Hoppin’ Frog and me, we don’t see eye to eye very often. The Akron, Ohio, brewery has been a fixture on Wisconsin retail shelves for some time. But, like the frog from the old Merrie Melodies cartoons, Hoppin’ Frog never seems to do anything interesting when I’m looking. Hoppin’ Frog is, for me, the one beer that makes me ask, “Who’s buying this?”
It’s not that the brewery’s beers are bad, exactly. Its porters and stouts, specifically the Russian imperial stout named B.O.R.I.S. and its extended family, appear with regularity on trade boards, not only as primary targets, but as add-ons for resolving uneven trades and as offers for acquiring other sought-after brews. Hoppin’ Frog has cachet in some places.
I would say Madison is not one of those places. This is just my observation, but the beers don’t seem to move very well. I’ve seen a number of Hoppin’ Frog brews on gotta-clear-’em-out discounts. (However, several retailers have told me that Hoppin' Frog's distributor in the area has implemented a pre-order system to keep bottles, particularly the spendy ones, from accumulating in the warehouse and getting old. Pre-order data presumably will help the distributor to keep from overbuying.)
Part of my problem, truth told, has been the label. I am not a fan of Hoppin’ Frog’s branding. The frog is too cartoonish, as much Señor Frog’s as anything else. They’re all very similar, with most variation coming from the color of the beer in the mug the frog is holding, or maybe a hat or sunglasses. (This is apparently an Ohio thing; see also the goofy, too-identical Fat Head’s Brewing labels.) So when I saw a gunmetal silver monochromatic label on the shelf, with jagged edges to the text but that familiar goofball frog, it’s not overstating it to say that I stopped in my tracks.
T.O.R.I.S. the Tyrant is a relatively new beer to the Hoppin’ Frog lineup, an addition made possible by the 2016 repeal of an Ohio law prohibiting production of beer above 12% alcohol by volume. It clocks in at 13.8%; the name stands for “triple oatmeal Russian imperial stout,” and let me tell you, it is among the heaviest beers I’ve ever sampled.
There are big, thick, rich beers in the world (Dark Lord, Uncle Jacob’s, Mornin’ Delight), and they’re usually very boozy and very sweet. With all those oats, T.O.R.I.S. delivers an immense body, but the lack of sugary adjuncts keeps it from being too sweet. It’s a pour that makes you think Hershey’s syrup. The beer is so heavy that the dark mocha-colored head barely maintains a quarter-inch height. It briefly coats the glass, but its legs can’t hold up the massive heft.
Its curranty nose gives way to flavors of burnt coffee and a bitter chocolate note that only really comes out after the beer warms up a bit. Those ashy characteristics change slightly, into something more toasty, but it never breathes off entirely. T.O.R.I.S. is boozy throughout, a challenging beer to polish off without a lot of help.
But you know what? It’s an interesting beer, which is more than I’ve been able to say for my previous Hoppin’ Frog experiences. It has a great mouthfeel, and it’s a complex sip. While it’s easy to say that any stout would be improved by barrel aging, that’s not always true. With T.O.R.I.S., though, something to balance out the charred characteristics would be appreciated. Bourbon or rum could turn this into a beer worth chasing.
Curiously, these bottles of T.O.R.I.S. hail from the original one-off bottling run from last summer. One of the best beers I’ve had from Hoppin’ Frog is one that turned up in Madison after nine months in the warehouse. Go figure, but go find it. I mean, how often do I get to recommend a Hoppin’ Frog beer?