At first glance, Fred Karm may not look like a rock star, but looks can be deceiving. Once you are in his presence, his passion for beer and his overall energy is just as contagious as the vibes given off by the greatest front men in music history. Sure, he’s not exactly belting out goose-bump inducing high notes like Robert Plant singing Immigrant Song or strutting around like Mick Jagger, but Karm’s vision and execution, albeit less flamboyant and self-indulgent, is propelling Akron, Ohio’s Hoppin’ Frog Brewery’s rise to the top of the charts in the world of beer.
The way that charisma and excitement has manifested in the Hoppin’ Frog product line has helped Karm gain national attention for the uncompromising quality of the beers his brewery produces. In fact, Hoppin’ Frog was named the #17th best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com for 2011. How did the brewery get here in just five years? It all began when Karm was the Brewmaster at the Thirsty Dog brewpubs during their rise in the late 90′s and collapse in the first half of the naughts. Fred always dreamed of setting out on his own and producing a line and a label that fit his approach and personality perfectly. “I always wanted to start my own brewery from the first time I brewed my first homebrew, like so many homebrewers” he recollected. “The name came from my name. ‘Hoppin’ is usually what we’re doing when we’re in the brewery – we seem to be very active, on our feet the whole time – it almost looks like we’re hoppin’ around. My nickname has always been ‘Frog’ and it made sense to try to incorporate that into the name of the beer. By using the combination of ‘Hoppin’ Frog’ it allowed us to also reference one of the two main ingredients in beer, so it worked great and had a double edge that seemed so positive. That’s what I am – I am Hoppin’ Frog. In fact, the logo is a loose rendition of me holding a beer.”
Since deciding on the name and starting Hoppin’ Frog in 2006, Karm has seen the ‘little brewery that could’ grow from a modest lineup of six beers to over 15 offerings available over the course of 2011. Two Great American Beer Festival Gold Medals and countless other awards later, Hoppin’ Frog has progressed so far that it may be hard for someone else to remember the company’s humble roots. Not for Karm. He’s still quick to not only tell but show anyone who asks that, while he’s thrilled to be here and considers the job extremely fulfilling, he knows how lucky he is to have made such a splash doing what he loves.
“I think starting a successful brewery making high-end beer, and marketing it appropriately enough to stay in business is my biggest accomplishment so far. We’re in a niche of the beer business that is more risky, but it can be more rewarding because I’m brewing the beers I really want to drink. These are the ones I seek out when I go to other parts of the world or other parts of the country. Now I’m making them and being able to market them to people that enjoy them as much as I do. I couldn’t be happier.”
While the number of employees has grown, the quality and love put into each batch and each bottle hasn’t suffered – in fact, I would argue it’s built on and improved the legacy that the first batches of beer established. That quality needs to be a cornerstone for any small operation, as the marketplace is getting more crowded every month. Since economies of scale can work against small brewers, cost can pose a challenge, but not if the product is worth the price. “Keeping costs down has been the biggest challenge so far. At the beginning I did everything. That’s my background – I’m Brewmaster more than I’m president. But I’m also the president now and that has it’s own set of responsibilities.” Part of those responsibilities includes managing a growing number of employees and making sure Karm’s vision is executed properly even when he’s not the one manning the brew kettle. His talented staff make that more of a joy than a chore and I can tell the Hoppin’ Frog crew is just as proud of the product and happy to be representing the brand as Karm himself.
Never content to rest on their laurels, Karm and the Hoppin’ Frogs keep pushing forward. That spirit of conquering the unknown and pushing boundaries is a cornerstone of the philosophy Hoppin’ Frog puts into their beer. That pursuit is no more apparent than in the relatively recent introduction of DORIS, a huge Imperial American Stout that one online reviewer noted drinks like “a cigar dipped in espresso and covered with chocolate” and Hop Damn, an unbelievably overloaded locomotive of lupulin that still manages to stay on track. Not content to simply brew big beers, the brewery fired up a barrel-aging program in 2009 and quickly gained national attention for their barrel aged version of BORIS, often mentioned among the best wood-aged beers in the country. Bourbon Barrel Aged Frosted Frog followed, and, although the beer seemed a bit more polarizing than BORIS in terms of beer-geek feedback, I think it was one of the most innovative beers of 2010. Just wait and see – there will be many, many more spiced winter warmers given the bourbon barrel treatment in the near future.
2011 has seen Hoppin’ Frog push forward again, winning a stunning 5 medals in 4 categories at the International Beer Festival and gaining internet notoriety with the release of BORIS Royale. Royale is a version of their flagship Russian Imperial Stout aged in Canadian Whisky barrels – again breaking new ground for barrel aged beers and producing quite a tasty, sought-after treat in the process. To celebrate his fifth year in business, Karm found inspiration in a recent trip to Belgium and crafted his new masterpiece, Barrel Aged Naked Evil Belgian Barleywine.
