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If you've heard of only one Ballast Point beer, it's probably Sculpin, an IPA named after a family of small bottom-dwelling fish that sometimes bear venomous spines. At press time it was ranked number 43 in the world at Beer Advocate. Only 11 pale ales or IPAs were deemed better, and just three of those are readily available here.
I'd originally planned to write about Sculpin alone this week, but while visiting In Fine Spirits on Sunday, it occurred to me that the shop's "mixed six-pack" policy would allow me to affordably review three Ballast Point pales side by side: not just Sculpin but also the plain old Pale Ale (often called "Yellowtail Pale Ale") and the Big Eye IPA. As it turns out, though, the "Pale Ale" is in fact a Kölsch-style beer, information I feel should appear on the bottle somewhere.
Of the three beers, the Yellowtail is unsurprisingly the lightest in color. It smells mildly of fruit—banana, red pear, green apple, a little lemon—and strongly of sweet uncaramelized malts, though they run a little to musty, with a whiff of grassy hay and an intrusive note of burnt biscuit that's unusual for the style.
The flavor is a one-two punch of biscuity malts and cleanly bitter noble hops, with the latter dominating the aftertaste. (Though come to think of it, "punch" is maybe too strong a word for such a friendly, accessible beverage.) The fruit from the nose recurs in a more subdued form, and I can also taste straw and wet slate; despite the sweetness from the malts, the beer finishes dry, almost astringent, with its bitterness shading into a chalkiness that I'm iffy about. The odd burnt note appears in the flavor profile too, which makes Yellowtail feel slightly heavier than most Kölsch-style beers I've had. It's certainly tasty, but I'd have a hard time buying it again, at least from any place that also sells Metropolitan's Krankshaft.
Big Eye and Sculpin are both IPAs, as I think I've mentioned, and if you're this far into a beer column I don't need to tell you what IPAs are like.
Big Eye is the darker of the two beers, and might have a fluffier head (though it might just have foamed up more because I poured it into a slightly smaller glass). Its aroma is woodsy and zingy, with lots of pine, jasmine, and honey up front, followed by white grapefruit and a bit of papaya. I especially like Big Eye's creamy mouthfeel, and its hefty malt bill gives the beer the deep toffee and caramel flavors it needs to balance its Columbus and Centennial hops—they're aggressively resiny and piney, with notes of grapefruit rind, pineapple, and scallion. The astringent finish carries on maybe a little too long for my taste, so that a powerful drying bitterness overtakes the sweetness from the malts. As delicious as Big Eye is, I think that finish would make it a poor session beer, at least for me.
Now, about Sculpin. This is Ballast Point's most widely loved beer, described on the brewery's website as having "bright flavors and aromas of apricot, peach, mango & lemon." It's lighter in color and body than Big Eye (they're both about 7 percent alcohol), presumably to avoid smothering those tropical hops in sticky malts. I can definitely pick up peach and mango in the aroma, as well as candied orange peel, cilantro, lemongrass, pineapple, cedar, and touches of the toffee and jasmine from Big Eye.
I might be missing some subtleties on account of getting to this after Big Eye, whose hops sort of scorch the tongue. But I think it's safe to say that Sculpin is an unspectacular but inexhaustible beer. That is, it's the kind of great you want to keep coming back to, and it accomplishes it without being showy.
Sculpin's flavor follows its aroma closely, which in my experience is rare in an IPA—they often smell better than they taste. It's wonderfully balanced, and because nothing overshadows anything else, real complexity can happen. It's fruity and floral first, grassy and piney second, with a pleasantly spritzy mineral brightness and a slight herbal funkiness wrapped around subtle, buttery caramel malts. The bitter finish lacks the drying feel of Big Eye; instead it's juicy, like ruby red grapefruit flesh. I could return to this beer again and again, both because it's not palate fatiguing in the slightest and also because its flavor just keeps unfolding like a fractal.
Since late 2010 Ballast Point has sold Sculpin in six packs, and that's how I'd recommend you buy it—even though a sixer will run you about 15 dollars, compared to 11 for Big Eye and Yellowtail. That might seem pricey, but ounce for ounce it's the equivalent of a bomber that costs less than five dollars—something you won't find with a beer of this quality. Bombers of Sculpin, in fact, tend to go for between eight and ten bucks.
In keeping with Ballast Point's seagoing theme, here are two cuts from Pelagial, the new album by proggy German postmetal collective the Ocean. (It came out April 30 on Metal Blade.) The word "pelagic" refers broadly to the open ocean, and Pelagial's songs take their names from the different layers of its waters, starting with the sunlit epipelagic zone and progressing to the hadopelagic, which refers to the largely unknown environment in abyssal trenches. The album's sound follows this movement, growing darker, slower, and heavier from track to track.
The bathyal or bathypelagic zone is often called the "midnight zone." Here's "Bathyalpelagic II: The Wish in Dreams."
The next track is called "Bathyalpelagic III: Disequillibrated." According to the band, the album is intended to be played as one unbroken piece of music, and that's how they intend to perform it live.
Pelagial was originally written as an instrumental album while the Ocean's singer dealt with health problems. The band has also released a version sans vocals, which is streaming at Spin.