HARPOON LEVIATHAN IMPERIAL IPA

This is Lord Mashtun Copperpot and Commander Pint O. Chug’s first tag-team tasting note. Like many of our joint ventures, we hope this is a complete and utter train wreck. And if so, we will be sure to consistently duplicate the effort.

Now, we harbor as much nostalgia for Harpoon as the next guy, having grown up in New England and spent our formative years in a fraternity basement frequented by an alum who worked for Harpoon (even if he did occasionally arrive with UFO in hand). As such, we have heard a lot — too much — about the Harpoon Leviathan series.

The years have not been kind to Harpoon.  With innovative breweries like Oskar Blues, Founders, Avery and Victory distributing their aggressive, complex, smooth ales throughout New England, Harpoon has been forced to keep pace. The brewery is probably best known for its classic IPA, which was fine a decade ago, but it now tastes like Bud Light with half-melted ice cubes compared to the offerings from these new breweries. I am certain we’ve never been accused of being anything but haters and reactionaries, so we’d pretty much written off Harpoon for dead (for those who balk at this sentiment, have you ever tasted their Celtic Ale? Then be quiet.). Which is why our friends Doctor Ripped van Drinkale, Baron Sudsy von Brue and Barley McHops piqued our interest when they gave glowing reports of the Harpoon Leviathan series: Harpoon’s attempt to innovate and compete with the expanding beerscape before them. Could Harpoon be making a legitimate comeback?

Obviously, the style of this beer is an imperial IPA, and it has an ABV around 10%.  We’ve featured some of the best of that style this site in the past, 8 of the 10 best of which the undersigned aleheads have tried between us.  Unfortunately, as they have before, Doc and Baron and Barley sold us down the proverbial river.  The two of us independently sampled Harpoon Leviathan Imperial IPA, compared notes, and found it equally disappointing.

Both Commander and Copperpot got 4-packs of bottles from their local package stores.

The Imperial IPA appears orange, nearly red.  Its fluffy white head reduced to a film almost instantly, and left spotty lacing on the side of the glass.  The moderate-to-high carbonation (for the style, anyway) is apparent from looking at the glass.

Perhaps the best attribute of this brew is the aroma.  It smells divine: super hoppy, with fruity esters and a little bit of alcohol gassing off the top.  And based on smell, we’d put this beer up against all the others on our top 10 list.

Thankfully, you don’t just smell beer.  Not so thankfully, Harpoon’s Leviathan Imperial IPA goes sharply downhill after you smell it.  Actually, the first sip is pretty good, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that the beer goes downhill after you take the first sip.  There’s a peculiar bite to that first sip, however. Call it an ominous foreshadowing. Either way, we were not impressed by what follows.

Nobody wants this in their beer.

Problem #1: the hoppy flavor is one-dimensional.  Now, the brewery will tell you that they used four varieties of hops to make the beer.  Fine–you win.  It still tastes funny.

Problem #2: the pale and caramel malts overpower everything else in the beer.  The flavors we got from it were not things we wanted to find in the beer: things like candy bar, butter, banana liqueur–even bubble gum and (gulp) metal, which are better known as descriptors for music than for beer.

Seriously, f--- you Gordon Biersch. Nobody would ever confuse this with your schlock.

Problem #3: to the extent not covered by #1 and #2, this beer is way out of balance.  Hops and malts don’t play nicely together.  There’s a huge wash of cloying malt, followed by a gum-twisting hop cannon, followed by a heavy alcohol burn.

Problem #4: the combination of 10% ABV and super maltiness makes the Imperial IPA drink like sesame oil.  It’s also a little too carbonated for the style–and in a way that doesn’t distract enough from the syrupy quality of the beer.

Problem #5: by now, we’re used to paying $10-12 for a six-pack.  We have more trouble paying that for a 4-pack.  Oskar Blues Gordon (f— you Gordon Biersch)?  OK.  Dogfish 90?  Fine.  But paying $2.50 a bottle for Harpoon’s Leviathan Imperial IPA is just insulting.  This beer was clumsily made.  Yes, it’s hoppy.  Yes, it’s malty.  Yes, it’s boozy.  Yes, it smells great.  But it should go without saying that a good beer is more than the sum of its parts.  And this doesn’t fit the bill.

So what is the all-important (or utterly unimportant, depending on your perspective) rating that we give to this concoction?  On the one hand, it’s still better than about 80% of all beers on the market.  On the other hand, we try to rate beers relative to their style, and this is almost a disgrace to other imperial IPAs.  The bar is just too high, and Harpoon is out of their comfort zone. So after much deliberation, and several attempts to actually enjoy the beer… we give it a 2.0.

And you could persuade us it doesn’t even deserve that.

Lord Copperpot

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2 comments

  1. I think our 2 Hop rating criteria pretty much sums up the whole of Harpoon:

    2 Hops: A mediocre beer. You’ll finish it, but you won’t be happy about it.

    There are exceptions to this rule of course. When Barley and I were speaking of the Leviathan series, I think we were both talking about the fantastic Baltic Porter (At least I know I was). Harpoon does have the ability to produce good beer, but for the most part they produce mediocre versions that fall in the middle of any style. There’s definitely some really good finds in the 100 Barrel series and maybe a couple of good one’s in the Leviathan line that I just haven’t come across. There’s also plenty of duds mixed in there as well. If I have a choice, I’m usually grabbing something else from a finer Ale factory.

  2. Actually, count me in the apparent minority that actually likes the Leviathan Imperial IPA. I bought a four-pack a couple months ago and thought it compared favorably to Great Divide’s Hercules. As for the other Leviathans, the Baltic Porter is definitely a “best in class” version of a somewhat rare style, as is their Triticus (a wheatwine). One Leviathan brew I DON’T like is the Imperial Red Ale which I think is an extremely pedestrian version of a style I’m generally willing to give a lot of leeway to.

    Sorry you two distinguished gentlemen didn’t enjoy the brew. I’m certainly not a Harpoon apologist…actually, I think I’ve been harder on them than any craft brewery not helmed by Sam Calagione since the site started. But they’re still capable of greatness and while the Imperial IPA may not fall into that category, I personally think it’s a little better than you both thought. To each his own…

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