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.
Somewhere deep, long ago in the crevasses of memory, there was a time when Paste didn’t really conduct blind tastings of beer and spirits. That cursed era—you might think of it as “the before time”—came to firm end somewhere around 2012 or 2013. It’s difficult for me to say for sure, but a major watershed moment was the very first time that Paste conducted a large-scale blind tasting of American IPAs. And that was also arguably the beginning of our longstanding appreciation of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., the company we would eventually laud as the #1 overall American brewery of the 2010s.
The tasting in question was conducted in the form of a 64-seed tournament, playfully titled “Top of the Hops.” The lineup is fascinating to look at now in 2020, capturing as it did a field of well-liked American IPAs as they existed only a short while before the sea-change of juicier, hazier IPAs would begin to transform the style in the U.S. The 2013 Top of the Hops lineup, on the other hand, captures a specific moment in time when the idea of “West Coast IPA” was still king, even as some of the underlying influences that would eventually push us in the direction of hazy, juicy IPA were beginning to merge.
When the dust settled from that momentous first tournament, the winner was Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA, narrowly triumphing over Cigar City’s equally beloved Jai Alai. It was a big moment for both Firestone Walker and for Paste’s editors, setting us down a path that would eventually see us do absurd things like blind tasting 324 IPAs over the course of 17 days. It’s safe to say that we might never have gone down that road otherwise, and it’s also safe to say that our appreciation of the original winner Union Jack was never dulled, either.
Times do change, however, and even though Union Jack is one of the newer beers in this Flagship February series (it made its debut in the mid-2000s), it’s hard to overstate how much the market for IPAs has evolved even since that tournament in 2013. Indeed, the average thing labeled “IPA” today is almost unrecognizably different in its approach than the average beer labeled “IPA” seven or eight years ago, and there’s no shortage of beer geeks who would now look at a beer like Union Jack and immediately think of it as antiquated.
Looking at an outline of the beer’s recipe, which Firestone helpfully provides on their website, one can see how they would come to that conclusion. The existence of crystal malt in a modern IPA? Dry-hopping with something other than solely Citra, Mosaic and Galaxy? Sacrilege! It’s certainly not how breweries are designing their IPAs these days, but Union Jack was never meant to be an IPA that tastes like fresh fruit juice running down your chin. There’s a big citrus element there, yes, but this is a beer conceived in the days when many IPAs could still be expected to contain some element of both bitterness and refreshment. They were beers you consumed with food at a bar, rather than beers you wanted to freeze into an alcoholic slushie and drink out of a Big Gulp cup. They had, dare I say, a bit of dignity rather than the modern desire to simply activate every pleasure center of the brain via liquid sugar.
Thankfully, it’s not like Union Jack has gone anywhere, although the discontinuation (year-round, at least) of its beloved bigger brother Double Jack goes to show that even a great beer can be shoved up against the wall by the grim realities of a shifting marketplace. Which is all to say, we should appreciate the likes of Union Jack while they’re available to us, so let’s get to re-tasting it.
Tasting: Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
Here’s how the brewery sums up the classic West Coast profile of Union Jack: “This aggressively hopped West Coast IPA showcases stunning pineapple, citrus and piney aromas along with exceptional dry hop flavors of grapefruit and tangerine. This intense brew finds its balance in honey-like pale malt sweetness. The name Union Jack is a nod to the colonial origins of the IPA style, and to the British expatriate who co?founded our brewery.”
It’s interesting to me that the official description lacks the term “bitterness” anywhere, which makes me wonder if perhaps it’s been rewritten since the 2000s, when substantial bitterness wasn’t only an expectation but a full-fledged fad. The marketing copy here, meanwhile, only implies bitterness via the word “intense,” instead choosing to focus on the promise of fruit-forward hop flavors. Let’s see what actually stands out upon re-tasting.
On the nose, my initial impressions are of grapefruit, big meyer lemon zest, and sticky resin, but there are also hints of biscuity malt that can be found in the aroma. It’s the latter that now tends to differentiate beers like this one even from “West Coast IPA” being made in 2020, as any hint of malt presence on the nose is so often now considered to be undesirable in the style.
On the palate, this is a bit sweeter and more citrus-forward than I initially expected, although the flavors then segue into grass and resin, which arrives with a sturdy rush of bitterness as well. There’s a tiny bit of malt backbone, but you might strain to really suss it out, not because it’s not there but because the hops are dynamic and assertive—bright citrus is the #1 impression, with greener, grassier elements coming in at #2. It’s classic West Coast IPA all the way, but it should be noted that the citrus elements also incorporate some notes you’d describe as mildly “juicy”—Union Jack is indicative not only of an era of bitter, pithy IPA but also an era in which IPA was already beginning to evolve toward something more fruity and juicy, albeit with a very dry finish that promotes drinkability. You might even consider it, along with contemporaries from that 2013 Paste tasting (there’s an essay coming on Jai Alai as well), as missing links between where IPA was in the 2000s and where it is now.
What we can say, with no reservation, is that Union Jack is a delicious, appreciably complex IPA during any era of American craft beer, and that Firestone Walker took a definite step toward eventually being our brewery of the decade when it won that tasting way back in 2013. They certainly haven’t let up since, and we’re always happy to see Union Jack back in the fridge.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.