A 16-IPA SHOOTOUT IN KANSAS CITY: PRESENTED BY SIR SCOTT
We needed to do a proper IPA shootout. Not a “tasting”, but an actual shootout. How is that done?
Step 1: Gather some hopefully worthy brews. Check. We even managed to sneak in an elusive (for Kansas, anyway) Three Floyds Alpha King.
Step 2: Gather some beer nerds to taste and subjectively judge. The beer nerds part is easy. The four nerds for this shootout are all avid homebrewers… a combined 35 years of brewing experience, and a collective 5 trips to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The “subjectively judge” part would be the hard part. For this shootout, we’ve rated in a very unorthodox manner, and it exposes some of our personal biases. We’re familiar with the traditional beer rating system, where you take things such as nose, mouthfeel, and appearance into consideration. That’s all fine and dandy. But for me (and the friends in this shootout), there’s really only ONE thing that matters most in the end… DID WE LIKE THIS BEER? A really nasty beer could have a GREAT mouthfeel or appearance. But why rate it high on those fronts if I think it sucks and I have no intention of buying it? With that in mind, we decided on an arbitrary scale of 1 – 100. 100 is the best beer the world could ever produce (there were none given), and 1 is an undrinkable beer. 50 is the “utterly average” mark. It’s that beer that just makes you wonder why they even bothered brewing it. So typical, so average, it just doesn’t move you, but at least isn’t BAD. Anything below the 50 mark gets on the verge of nasty, and anything above 50 is where you start to consider buying the stuff.
Perhaps the most important part of this scale is that helps us get a handle on the overall “greatness” of the beer. For instance, if a beer comes in 3rd place, that doesn’t tell us much. Was it a distant third, or was it a photo finish, where you can’t go wrong with ANY of the top-3? Our system helps quantify that.
The 16 beers were blindly poured, so during the tasting, we only knew a beer by number, not name. This removed any possible chance of bias for (or against) a brand name. There are very valid concerns that a lot of hops kill the taste buds. We also tried to combat this by having each of the four judges start with a different set of four beers. This way, if later tastings tended to judge a beer more harshly (or favorably), it would all average out in the end. Furthermore, we had water and crackers to help cleanse the palette between tastings. Finally, this wasn’t a “run through once and rate” type of thing. After the initial tasting, we went back to re-taste similarly scored beers to further hone the scores. In the end, every one of us had ratings that were very accurate. I then averaged all of the numbers to come up with the final results. Some might surprise you. Averaged scores are in parenthesis. Here goes:
16th Place: Southampton IPA (45) – Unanimously voted the worst of the whole bunch, and by a pretty good margin. I think it was the only beer in the tasting where every person either coughed, gasped, or had some type of negative comment about it. All malt and devoid of any hop character. I wouldn’t buy this for $1/6-pack, simply because I wouldn’t enjoy drinking ANY of it.
15th Place: Three Floyds Alpha King (57.5) – This was a shocker, and I hope it doesn’t offend some of the Three Floyds faithful here. Again, this was a totally blind taste test done by some knowledgeable beer nerds. Overall, this one just didn’t have what it takes. Some specific comments from the tasting… “Is this even an IPA? Tastes like a British Pale.” “All malt, no hops.” “No hop smell, too dark, too malty.” DISCLAIMER – This beer was 8 months old. In my opinion, NOT old enough to noticeably detract from the flavor profile, but if anyone wants to mail me a fresh one, I’ll gladly taste it.
14th Place: Bear Republic Extra Pale Ale (61.25) – Granted, it’s not even fair to throw a pale in with a bunch of IPAs and expect it to do well. I think this one must have been on sale for it to make this group. Regardless, the fact that this mere pale beat out two other IPA’s says something about how weak the last 2 places really were.
13th Place: Pyramid Thunderhead IPA (66.25) – Not much to say about it. Nothing offensive, but nothing that stood out as overly memorable.
12th Place: Dark Horse Crooked Tree IPA (66.75) – Comes in at the lower end of our scale, but it’s worth noting that ONE judge ranked this as his #1 beer (giving it a 94). Think about what a 94 does to the average of this beer. By the other three judges, this one was given a score of 45, 60, and 68. It was not well-received. Why the division? The taster who gave it a 94 admitted that he loved the nutty, malty taste. To which everyone else responded something to the effect of, “We aren’t rating nut brown ales here!!!” In the end, he admitted that as an IPA, this one was WAY off the mark, but as a tasty brown ale, pretty darn good. Just don’t go into this one expecting hops.
11th Place: Mojo IPA (67) – We’ve rated this one in the past, and our opinion hasn’t shifted too much. Just doesn’t carry enough hop “BAM” for our tastes.
10th Place: Mongoose IPA (67.5) – We had LOW hopes for this one, mainly because a bomber of it was only $2.99, but overall, it wasn’t a bad IPA. “Crisp start, bad finish”. “A solid, if average, IPA.”
9th Place: O’Fallon 5-Day IPA (70) – Here’s where we really start getting to some of the solid IPAs. This one didn’t have many noteworthy comments, but all judged it fairly well.
8th Place: Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye (72.75) – Noted as having a “peppery” taste, perhaps due to the rye?
6th Place (tie): Anderson Valley Hop Ottin IPA (73.75) “Great smell, excellent hop bitterness at the end.” “Clean color, crisp taste backs it up.”
6th Place (tie): Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA (73.75) – I’ll admit that I’ve always been biased AGAINST this company because I think the pencil-scratched labels make it look cheap. However, they actually backed it up with a solid beer that I’d gladly buy again.
5th Place: Bridgeport IPA (74.5) – This was, for me, the gold standard of IPAs at one time. I still think it’s a fantastic IPA. It’s just been eclipsed in recent years by some real hop bombs. Crisp, citrusy, drinkable.
4th Place: Boulevard Singlewide IPA (78.5) – This was my personal second-favorite of the shootout. Stunning when I consider the fact that I’ve had this beer before, and was underwhelmed at the time. But when blindly put side-by-side with some of the kings of IPA’s, this fared VERY well. Universally liked.
3rd Place: Bell’s 2-Hearted Ale (83) – It’s all been said before on this one. “Best smell of all beers here.” “Well balanced malt and hops.”
2nd Place: Sierra Nevada Torpedo (85.75) – One taster’s hands-down favorite, while ranking 3rd – 5th by others. Not a citrus bomb like the 2-Hearted Ale, but a DEFINITE hop bitterness that stands out as unique in this crowd… not an easy task when you look at the sheer number of competitors.
1st Place: O’Dell IPA (90.25) - Shocker here. It won our last IPA shootout with only 3 other competitors. Apparently, adding 12 more competitors can’t de-throne this king. I realized on this tasting that I’ve mistakenly called the hops “grapefruity” in the past. It’s not grapefruit. It’s pine. All pine. One taster couldn’t keep his comments to himself when he stumbled upon this one… “Smelled like I’ve walked into a Nordic pine forest!” “Most unique beer of the day… tastes like a pine tree.” “Good color, aroma.” “A unique standout in this crowd.”
What I actually find great about these overall results is that the O’Dell IPA and the Sierra Nevada Torpedo couldn’t be more different. This isn’t a “citrus hop” bias coming out, or anything like that. These two beers simply manage to stand out dramatically from a lot of the others, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to do that in the crowded IPA field. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves, berate us as judges, condemn our scoring system, or do anything else that helps you feel better about a beer that you wanted to score higher. Most importantly, cheers to whatever beer you personally love.