Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Existential Ale

New Holland Brewing Co.
Holland, MI

Style: Barley Wine
ABV: 10.5%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Pair With:
Nigel here, getting a little philosophical on your asses with his latest review, New Holland Brewing Co.’s Existential Ale. I’m not gonna lie to ya’ll (that would be very un-British of me), but I’ve sampled a few New Holland brews and thus far have not been terribly impressed. The best I’ve had is Black Tulip, a respectable Belgian trippel, but I’m still holding a grudge I've had against them since I first sampled Mad Hatter IPA, which was pretty awful. If you haven’t noticed by now, if you make a bad IPA, Nigel holds it against you for a long, long time. However, New Holland does make quite a few of the ever-popular “extreme beers,” which they refer to as the “High Gravity Series”, and they seem to be getting mostly positive buzz. Thus, I’m giving NH a chance at redemption by sampling Existential Ale with an open mind. If successful, I will officially remove them from my list of “craft breweries that promote terrorism through bad beer.” Whether or not they actually help Anheuser-Busch in its war against good beer doesn’t matter, as the U.S. government’s list of states that sponsor international terrorism isn’t necessarily accurate either (c’mon … New Zealand?).

A few months back, Baby-boy wrote a review for The Poet, another New Holland creation, by appropriately using prose. Well, Nigel is no poet, ladies and gentlemen, so that’s not going to happen. However, Nigel is an intellectual (especially after drinking a few IPAs), and would like to use his intellectual prowess to link existential philosophy with the brewing philosophy of barley wines and imperial IPAs. Think it can’t be done? Yeah, you’re probably right, but Nigel will give it a shot anyway.

Existentialism is the philosophy that the human experience is unique and thus isolated from an otherwise indifferent universe. To put it another way, the belief is that as humans, we are forced to make our own rational decisions, while living in a universe that is irrational. Thus, we define our own meanings of what being is, despite knowing that it may in fact be futile given the negative universe in which we live. This is typically an atheist view that was popular among mid-20th century socialists (socialists are not communists, despite popular belief; Marx and Engels were nothing like Lenin and Stalin). The roots of existentialism are often credited to the famed late 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, though it reached the height of its popularity in Europe during the 1930s-’50s, thanks to the death and despair caused during World War II. Perhaps the best known existentialist is French philosopher, author, and politico Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), whose idea that “existence precedes essence” became the staple of the existential movement. I’d continue with this, but I just remembered I’m writing a beer review, so I will now cease (I would suggest reading some of Sartre’s works if you’re interested in existentialism, as they are quite interesting for philosophers, historians, and lovers of literature alike).

So, how does existential philosophy translate to imperial IPAs? To put it simply, as a human in control of my own existence, I choose to get buzzed on powerful, hoppy brews, ignoring whether or not my supposed place in the universe is cool with that. Nigestentialism states that the more you drink, the less you give a shit about the irrationalism of the universe, so have another beer, dammit. Nigestentialism is essentially existentialism for hopheads, and thus, there is a natural correlation. Try to argue with me, I dare you. After all, philosophy is basically just ideas randomly spewed forth by people who are too smart for their own good, so it’s an argument you’ll never win.

As for Existential Ale, it falls perfectly into the philosophy of Nigestentialism as a uber-ballsy and hoppy brew that checks in at 10.5 percent ABV. This means the bomber that I’m about to drink will likely give me a splendid buzz and thus allow me to continue to not give a shit about what’s going on in the universe, or what ya’ll think of me. I’m already thinking my preconceived notions regarding New Holland were perhaps a bit unfair, though I’m not yet ready to apologize.

Existential Ale is described as a “hopwine” by New Holland, either an “extremely hoppy barley wine, or a really big IPA”. I’ve had plenty of “really big” IPAs, so I’m gonna go with the former on that, as this is loaded with enough barley to feed an entire nation of livestock. New Holland is kind enough to list the ingredients for Existential on the side of the bottle: water, barley (200 lbs. per barrel of American-grown malted barley), hops (10 hop-strikes, totaling 37 ounces per barrel of American-grown hops), and yeast. The result is a very hoppy brew that is far heavier on the grainy, earthy flavor of malted barley than any DIPA I’ve ever had, which is why I agree with its classification as a hoppy barley wine, despite the absence of heavy, syrupy, sugary malt that often characterizes such a brew.

Existential Ale pours with a thick, foamy, creamy head that settles fairly quickly on the pour, leaving a mild bubbly white trace. A hazy, deep orange/apricot color, it’s a nice hue, though too light for a BW and too dark for a DIPA. The aroma is unique: hops are in a perfect chorus with the sweet and grainy smell of the malted barley and the earthiness of the yeast. It’s interesting to say the least, but pleasant; definitely use a snifter-style glass to fully appreciate the aroma. The taste is also perfectly balanced between hops and malt, making this a unique beer-drinking experience for sure. Existential is loaded with malt, though only with a hint of the heavy, sweet, sugary malt that characterizes a barley wine. It’s barley through and through: earthy (aided by the yeast) and grainy, with only the slightest tinge of sweet caramel sugar. The hops are very present, but, although New Holland says they use American hops, I’d be absolutely shocked if they were Cascade. Far too earthy (yes, this is easily the one word you’d use to describe this brew) to be of the Cascade variety, I’m guessing they’re Amarillo, though they might also be Columbus or Willamette (hard to tell with the malt aroma and flavor permeating so much). The more you drink, the more it resembles a barley wine rather than a DIPA, as the sweetness increases rather than the hoppiness. Easy on the tongue, this is a medium-bodied brew that goes down smooth, with little trace of the fact that you’re drinking a 10.5 percent monster. A mild, syrupy aftertaste lingers for a bit, but is not too offensive. Without a hint of alcohol despite the powerful punch it packs, this is a well-balanced beer that is very hard to classify, but good nonetheless.

I will say I’m pleased that New Holland has created a unique brew that combines a number of quality beer characteristics. Am I ready to label them as one of the Midwest’s better craft brewers? No, not yet, but I’m not as sour as I used to be. For lovers of extreme beer with both hops and malt, this is a must-try, and for others, it’s worth a shot to taste a quality beverage that defies classification.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on October 22, 2007.
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