium press statement calls The Hemperor “the next big thing in hoppy beer” with “a mystical marriage of hops and hemp.”

So, I got myself a pint glass and cracked open a bottle of the new, mystical beer – and the smell of hemp seemed to fill my kitchen within seconds. I poured the copper-colored beer into the glass, took a whiff, and my first thought was something to the effect of, “Apologies, Dark Horse Brewing Co., but this beer actually does smell like a safety meeting.”

Or a rich kid’s dorm room. Or the inside of a customized van in 1974. Or a Cheech and Chong meet-and-greet.

Once the beer opened up and the aroma surrounded me, I wondered if the next beer on my list should be a PPA (patchouli pale ale) – it was that powerful. If you ever spill some of this stuff on your clothes, throw those clothes into the hamper immediately to avoid police suspicion.

The flavor of this beer is exactly like what the aroma suggests – it hits you hard as soon as it reaches the palate, yet the base beer makes an appearance as well. The underlying brew, listed at 55 IBU and 7 percent alcohol by volume, at least seems like a soft-textured APA more so than an IPA, even though it’s brewed with four different hops, including experimental HBC 522 hops (is there a 420 hop yet?). I got the feeling the brewers intentionally kept the beer out of the way of the hemp.

Actually, my palate detected most of the bitterness coming from the distinctive and weird, earthy hemp. As I took a sip, then two, letting my mouth get accustomed to what it was experiencing, I noted that at times this beer tasted like I was drinking a rope. But at other moments, I enjoyed the crispness and hints of the beer underlying, with a slight sweetness that did its best to balance. Then, just as quickly, my palate would again recoil from the oddly nutty hemp.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is an interesting experiment, and for the right palate, The Hemperor is probably magic in a bottle. For my palate, however, it's anathema. By halfway through my 12-ounce serving, the hemp flavor was loitering heavily on my taste buds, worrying me that it might end up crashed on my couch for the next month.

That said, I’m a “legalize” guy, and at the very least, the folks at New Belgium are trying another way to get hemp products more accepted into the mainstream. One dollar from every barrel sold will be donated to Hemp 4 Victory, a campaign by Willie Nelson’s company GHC Inc. to raise awareness and promote pro-hemp legislation.

“Hemp has such a diverse set of benefits to the environment, to industry and to American farmers,” said singer-songwriter Micah Nelson, son of the famed country artist. "This campaign will bring attention to the spectrum of products and businesses that will improve when industrial hemp is free to thrive in the US.”