“When I tried this beer at La Trappe that was barrel aged (La Trappe Quadrupel Barrique), it was pretty impressive” Karm reminisces. “At first, it hit me as being complex and intense and I thought ‘this is what I wanted to find’. The other beers I encountered in Belgium were subtle, they were crisp, they were perfect, but this one satisfied the need for over-the-top beer flavors, especially like the ones we like to make here. So I’m tasting this beer and thinking that this may be the best Belgian beer I’ve had– the vanilla from the oak really smoothes out the spiciness from the Belgian character. I thought about if I’d had this before, and I think I had but don’t remember, but I wondered why I hadn’t experienced a Belgian beer where the oak character really stood out like this. It left me in a beer euphoria for a bit and, when I finally snapped out of it (maybe 10 or 20 minutes later), I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to offer a beer like that for our fifth anniversary’ – a beer that would be Belgian and barrel-aged. I had never considered doing a beer with those qualities but at that point I was destined to, I just had to figure out how.”
And he certainly did figure out how. Once perfecting the recipe, 12 barrels were filled, netting 250 cases of bottles. The beer was sent to distributors but won’t be in every store that stocks Hoppin’ Frog beers. There just isn’t enough to go around. But more will be coming down the line, at least another batch or two by the end of the year (more on that later). From the first glance I took at the 22oz bottle I purchased at the brewery on the morning of the release, it was apparent that this beer was special. It lacked the typical Hoppin’ Frog design, and the plain white label with black text instantly reminded me of a beer a brewery like Belgium’s world famous De Molen would release. For Karm, it’s all a conscious (but not necessarily calculated) move to go “back to basics. When we went over to Belgium, we wanted to get back to the root of beer making. We want to visit some of the other famous Meccas in the world of beer soon, but Belgium gave us a chance to get back to our roots and experience the ‘beer religion’. Over there, some of the beers have plain labels and it made me think of my homebrew days. I used to print them off by using Word Perfect back then. There was no design on them or anything – it was just information – but somehow they were intriguing and looked nostalgic and classic. I wanted to get back to that.”
I couldn’t wait to try the beer, so I cracked a bottle the evening after the release. Here’s what I noticed…
Hoppin’ Frog Barrel Aged Naked Evil Belgian Barleywine
Before I begin my review, I must say that this beer straddles the line between a Barleywine and a Belgian Quad and rating it as either would be an injustice. So, I’m basing this on my personal experience in lieu of comparing it to BJCP guidelines.
I poured the beer into my Lost Abbey glass and tried to stir a billowing head, but, thanks to the barrel aging, there was nothing but a wisp of white around the edges and a small film on top. No worries, that’s pretty much the norm with these big brews. The color is a remarkable shade of amber with some garnet and orange in the mix. It’s lighter than the typical, traditional American ideal of a Quad, perhaps more of an “Amber Quad” as Karm suggested to me. The beer is mostly opaque with some noticeable carbonation. This is a great start!
The smell is decadent and I must indulge for a while as my mouth waters. There’s a huge note of vanillin from the oak, countered with nice esters from the Belgian yeast. There’s no caramel as normally tends to be associated with Barleywine; likewise, the dark fruit flavors of the Belgian Quad are also subdued. A hint of ripe fruit and barrel mustiness round out a unique sensory experience, followed by a noticeable but welcome alcohol presence. The nose on this beer is sublime. The taste is more of a wild ride. Initial barrel notes dance with sweet malt sugars, peaking in an orgy of intensity. The yeast adds some spice and depth, then the booze takes over. This is by no means a subtle beer. That being said, I expect an 11.3% beer to have some alcohol warmth and, to me, it’s up to the supporting cast to save the beer from falling off the ledge to the canyon below. This beer manages to hang on, but will certainly get better with age as the preceptable alcohol notes subside. The ending gravity and residual malt characteristics are heavy, but the beer is among the lightest quads without a ton of caramel, but with the residual sweetness required to offset the high alcohol. The train pulls into the station and grinds to a halt, then all that remains is a burst of steam, a memory of fruitiness, some vanilla and oak. Smacking my lips after each sip is mandatory and fulfilling.
