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Q&A: Brewmaster on Heavy Seas' first new year-round beer since 2003, CrossBones

A bottle of Heavy Seas Beer's CrossBones, a recently announced session IPA.
A bottle of Heavy Seas Beer's CrossBones, a recently announced session IPA. (Handout)

Baltimore's Heavy Seas Beer had not introduced a new, year-round-brewed beer since 2003's Loose Cannon, but that drought ended this week, when the brewery introduced a session IPA called CrossBones. It is scheduled to hit Baltimore shelves by Jan. 1, according to head of Heavy Seas communications and public relations, Christine Shaffer.

CrossBones owes part of its existence to Loose Cannon, the bold and popular American IPA, said brewmaster Christopher Leonard on Tuesday. Leonard said the goal was to maintain the intense, smack-on-the-nose flavor of Loose Cannon, a Heavy Seas flagship beer, while providing an easily drinkable product. (Regular Loose Cannon drinkers know the 7.25 percent alcohol content can arrive with little warning.)

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"We're trying to get that big punch of flavor without the overwhelming bitterness and without that astringency in a 4.5 percent alcohol package," Leonard said before pointing out CrossBones has a more "citrus-forward aroma." "It will hopefully yield a similar mouthfeel to Loose Cannon, but with three percent less alcohol."

Heavy Seas' 2015 looks like a major year for the brewery once known as Clipper City. The company announced other additions to come, including more limited-released "Unchartered Waters" entries and new seasonal beers. (The English porter Deep Six arrives first in January, with Double IPA Double Cannon and Smooth Sail summer ale following in April.)

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CrossBones, though, is a different entity. As its first new year-round beer in 12 years, CrossBones seems like a concerted effort to produce Heavy Seas' next Loose Cannon — a beer that can catch on with locals but whose craftsmanship and taste could extend the brand's reach. (In 2010, Loose Cannon won second place at the Great British Beer Festival.)

Earlier today, I spoke on the phone with Leonard. It was his off day, and in a little while he had to help with his son's Thanksgiving luncheon at school. But first we discussed CrossBones. This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation:

Why, after 12 years, was now the right time to announce a new year-round beer? And why was CrossBones the right one?

It's probably been the right time for a while now. The most significant thing is our increased production capacity. We've been cranking out so much Loose Cannon now for four, five, six years. That's keeping us so busy that we haven't really been able to focus on any new projects. So in the past year, we've increased our capacity a good 15 percent, just on the production side with new techniques. We just added our new brewhouse, which gives us almost 100 percent increase production capabilities.

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So we have the capability now to do it, and also, it was just high time for us to reinvigorate the brand and generate some excitement within our current fandom, so to the speak, and give them some new interesting things to be excited about.

It sounds like the popularity of Loose Cannon was a catalyst for CrossBones.

Yeah, definitely, that's part of it. It's nice to have such a strong product that carries the brewery on a certain level. I'd say anywhere from 60 to 65 percent of our sales is Loose Cannon. We were sort of looking for another product or style of beer that would have some appeal, but would still maintain our identity and speak to the flavors and strengths of Heavy Seas in general. A beer that's not exactly based on Loose Cannon but has similar lineage or similar flavor components to Loose Cannon made a lot of sense, because we know that folks like those flavors obviously. So coming out with something that's a little more drinkable and easier to consume in quantity, if so desired, but still give that big hop flavor and keep true to the Heavy Seas spirit seemed like a great marriage of all the different concepts.

How long were you tinkering with the CrossBones recipe?

We've been working on it for nine months. I think we spent more time on the marketing side than we did on the beer itself. I personally have a lot more experience with lower alcohol beers and bringing some full-flavored, full-bodied products to the market, so we weren't as concerned with the product itself. Once we knew where we were headed with the marketing … the beer design was natural.

How do you recommend drinking and enjoying CrossBones ideally?

That's a good question, since I haven't done it myself yet. [laughs] We have 600 barrels of it in the fermenter right now. We're tinkering and looking at a bunch of different glassware to accompany the beer. To me, it's just a beer to accompany ballgames, sporting events, long parties where you want to hang out with people and spend time talking. It will go fine with food and when we get around to summer, it'll definitely fit that bill.

We're putting it in cans [this spring] so it's going to have some flexibility in where you can take it. I would guess that this beer would be more along the lines of the beer you just take along with you. You're still getting that punch of flavor that Loose Cannon provides but you're not dedicating your mouth and your entire sensory experience to this beer. You're enjoying it while you're doing something else is probably the goal there.

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