DESPITE BEING a craft brewery in California, where IPAs are basic currency, Firestone Walker did not release one of their own for a full dozen years. Union Jack IPA only arrived in 2008, seven years after Matt Brynildson came over from Goose Island to be their head brewer. In an insightful chat with Paste, Brynildson says the long wait gave Firestone time to sample the field and cherry-pick all the qualities they most wanted in the ideal IPA: what ABV would best coax out hop resins, precisely which cultivars would complement their Pale 31 base template, et cetera. Some might have responded to such a challenge by escalating—bigger is stronger is bolder is better—but Firestone Walker is nothing if not measured. Fortunately for us, that rare quality shines through brilliantly in Union Jack.
No doubt, though, the beer is still big: 70 IBU, 7.5 % ABV, and with quadruple the hops per barrel than its Pale 31 compatriot. Its ammo includes “old” faithfuls like Magnum, Cascade, and Centennial as well as dry-hopping with newer tropical phenoms Amarillo and Citra. Given this panoply it was prudent to establish an equally strong malt base of slightly sweet, slightly tangy summer fruits that march straight through from start to finish, allowing the hops to sortie out for excitement here and there without weakening the core. The relative complexity of the grain bill also gives Union Jack a splendid orange-gold color—clear at 8 SRM but still vibrant, well-carbonated, and with an energetic foaming head.
Its first impression is of tangy orange with a burst of Magnum hops up front, then a lasting decline before a second peak just preceding the finish, where that dream team of dry-hops held in reserve takes the field. Naturally not all of them were necessary (really, when are a half-dozen hops ever necessary) but the smoothness of their combinations and broad balance between so many flavors makes for a truly elucidating drink. A dose of alcohol then sweeps through to break up the fray, leaving the finish with a bit more focus and balance than the opening salvo had implied.
Yes, Union Jack is a West-Coast IPA, but compared to some higher-caliber cousins it has admirable poise. In a show of force that shuns braggadocio as much as inoffensive pandering, it’s about as well-rounded an American IPA as one could hope to find.
Served: 12 oz bottled 7/24/13