Any Given Sunday, Any Given IPA
On any given Sunday, anything can happen in the Pros. Want evidence? Just look at my suffering Cleveland Browns, who somehow took out the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints consecutively before collapsing then free-falling off the grid into another rebuilding cycle. That’s the way it is when the talent is so good and the competition is so fierce – which reminds me of one of my favorite styles of beer ever – the extreme, hoppy American IPA. There’s just something about fresh hops at absurd concentrations that makes the beer drinking experience more enveloping. One thing is for sure, with the number of absolutely phenomenal IPA’s on the market, the modern-day American hop-head is spoiled with options, any of which could stand out due to an exceptional batch or extremely fresh bottle date.
So, if on any given Sunday any of the best IPA’s and Double IPA’s in the world can rise to the top, there may truly be a synergy between professional football and professional IPA brewing. Now, there is one more important distinction to make – some would argue that an “IPA” and a “Double IPA” are as different as ice skating and cricket…those argumentative bastards are wrong. The extremes of each genre overlap regularly, and I for one agree with Brooklyn Brewmaster Garret Oliver who stated that the “Double” or “Imperial” monikers “discredit, dilute and damage our brewing history and heritage”. Still, there’s no denying the two classifications have several similarities and some notable differences. While American IPA’s have huge hops, lower alcohol and very light malt presence, “Double” IPA’s pack even more hops with significant malt and alcohol volumes into the double-digits. Where some people see different styles, I see different approaches or “leagues” of thought in crafting ultra-hoppy American ale. There are the world’s premier examples of the American IPA – methodical, nimble and intricate while delivering IBU’s into the 100’s. On the other coast of the lupulin league, we have the “souped-up” IPA’s that deliver brutish force and muscle their way down the middle of the field. Wouldn’t it be great to witness a showdown between these two divisions?
That’s exactly what happened on Championship Sunday, January 23rd at an undisclosed location in the Cleveland area. I called in some favors from the beer trading community and got my favorite hoppy beers at the same time of the year as the best hoppy Mid-west one-offs like Bells Hopslam, Tröegs Nugget Nectar, and Founders Double Trouble hit local store shelves. After a few shipments from Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago, I was able to piece together quite a playing field – 6 of the best “American IPA’s” in the world and 6 of the best “Double/Imperial IPA’s” in the world all within 4 weeks of bottling date. However, this playing field had to be even more level, so I need to neutralize the huge reputations of each of these beers by minimizing the brand-recognition factor. The only way I could think of was to gather a panel of my favorite Cleveland area hop-heads to do a “blind” tasting in two rounds, with a championship show-down at the end. We were all handed 5 oz glasses with a number but no name and we all ordered the beers according to preference. Here’s how the two “Conference Championships” and resulting “Super Bowl”played out:
The American IPA League
These days it’s impossible to generalize the flavors of American IPA’s. There are so many examples, from the balanced East Coast legends like Dogfish Head 60 Minute, to the hopped-up West Coast icons like Ballast Point Sculpin. Sometimes there’s a decent malt base and sometimes there isn’t, and sometimes the hops are so fragrant you can smell them across the room while sometimes your nose can be in the beer and lacking true expressions. I for one prefer the West Coast style, so I seek out examples where very little malt is present and where the hops are floral, full of citrus notes, and generally jumping out of the glass. With that in mind, I gathered the six American IPA’s I enjoyed the most in 2010. I was also was thrilled to include two local examples in that company, and Fat Heads Head Hunter and The Brew Kettle White Raja deserved the nod. And, before anyone argues with Tröegs Nugget Nectar (technically considered an Amber on one of the beer rating sites) being in the mix, can you tell it apart from Surly Furious in the photo? Exactly – both are highly hopped, fresh beers and that’s what this was all about.
#6 – The Brew Kettle “White Raja”
White Raja may have choked, but this is a fumble that I bet it will recover from. The big game had arrived, the stands were full of fans, but the beer feel a bit flat this round after a very good season. That’s because the beer just seemed a bit off, although, to be fair, this was a “rebuilding” batch from the brewers who are still tweaking the recipe. While this fell short of the goal line, the huge notes of Simcoe and Citra hops gave fruity notes not unlike a basket of grapefruits and lemons. The good news – we’re used to a bit of disappointment here in Cleveland and there’s always next year! And, trust me, this beer will be back in full force when it’s “officially” released.