The mouthfeel is spot-on. There’s a nice body that borders on being very full but also doesn’t have the extreme heft of some beers in its weight class. The creamy carbonation hits with just enough emphasis to stop the beer from being syrupy. That kiss of carb breaks up the warming alcohol nicely and, coupled with the nice lingering woody elements, keeps me coming back for more. Overall, I really like how this beer turned out. The barrel has taken the borderline overly sweet base beer (which I was lucky enough to try in its truly naked form) and added depth and tons of flavor. This runs laps around the Stone Belgo Barleywine (not even a fair comparison, really, but I’m sure some will make it due to the similar use of the title for this emerging style) and is really a unique foray into a relatively unexplored genre. With some time, the slight peak of the alcohol will integrate and this will be a beer we talk about for years to come. I highly recommend picking up an extra bottle for the cellar!
Does Bobby Like Hoppin’ Frog ‘Barrel Aged Naked Evil’ Belgian Barleywine?
So, what’s next for Hoppin’ Frog?
Five years is a significant achievement for any business. It’s around that time when you really start to feel established and a bit comfortable. But Hoppin’ Frog isn’t sitting back.
More barrel-aged beers are coming in the next year. There are six barrels of Frosted Frog that have been aging for almost a year. Another release of Barrel Aged BORIS aged in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels is on the horizon (in fact, the base beer makes up about 1/3 of the Hoppin’ Frog capacity), and Karm hints it wouldn’t be surprising to see Barrel Aged DORIS in the next six months. Not to mention BA Naked Frog will be produced again a couple more times in the next year; the purpose of the beer is to celebrate the fifth year of business and not just the particular day five years after the doors opened. A special batch of Hop Damn was just brewed for the Fat Heads IPA festival in October, so look for this triple IPA to make a serious run for the top prize. And who could forget that Frog’s Hollow Pumpkin Ale, the current reigning GABF gold medal winning ‘Field Style’ category brew, has just been released. If there’s any opportunity at the end of the season, Karm says he wouldn’t mind putting some Frog’s Hollow in bourbon barrels but can’t promise anything depending on timing, demand and availability (after the marketplace gets their fill, of course). Plus the long awaited coffee versions of BORIS and Silk Porter, dubbed Café BORIS and Café Silk, are still planned for an inevitable release.
But that’s not all we can look forward to in 2011 and beyond. Karm would love to do a collaboration brew in the upcoming year, and one particular Belgian brewery has captured his attention and taste buds. “We will most likely be going to the Copenhagen beer festival (around May 2012) and then hopefully do something over at DeMolen. We did a beer dinner there on our Belgian trip. We were so excited and couldn’t imagine anything more fun – a beer dinner overseas at the #5 brewery in the world! So I started doing my homework and discovered more about their brews. Their beers are kick-ass. They capture your attention on the shelves with their simple design. Their beers are hands-down one of the best, certainly better than mine. Now that we’ve become friends it’s even cooler! That’s what I was looking forward to more than anything when I heard there was interest in our beers overseas – hanging out, drinking beer and hopefully combining ideas with people I can barely talk to except for the way we communicate through beer.”
When I asked him about the possibility of opening a tap room in the future, Karm said it wasn’t in the immediate cards but it seemed like everyone but him is really pushing in that direction. He knows that an investment like that will spread his time even thinner, but there could be some space available on the other side of the building Hoppin’ Frog inhabits in the near future. I personally think that, for him, it comes down to the fact that he still feels like there are beers to be brewed and innovation to happen in the brew house. Until he’s fulfilled in that dimension of his business, it’s hard to imagine him shifting his passion elsewhere.
But the biggest future developments aren’t planned or known by the Hoppin’ Frog staff or even Karm himself. That’s because Karm is looking forward to innovating once again on his homebrew system, which has been just recently been relocated and installed in the brewery. “I’m looking forward to developing new beers that I haven’t even conceived of yet. We just put in my old homebrewing stove in the brewery and we can do homebrew. That will be my little lab area, my test kitchen. We have some wild ideas as well as awareness of some obvious things we should be doing…like a Black IPA, but that will require some research and homebrewing to perfect – I won’t release it until it’s just right. Other beers and beer styles I want to develop aren’t even something I want to mention; some of them go back to my homebrewing roots when we did these insanely wild beers you would never consider brewing in a commercial environment. But we’ve learned to do things that other people claim our systems could never do. I’ve had this system since 1996 at Thirsty Dog. We won 16 medals at GABF on this system before Hoppin’ Frog ever started. I feel like I’ve learned this system so well that we can pull off anything we try.”
See, isn’t it just like a rock star to get us fired up during the encore then leave us wanting more? The future will make clear what new beers emerge from Akron’s own hometown brewery and what accolades come their way, but there’s no doubt that tomorrow looks bright. Here’s to another 5 years of awesome beers, and many more after that. With Karm’s passion and positive energy propelling the brewery forward, it seems like these frogs will keep hoppin’ in the brew house (and up the charts) for a long time to come.
Hoppin' Frog Photos and Photo Gallery
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