Mike Hunsaker is running hot. Hunsaker, the bushy-chinned, broad-shouldered Chicagoan who's head brewer at Fat Head's Portland brewery, did not rest on his laurels after we declared his Alpenglow weizenbock the sixth-best Oregon beer of 2015. Hunsaker did not take a break after winning a Great American Beer Festival gold medal for his Blitzkrieg Bock rye beer less than a year after spearheading the opening of Fat Head's 275-seat Pearl District brewpub in 2014. He didn't stop after winning The New School beer blog's Brewer of the Year award, for which Fat Head's also garnered runner-up for Oregon Brewpub of the Year.
"I think a lot of the success we've had has just come from being accepted," Hunsaker says. "I was lucky, and they were nice enough to vote me Brewer of the Year. It's an honor. That was probably the most accepting part—people in the industry have embraced us."
That was no guarantee given how Portland's beer scene can sometimes react to perceived interlopers. Fat Head's is, after all, headquartered in the Cleveland suburb of North Olmsted, Ohio. But for the second year in a row, a Fat Head's beer lands in WW's top 10. This time, Hunsaker can only take part of the credit—the folks back in Ohio won a gold with their own batch of the dark, hoppy beer known in these parts as Cascadian dark ale, and elsewhere as black IPA.
Whatever you call it, no one in Oregon has done better with the style than Hunsaker with his Midnight Moonlight Black IPA.
It's a challenging beer. Brewers essentially take all the hops they'd use in a Northwestern IPA and brew it with a roasted dark malt. Go too light with the malt bill, and it's just a mangled IPA. Too dark, and you get a viciously astringent beer with strong notes of burning rubber.
The vast majority of brewers botch black IPAs. These beers are often so close to undrinkable that WW had all but given up on the style. Even Hunsaker is sceptical of them: "Like most people, I'm not a huge fan of the style. I've always been a 'keep your malt away from my hops' guy."
Midnight Moonlight threads the needle. The recipe was created by Fat Head's North Olmsted brewmaster, Matt Cole, and developed with input from one of the style's most celebrated brewers, Tyler Brown of Baker City's Barley Brown's.
"First thing you do is use a dehusked dark malt," Hunsaker explains. "The dehusked malt takes a ton of the bitterness off. The main thing is: Don't mash it. So you're getting color and some of the flavor out, but you're not mashing, so you're not going to get that bitterness. You're pulling the essence of the malt out, but not its full flavor."
Hunsaker's Midnight Moonlight begins with a full-bodied cascade of Simcoe, Citra and Chinook hops, which rise to meet a grain profile that will put hair on your chest. The back end of Midnight Moonlight is all dark toast and roasted hazelnuts: a nutty, almost smoky finish that compares to the desert-dry flavor of top-quality South Australian shiraz. Even without the gentle handling of the malt, it is as dry as beer gets.
And even in the land that claims the style as its own innovation, this Midwestern transplant is king. Not that Hunsaker would ever put it that way.
"It's been a lot of fun coming into a brand-new area and trying to make your mark," he says. "Becoming part of the fabric is all I wanted to do."