Can design by Phineas X. Jones
  • Can design by Phineas X. Jones

On Saturday, October 4, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, a panel of 222 judges from ten countries bestowed 268 medals on a record-breaking field of roughly 5,700 entries from more than 1,300 breweries. (That’s a lot of breweries, but it’s not even half the current U.S. total—and thousands more are in the planning stages.) Chicago institution Half Acre took home its first GABF hardware, winning silver with its Heyoka IPA—and Heyoka’s category, “American-Style India Pale Ale,” was by far the most hotly contested at the fest, with 279 entries. (“Herb and Spice Beer” came in second with 150.) The gold went to Breakside IPA from Breakside Brewery in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Circumstantial evidence alone could’ve told you that Heyoka was special, even before it became an almost champion—though the Half Acre folks have earned a reputation as dab hands with hoppy beers, this is the first IPA they’ve singled out for canning and regular distribution. (Daisy Cutter is technically a pale ale.) The brewery introduced Heyoka last fall, which is when I first tried it, and shipped it throughout the winter; because it alternates half years with Akari Shogun, it disappeared in the spring, but it’s been back again since late September. This hard-fought silver medal is Heyoka’s first award of any kind, so I figured I’d revisit the beer with the focused attention merited by such an achievement.

Dont worry, I got the beer out of the sun before the UV could skunk the hops.
  • Don’t worry, I got the beer out of the sun before the UV could skunk the hops.

In case you haven’t googled it yet, a “heyoka” is a trickster or holy fool among the Lakota Sioux. He traffics in opposites and contrarianism—during a famine, he might complain of being overfull, and during a heat wave he might shiver and bundle up. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

As a sort of skewed mirror, the heyoka provides new and sometimes mysterious ways of looking at the mundane, shattering complacency and deception like a thunderclap. As Sioux holy man Black Elk explained in the 1961 book Black Elk Speaks: “The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.”

Now thats some artsy bullshit.
  • Now that’s some artsy bullshit.

What’s the connection to this beer? Search me. Maybe it’s a self-deprecating joke—like it’s somehow “backward” to make an IPA as a fall and winter seasonal? During the colder months, Märzens, pumpkin beers, harvest ales, winter warmers, stouts, and barleywines traditionally dominate American breweries’ special-release schedules. (I suspect that this is not the place to discuss the wisdom of naming anything to do with alcohol after anything to do with Native Americans.)

Anyway. In the words of Half Acre founder Gabriel Magliaro, Heyoka relies on “the classic brawn of Chinook and Simcoe hops” (the brewery’s website mentions Amarillo too). “There’s a lot newfangled varieties,” he says, “but the old-school cones are still golden.” It’s 7 percent alcohol, so by the time you finish a 16-ounce can, you should be at least dimly aware that you’ve been drinking beer.

Heyoka’s buoyant, juicy aroma greets you with zingy citrus, like somebody messily disassembling a tangerine under your nose; it’s sweetened by the floral perfume of ripe mango and sharpened by a bit of almost resinous astringency, like grapefruit rind, young pine needles, or the cut green skin of that same mango. Underneath this fruity rush, the malts chime in with toasted biscuit and clover honey, though you’ve got to work around the hops to smell them. I also pick up something earthy and almost musty, like cedar mulch that’s just been rained on, but to guess what’s doing that, I suspect I’d need to know more about the chemistry of brewing. Or the chemistry of my brain.

The flavor is prickly, herbal, and almost woody, with fruit playing a complementary role rather than dominating. I get lots more of that cedarlike business, a blast of ruby red grapefruit, a bit of grilled sugarcane, and something like garlic shoots. (I have a hard time saying “dank” to describe IPAs, because I don’t smoke weed—it’d seem dishonest. But lots of people say “dank” to describe this one.)

Heyoka’s satisfying balance persists all way the through its long finish, which is probably my favorite thing about it—it doesn’t leave you with nothing but bitterness on your tongue. Toffee and sweet orange marmalade (and, as the beer warms, a little rose water) hang in there too, rendered uncloying by the bitterness, which is clean, bright, and complicated, combining citrus pith, pine, rye toast, and aspirin. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the winter, but it’s nice to know this beer will be part of it.

Im getting better about rewashing my glass before I take these pictures.
  • I’m getting better about rewashing my glass before I take these pictures.

Other Illinois winners at GABF included Evanston’s Temperance Beer Company, which took silver in “English-Style India Pale Ale” with Gatecrasher, validating my immoderate review from May. In “Golden or Blonde Ale,” 5 Rabbit Golden Ale likewise took silver—ironically, the judges didn’t award a gold medal in that category.

Haymarket won gold with its Defender Stout, which had already picked up a gold medal at this year’s World Beer Cup—I’d hoped to feature it alongside Heyoka, but the logistics of reviewing a tap-only offering defeated me yet again. (According to Beer Menus, this past weekend Haymarket was pouring the Defender Double, which I might’ve had to disqualify on a technicality—it’s not quite the same beer as the Defender.) Guys Drinking Beer has a complete breakdown of the nine Illinois winners.

In other Half Acre news, Magliaro assures me that the new Bowmanville facility is coming along nicely. “We’ll be making wort by the end of the year,” he says. “It’s going to be great.” And of course Quakerbridge barleywine and Big Hugs imperial stout are coming back—the former around Thanksgiving, the latter in time for Christmas.

I had a heck of a time finding embeddable music from a metal band connected to a Great Plains tribe—the groups in the Black Twilight Circle, for instance, identify principally with the indigenous people of Central America. Recommendations welcome! In the meantime, here’s a track from traditional Native American group Lakota Thunder, whose past and present members include the excellently named Courtney Yellowfat, Wayland Badhand, and Virgil Taken Alive. “Way of Life” comes from the 2004 album of the same name, and I think you’ll agree, it’s pretty fucking metal.

YouTube video

In March a doom-metal band called Sioux from Portland, Oregon, released The One and the Many. I don’t know if anyone in Sioux has Native American blood, but the album is pretty good. The band has also recorded a heavy, swinging, only slightly silly cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.”

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, on Mondays.

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.