#5 – Troegs “Nugget Nectar”
Nugget Nectar, especially when this fresh, can hang with the boys in the pros. Through the use of some hops not seen in the other beers, namely Nugget and Warrior, the beer has a nice mix of tropical and earthy, and a nice bitter finish that does not decimate the palate. This beer gave it a good run and should consider it a success to have made the playoffs. Ultimately, the more expressive members of the division were able to knock Nugget Nectar out before the hunt got thick.
#4 – Surly “Furious”
Surly may be the best kept ‘star factory’ in the nation – think Miami, Notre Dame, or USC with Quarterbacks. The Minneapolis-based brewery continues to crank out beers like this and Abrasive, in cans no less. Along with Russian River, Surly has earned the distinct honor of having a beer in both leagues so you know they’re doing something right. With dense layers of pine so thick the needles will stick to your teeth, Furious delivers the goods with this excellent example of a slightly more malt-based IPA. In the end, some of the run-and-gun beers may have beaten it, but you can bet the hit-makers in Minnesota will always be included in this conversation.
#3 – Russian River “Blind Pig”
Blind Pig is the beer in this competition whose jersey most often gets mistaken for a throwback. That’s because this beer is old-school, original gangster, the one that may have started it all! The gorgeous color welcomes you in with a siren song. The nose is full of vibrant hops and the malt is just a bit on the sweet side. The taste just falls a bit short with a lack of expression than the best in the class. This beer faded at the end of the game and, while it would be welcome in my mouth and tummy any day, the tried-and-true classic fell short of the first down marker.
#2 – Ballast Point “Sculpin”
Sculpin is heaven in a glass. Really, that’s all that needs to be said. The fundamentals are there, plus this beer has the talent to compete on a national stage. Here’s to an almost perfect year, despite this late post-season setback. The malt takes a back seat, but is there with a little toast. Still, no one can argue that the star of the show is the over-the-head smash from the hops, manifesting in a ton of grapefruit and orange. As a bonus, the hops are well-rounded and can play both sides of the ball – the bitterness hits on a few peaks before subsiding.
The Winner – Fat Heads “Head Hunter”
Head Hunter’s classic combination of Simcoe, Columbus and Centennial hops are like a triple threat. Simcoe leads the offense with huge citrus and grapefruit notes in the nose and taste. Columbus is the defense, never budging an inch and putting the ‘Mean Green’ in the mix. And Centennial is like special teams, running and jumping all over my tongue. The beer has just a kiss of malt and that’s all it needs. If this run of bottles wasn’t “100% dialed-in”, I’m looking forward to future releases! Congratulations Fat Heads, you’re going to the Superbowl! And this was blind so you can’t claim any home team bias!
The Nationally Ranked Double IPA’s
Does an IPA become a Double when it reaches 7.5%? Is that like a magic number, complete with a beer bar mitzvah, where the brewer celebrates that his “child” has become a man? Nope, and that’s part of what makes the “Double/Imperial” classification so much more marketing gimmick than beer category. But there are some things I like in my higher-ABV IPA’s and I insisted on those characteristics being present in the championship tasting. West coast style rules my roost, but more than that, the beer’s ability to provide depth and layers of hops to offset the higher percentage of booze becomes key. I don’t want a 10% “IPA” that is really a young American Barleywine in disguise if you catch my drift. I was thrilled to put together a lineup that included so many beers I treasured in 2010 and a new one; that’s right, this was my first run-in with Firestone Walker Double Jack! Three of these Double IPA’s are regarded as the best in the world, and the other are always included in the conversation. It was time to put our noses to the gridiron grindstone and our taste buds to the test.
#6 – Bells “Hopslam”
Every January, there’s a buzz on the web and in the stores as this once-a-year treat makes its annual release. Bell’s Hopslam has a unique ingredient (honey) that adds flowery depth to a massive hop presence. The aroma of this beer is like none other, with an orange and pineapple character that is sure to please. By itself, Hopslam is a favorite of just about everyone who participated in this tasting. However, when compared to such polished bruisers, it seemed to show a bit too much booze and many were shocked when it came in last place after the reveal.
#5 – Founders “Double Trouble”
Double Trouble is one of my favorite beers from one of my favorite breweries. It took first place in a blind IPA tasting last April at the Buckeye Beer Engine, and I thought this was the wildcard that could make it to a championship. The beautiful hop bouquet in the smell and equally pungent but bright taste set this apart from other January releases like Hopslam and Nugget Nectar. Think of it as a ‘West Coast IPA from the North Coast’. The citrus really makes this beer, with a sweet but relatively neutral malt bill.
