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Steel Toe's Size 11: The return of the gutsy winter IPA

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A little serendipity made it into the brew when Steel Toe Brewing's Jason Schoneman was working on this year's batch of Size 11.

Every year, Steel Toe aims to work the number 11 into their winter seasonal branding in as many ways as possible. The IIIPA will debut today, January 11, at Lowertown's Dark Horse Bar & Eatery, where the recommended serving size is an 11-ounce tulip pour. As in years before, the bitterness clocks in at 111 IBU. The ABV traditionally hovers around 11%, but this year, Schoneman and his team finished the batch at an auspicious 11.11%.

"There are lots of 11s," Schoneman says, adding that the inspiration for Size 11 came from his own boot size. But believe it or not, the apropos ABV wasn't a planned part of the gimmick."That was a freak of nature," he says. "That was exactly how it came out in the math, so that was really bizarre. That will never happen again."

The rest of Size 11's formulation is much more deliberate. The recipe is exactly the same as their flagship Size 7 IPA — City Pages' pick for Best Local Beer last year and no. 53 on last year's countdown of the best dishes — only the ingredients are multiplied by one and a half. What this means is that it takes two batches in two separate mash tuns to get the same yield as one batch of Size 7. "It's very labor-intensive," Schoneman says. "It's a lot of hops, but that's how we get the alcohol up."

An IPA is a seemingly odd selection for a winter seasonal — especially considering that Steel Toe's fall offering, their Wee Heavy, was a much richer, darker style — but Schoneman thinks the high ABV makes his triple IPA warm enough to stand with the porters and stouts on other brewers' production schedules. "I think the strength is beautiful," he says, noting that such a high alcohol level makes Size 11 the perfect catalyst for some seasonally-appropriate hibernation. "It's wine-strength, basically. If you drink a whole bottle, it's time for a nap."

Additionally, January is a unique time of year for IPA-focused breweries, because it's when the previous year's hop harvest becomes available. Even if it seems a little nontraditional to go with an IPA after the solstice, Schoneman wanted to brew with the freshest hops he could get. "At the end of August or September, the hops are harvested, and then they're processed and dried, and this is when they become available," he explains. "To showcase the previous crop year and then boost up the alcohol and make it warmer for the coldest month, for me, it makes sense."

750 ml bottles of Size 11 ($10) will be on sale in the brewery Tuesday and liquor stores Wednesday.

750 ml bottles of Size 11 ($10) will be on sale in the brewery Tuesday and liquor stores Wednesday.

Even at 111 IBU, Size 11 is not monstrously bitter, nor does it explode out of the glass with grassy aromas. You get hit up front with a strong pine flavor that's quickly quelled by the caramel malt of the body. It finishes dry but without the abrasion of many beers in its peer group. It's actually less stifling than its sibling beer Size 7, which only measures at 77 IBU, something Schoneman attributes to the high gravity and sheer mass of grain used in making Size 11.

"Because it's such a higher starting gravity, there's more malt sugar for the yeast to work with, so it's sweeter than Size 7 for sure," he says. "That helps tame down the alcohol, and it also softens the bitterness, because it's a really bitter beer up front, but you don't notice it as much." And unlike the brewery's Size 4 session IPA, which uses pineapple and mango tannins to cool the bitterness, there are no prominent fruit flavors to work against the hops. It's all grain and engineering that makes Size 11 an approachable pint.

Steel Toe will be staggering the release of Size 11, but only slightly. While it officially goes on sale today at 10 a.m. at Dark Horse, it won't be available in the brewery until tomorrow. Patrons within the 4,000-barrel brewery's 15-mile distribution radius can find it in bottle shops starting Wednesday, but there only 2,000 bottles will hit shelves and only six kegs will leave the facility, so competition from other loyal beer nuts for this nuanced IIIPA should be fierce. Schoneman estimates that Size 11 will probably only last two or three weeks of the winter season.

"Everything that we do here that's a one-off is very small, especially if it's strong," he says. "Last year, I was shocked how many people came in and bought a whole case. A lot of people."

But Schoneman offers a word of warning to those who buy in bulk. Just because Size 11 drinks easier than its pedigree would presume and the anticipation around its annual release is at a pitch, it should still be enjoyed carefully and with reverence for its wintry ABV.

"It's a fun beer," he says. "It's one people look forward to, but yeah, it's dangerous."