This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
Looking backward from 2020, it seems weird to think that there was a time when Two Hearted Ale was not the beloved flagship of Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery. In fact, it’s not even accurate to call Two Hearted the second Bell’s flagship. It’s actually more like the third.
Once upon a time, Bell’s (first batch of beer was brewed in 1985) was a company built on amber ale, and Bell’s Amber Ale was one of the first iconic craft brews of the Midwest. As I’ve written about before, this was an era when American amber was often king, offering a bridge for curious industrial lager drinkers into the more challenging waters of the “microbrew” scene. Bell’s Amber, as the spearhead of the company’s first ventures outside of Michigan, was the first Bell’s beer that most people encountered, especially in markets like Chicago, where demand quickly outpaced supply. At the time, it probably seemed like amber ale was going to be the company’s most important beer forever.
Times change, however, and the 1992 introduction of a seasonal wheat beer called Solsun—the name later changed to Oberon—proved to become a sensation, eventually becoming Bell’s biggest-selling beer despite only being available for part of the year. “Two Hearted Ale,” meanwhile, had originally been introduced all the way back in the late 1980s, albeit with a different recipe. It wasn’t until the name was re-used for a new, Centennial hop-focused IPA in 1997 that the Two Hearted we know and love today was born, and it took another six years for that beer to finally become a full-time member of the roster in 2003. From there, the cult of Two Hearted grew exponentially, eventually surpassing Oberon in 2013 (it’s a shock to me that it was this recent) to become the overall Bell’s best seller. Which is to say, Two Hearted definitely took its time on the path to becoming the uncontested Bell’s flagship, but it got there eventually.
And what we were rewarded with is what surely must be one of the craft beer industry’s most universally loved flagships. Two Hearted is fascinating to me in that way—it’s one of the very few beers that everyone seems to enjoy and respect, regardless of the prevailing trends of the industry at any given time. People who love old-school IPA unsurprisingly venerate Two Hearted, but folks who are obsessed with hazy, juicy IPA still seem to love it as well. Nobody has a bad word to say about it. Outside of say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Allagash White, Two Hearted feels about as well liked as any single beer in the history of American craft brewing.
Which is extra interesting, because Two Hearted isn’t really the most complicated of beers, nor has it ever really claimed to be. It doesn’t boast a complex blend of hop additions and varietals—it’s 100% Centennial. It’s not the biggest, or the boldest, or the most bitter. It doesn’t even have “IPA” in its name, amusingly speaking to an earlier era when those words didn’t command a total premium in the minds of marketers. But damn if Two Hearted doesn’t satisfy its fans, year in and year out. It’s a Midwestern beer icon, and it’s still a giddy little thrill when you realize you can now buy a 16 oz can of it at a White Sox game.
This isn’t a beer I’ve ever gone a long time without revisiting, so I’m not expecting to be particularly surprised by what I taste in Two Hearted as I revisit it for this piece. Let’s see how it’s drinking in 2020.
Tasting: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
First, here’s how Bell’s describes their flagship:
Brewed with 100% Centennial hops from the Pacific Northwest and named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this IPA is bursting with hop aromas ranging from pine to grapefruit from massive hop additions in both the kettle and the fermenter. Perfectly balanced with a malt backbone and combined with the signature fruity aromas of Bell’s house yeast, this beer is remarkably drinkable and well suited for adventures everywhere.
I’ve always found Two Hearted to have a pleasant and distinctive floral dimension, which doesn’t always get mentioned in other tasting notes I’ve read, and it’s the first thing I again notice here when I stick my nose in the glass. It’s flowery, resinous and fresh, with grainy notes underneath that are wheat bread-like, and the suggestion of light honey sweetness. It’s a hoppy ale, for sure, but not necessarily bombastically so—you get the sense from the nose that both malt and hops are well accounted for.
On the palate, Two Hearted is fairly unique among the other IPAs I’ve been tasting for this flagship series, and a perfect time capsule of how people pictured IPA in the early 2000s in particular. Bitter, pithy orange marmalade is my first thought, along with wildflowers—it really is a very floral beer—along with some biscuity malt rounding things out. There is indeed a bit of malty sweetness here, but it’s sort of easy to miss on first inspection because the bitterness in Two Hearted is quite sturdy and persistent, lingering on the tongue well after each sip. Further sips bring an acclimation to that bitterness, however, revealing a bit more malty sweetness and grapefruit citrus. Regardless, an IPA like this tends to read as very dry indeed to the modern beer geek palate, accustomed as it has become to juicy, fruity, sweet India pale ale. Two Hearted displays no interest in that kind of sweetness. It’s not about to change now, after spending all this time and effort to get where it is.
Revisiting Two Hearted this time, I can’t help but think that it might not be the easiest IPA for a pure newcomer to the category to gravitate toward, if they’re just exploring craft beer for the first time in 2020. It will not, after all, be reminding anyone of candy anytime soon, and its bitterness is authoritative and long-lasting. It’s a reminder that for many of us, beers like this were a taste we acquired gradually, rather than a starting point that instantly captured our attention with promises of immediate delight. Perhaps that’s why so many longtime beer geeks remain so fond of Two Hearted—it represents the journey our tastes have collectively taken, as much as it also parallels the evolution of Bell’s as a company. It’s been a long, bitter ride, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.