#4 – Three Floyds “Dreadnaught”
Dreadnaught just sounds intimidating, but the beer is really quite the opposite. From the orange color to the notes of orange, pine and grapefruit in the smell and taste, this flagship brew from Three Floyds deserves a spot in any lineup. The beer tastes good and finishes with nice mouthfeel and drinkability, but it has just a touch more malt that I would like. I guess that’s because, if we want to get technical, Munster, Indiana is closer to the East Coast than the West. At any rate, Dreadnaught had a very impressive showing but fell just short of making it into the upper-tier.
#3 – Firestone Walker “Double Jack”
When I got a phone call that a participant in our tasting was at one of the best Chicago area beer stores a day before the big game, I had only one request: Firestone Walker Double Jack. I’m glad the stars aligned and he found the withheld location in time for this to join the lineup. The malty sweetness sets this one apart, and a bit of that is apparent in the smell, but it really comes through in the taste. I noted some orange peel and sweet caramel touches; there was even a touch of bready or toasted malt. The mouthfeel was more full-bodied, making this a very interesting beer!
#2 – Surly “Abrasive”
With huge notes of peach and tea, not to mention amazingly lush citrus due to the Amarillo and Columbus hops, Abrasive gave the best beers in this competition a run for their money. Pineapple, grapefruit, and some oranges mesh well with the nice caramel and slightly biscuity malt backbone. This was just a week older than the Pliny but couldn’t ultimately hang with a late surge of intricate hop bitterness by the reigning champion.
The Winner – Russian River “Pliny the Elder”
Behold, the true king of beers. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present to you the champion of the world. The smell is like a dense jungle of hop plants at harvest time, baking in the sun. Every sip has hops that ruin, refresh, stimulate and subdue my palate with a multi-angled sneak attack. The hops are floral, injected with citrus and tropical elements that never cease to amaze. This beer not only executes on offense, but the perfect amount of crisp carbonation stops the bitterness from reaching the end zone.
The Championship Match
Russian River “Pliny the Elder” VS Fat Heads “Head Hunter”
In the end, there were two teams left on the field. Fat Heads Head Hunter, the relative newcomer from Northeast Ohio, had made a great impression with its huge flavors! A Cleveland team in the Superbowl? No, make no mistake, these guys are Pittsburgh fans! Could they blow the whole bigger-is-better myth out of the water? On the other side of the proverbial pale ale pigskin, we have the reigning champion of the world, Pliny the Elder – a beer both rating sites generally accept as the best bottled hoppy offering in the world. Forget Green Bay, I’m talking green labels with red circles. After all was done, these two remained. I carefully poured the remainder of the two bottles into tasting glasses and we entered the championship with our blinders off. In the end, Head Hunter put up a good fight, but the depth, balance and deliciousness of Pliny was just too much to beat.
Pliny the Elder
Really, we are all winners with beers like this in the world!
For football fans in Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, this Sunday seems like it will be the most important of the year. That’s because, no matter the odds or the line, the game can go either way and will ultimately lead one team to the Promised Land. But I think I can make a strong case that the weekend of the conference championships was actually the more pivotal; at the very least, the fact that both teams enjoyed victories and made it to the big show will have half the fans agreeing with me come Monday. In our IPA showdown on that snowy January day, we witnessed the best hoppy beers in the nation go head-to-head in an absurdly fresh lineup. The American IPA conference had a ton of huge flavors with balance and poise. Meanwhile, the National DIPA leaders packed more flavor into one sip than those BMC TV commercial beers have in a whole bottle. At the end of the afternoon, the showdown did lead to a clear winner, but who knows how things could have played out if the factors had been just a bit different. I’m positive that we were the real winners to have experienced such a great tasting event. I’m content to hand the trophy to Russian River’s Pliny the Elder but somehow know I will feel the need to line-up another tasting like this next year. After all, on any given Sunday, anything can happen.
If You Enjoyed this Post, Let Me Suggest:
- The 2010 Fat Heads Celebration of the Hop Festival The first year had some great hoppy beers, but the 2010 Fat Heads Celebration of the Hop Festival was simply one of the best hop harvest festivals ever, worthy of Silenus, the god of beer, himself! Hops in particular are normally picked in late August or September, and only at that time can "harvest" ales be brewed. October is clearly the best time of the year to be a hophead, so why not throw a party?...
- Brewzilla Attacks Cleveland Beer Week Normally things don’t work out well when a monster invades a city. But on Saturday October 23rd, Brewzilla attacked the beer lovers of Cleveland with a wonderful event that featured over 80 breweries and hundreds of kinds of beer. No, he didn’t come out of Lake Erie. Instead, Brewzilla assaulted us in the form of an overabundance of ale and lager. ...