By John Antolos
Price Range : $5 - 12
Region: San Diego, California ABV: 7.5% IBU (Bitterness Units): 60
Our ongoing series on the essential craft beers that everyone ought to know.
Ask any ten beer lovers for a list of their favorite IPAs and, chances are, after some gentle disagreements, you can get them to agree on FIRESTONE WALKER’s Union Jack.
From its humble beginnings in a shed on Firestone Vineyards in Los Olivos, Firestone Walker Brewery has grown into an international brewing powerhouse, making some of the greatest and most creative craft beers in the country. Its first beer was the famous Double Barrel Ale (DBA), an English pale ale that was first produced in 1996. DBA is still partially fermented in a modified Burton Union system of new American oak barrels, naturally providing mellow vanilla and tannins to this most unique flagship beer that, outside of Marston’s in Burton-on-Trent, is the only brewery in the world fermenting beer this way. DBA joined an ever-expanding lineup of beers produced by small brewers that were bucking trends by producing hoppy beers that would appeal to an ever-growing crowd of beer geeks looking for something more in their beers.
Fast-forward to the mid-2000s, when West Coast IPAs were redefining the very world of craft beers. Pale ales like DBA were no longer sufficiently hopped for evolving tastes, and California brewers were cramming their beers with hops (hence “West Coast” IPAs), pushing the IBU and ABV meters ever upwards. Although a good portion of the West Coast IPAs were being produced in San Diego*, Firestone Walker threw its Central Coast hat into the IPA ring with Union Jack IPA, first released in 2008 (yet, it should be noted, NOT brewed in the Firestone Union method).
Union Jack is a beautiful golden amber color that pours with a thick, foamy head. The rich hoppy fragrances just titillate your olfactory senses with scents of mango and papaya mingling with grapefruit. This beer has a hop-forward flavor profile, dominating the taste buds with bitter hints of pine followed by the more subtle flavors of citrus and tropical fruits. However, the hops are restrained enough to let a bit of the bready malt backbone peek through, avoiding overwhelming the taste buds with the intense bitterness characteristic to many West Coast IPAs today. The Union Jack also clocks in at 7.5% ABV, which puts it pretty darn close to double IPA territory, but you would never know it. While full-bodied, it is superbly balanced so you wouldn’t consider this an overwhelmingly strong beer based on taste and mouthfeel.
What makes the Union Jack IPA even better? Pairing it with a great burger! There’s nothing like a good fatty burger to highlight the qualities of a great IPA. While delicious on its own, the burger really accentuated the tropical notes in the Union Jack. It was such a perfect pairing, and is there anything better than a meal that comes together so perfectly?
The Union Jack is still one of my go-to beers. In addition to being a great IPA, it’s one of the few left that you can pick up without busting your beer budget. The Union Jack is just a superbly made, beautifully balanced IPA that satisfies on so many levels, a classic in the truest sense—representing a stylistic peak that will outlive many of the current brewing trends. —J.A.
*Other great tasting San Diego classics are Green Flash’s West Coast IPA, Pizza Port’s Swami’s IPA, and, of course, Stone IPA (as reviewed earlier).