Several imperial IPAs get released each week, black IPAs can be a little hard to find in 2023, and Belgian IPAs, well, outside of a couple of smaller Aussie breweries you’d probably need a time machine to hunt down a locally-brewed version.
Yet despite its improbable series of prefixes, there's an imperial Belgian black IPA is a beer you can rely on: Bridge Road Brewers' B2 Bomber.
The Beechworth brewers released the first incarnation back in 2010 to celebrate their fifth anniversary and it's been a birthday mainstay every year since (well, aside from the one year in which they moved in a different dark Belgo direction we'll hear about below).
Thirteen vintages make for an impressive back catalogue of beers but, unfortunately, it's not one Bridge Road’s Ben Kraus can enjoy. Both brewery owner and the brewery itself sold out of most of them long ago, although he says they still enjoy hearing from fans eager to tell them which vintages they're holding onto, or getting an invite to take part in informal vertical tastings.
“Generally, people are keen to say, ‘Hey, would you like to try them with us?' Which is nice,” Ben says.
The unusual combination of styles stems from Bridge Road's desire to brew an anniversary ale with a hefty ABV and malt base that would hold up over time, while also creating something that was truly unique. He selected Belgian yeast strains because he wanted something that didn't just hold up but changed with time; part of the beer's appeal has been how it tends to be so hop-forward when fresh while the yeast-derived characters start to come to the fore when cellared.
It's an evolution not too dissimilar to the Belgian beers Ben has long loved.
"Back in the day, when I first went to Belgium, having some of the beers that I knew, and seeing how hoppy they were, was mind-blowing," he says.
“I feel that the ageing of beers on Belgian yeast allows the development of flavour. Having those yeast esters which stick around – I won't say forever, but almost forever – it stays much longer than the aromatics from hops and gives the beer extra legs and an extra dimension."
Each B2 Bomber is a vintage of its own, with tweaks made each year, often designed to tap into the ingredients or processes Bridge Road have been exploring at the time.
“Even if we tried to make it the same, it would be slightly different to the year previously,” Ben says. “But I think it's interesting for people to have a different take on it.
“Every year, you learn something new or see something different that you didn't think about the year before. Or you go back and look and see something you used that you wouldn’t use again.
"One year we did one with vanilla and lactose because we were seeing how being able to use both those ingredients could be done in a really positive way if it wasn't the dominant part of a profile.”
The 2023 release, Mach 13.0, features a similar malt beer to 2022, with the changes this time around largely found in the hop bill due to the use of liquid hop product Spectrum, making it a Black Belgian Double Spectrum IPA.
“We haven't really used it that often, but we've seen how cool it can be,” Ben says. “So it gives us an opportunity to revisit Spectrum and change the beer slightly from last year.”
Beyond any changes to the recipe, this year's B2 is a particularly special release, marking 18 years since Ben and Maria launched their brewery in Ben's parents' shed. It makes theirs one of the longest histories in Australian craft beer for a family-owned – and employee-owned since 2021 – operation, although Ben says they still feel like they're learning a lot when it comes to making beer and running a business.
“I think we're still learning about longevity and lessons,” he says. “Every year seems to present new challenges, we’re always doing well but it’s never smooth sailing.”
In particular, this year has presented serious challenges, from the pressure of inflation and the competitive nature of getting indie beer into retailers, where the major breweries continue to tie up tap points and with some of their peers selling kegs at low prices.
“From an industry perspective,” Ben says, “if I had some advice, it would be to just make sure that you understand the cost of making your beer and sell it at a price that's appropriate that makes your business sustainable.”
While running a beer business is a nonstop undertaking, it also requires striking a balance between time spent working within the brewery and working on it. Ben has just returned from The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival and says visiting their impressive operation, drinking craft beer from around the world, and experiencing other beer hospitality experiences is important, but so too is being close to the brewery.
He points to family-run breweries like Dollar Bill and Moffat Beach Brewing – their recent successes at beer awards and how passionate they are about beer.
“It's very important to get outside and look at it from another angle,” he says.
“I would say the ones that are doing best are very involved in their business. If you’re talking work-life balance, they’re probably overly involved in it, but the results are there because they're very passionate and they live it.
“That shows that by being totally involved, steeped and immersed in what you’re doing, you can produce some of the best quality beer in the world.”
As Maria, Ben and their team prepare to celebrate another major milestone, we asked Ben to walk us through the creation and evolution of B2 Bomber, a beer steeped in Australian craft beer history, for our The Story of... series.
Where did the original idea come from?
When our fifth birthday rolled around, we wanted to create an anniversary release. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to make and I had plenty of experience making Belgian-style beers with the Chevalier Saison and Bière de Garde.
I settled on the combination of two Belgo yeast strains used in the Biere de Garde and wanted to create a big beer that would age and change – for the better – over time.
What's the story behind the name?
I reached out to our social media followers at the time asking for ideas. I think we provided a description of the beer and chose B2 Bomber from the suggestions.
Had you ever tasted or seen a beer like this before? And what makes it an "imperial Belgian black IPA"?
No, I had not and don't think I have since. I am not quite sure what the style of this beer is; I guess I would liken it to an American imperial stout due to the hop and malt profile, however, the Belgian yeast strains bring it away from this style.
You used to change your birthday beer every year, and had some pretty great releases before B2 came along, so why did this one stick?
B2 Bomber was our second vintage/birthday beer, after an Oak-Aged Imperial Porter for our fourth year. The following year we celebrated with a black saison, Saison Noir.
However, this beer proved pretty divisive, so the decision was made to go back to B2 and begin evolving it each year.
Do you have a favourite vintage? If so, which one and why?
I have great memories of Mach 8.0, but I've none left!
Have you received any notable feedback on the beer – good or bad?
I often have long-term customers making it to Beechworth for the first time after a long history of enjoying B2 releases and it is always great to hear from these people.
I also just went back through the worrying space of beer review sites. Some really great feedback from our first release on Beer Advocate where people have taken the time to taste and give detailed notes.
Tell us about this year's vintage.
Each year we try to use the beer to reflect on something we have gained new experience in or have learned from. This year saw us use a new hop product, Spectrum, with some really great results.
B2 is as big as ever, is tasting great fresh, and will no doubt age well.
And how does it feel to be turning 18?
I only wish it was me turning 18!
To be honest it comes as a bit of a surprise; Maria and I never imagined when we started the brewery in 2005 we'd be still at the helm 18 years on. We're proud of what we have achieved and have plenty of plans to keep improving and expanding on what we have created.
B2 Bomber is launching across the country from June 16. To celebrate their 18th birthday, Bridge Road have put together packs featuring the newest B2 Bomber and last year's release. They're available here. Or if you're a member of a beer lovers club, The Crafty Cabal, you can go in the draw to win a pack on us. Not a member? Then join the club.