This week, we’ll be revealing the Final Four in Paste’s Top of the Hops IPA Challenge. First up, from the Southeast bracket, is Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai, which ended the Cinderella run of Good People IPA out of Birmingham, Ala. with a 6-1 win.
We talked with Wayne Wambles, head brewer of the Tampa, Fla.-based Cigar City about what makes the Jai Alai taste so good. “Our concept is pretty well based on Tampa culture,” he says. “I think of tropical things—the nature of living so close to the ocean.”
The beer certainly tastes like a little piece of Florida. “It’s definitely citrus-forward,” he says, “and tropical fruit notes. The caramel sweetness mixes with it, making the hop character juicy, not dry.
“The West Coast IPAs tend to be extremely dry,” he adds, “and the East Coast IPAs can be too malty for me. We’re trying to walk that line between the two.”
Wambles got his start in 1998 at the now defunct Poplar Head Brewery & Grill in Dothan, Ala., near his hometown of Enterprise. That’s also where the base recipe for Jai Alai was born—”It’s a beer that’s been changing over the course of the last 15 years,” he says. “It mutates every time I move breweries.”
After Poplar Head, Wambles became head brewer at Buckhead Brewery & Grill in Tallahassee and Atlanta and assistant brewer at Foothills Brewing Company in Winston-Salem. In 2008, he took a job as head brewer with a brand new company called Cigar City.
Thanks to an enthusiastic reception from beer lovers, the brewery expanded its distribution to New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Denmark, but pulled back most of its focus to Florida last year when demand at home outpaced its supply rate of 15,000 barrels/year. The brewery has added 10 new 120-barrel fermenters, but the Jai Alai remains a hard-to-track-down beer in most of the country.
When he’s not drinking his own beers, Wambles shared his love for two more of our Elite Eight beers, Firestone Walker Union Jack and Bear Republic Racer 5. We’ll profile the winner of that match-up tomorrow.
Here’s the updated Top of the Hops bracket (Click to enlarge):