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Blind-Tasting 116 of the Best American IPAs: We Have a Winner

The top American India pale ale has been chosen

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IPAs #50-26

Here we go—into the proper rankings! Beers #50-26 were uniformly excellent—there are some fantastic IPAs here that, on another day, might have ended up in the final tasting and had a chance at the #1 spot. We would greedily drink any one of these beers, any day of the week. The overall score differentials between spots 50 and 26 are very slim.

50-HopDrop'nRoll-NoDa.jpg 50. NoDa Brewing Co. Hop, Drop ‘n Roll
City: Charlotte, NC
ABV: 7.2%
The verdict: When you’ve got a 2014 World Beer Cup gold medalist just barely scraping into the top 50, then you know you’ve got a seriously amazing lineup of IPAs on hand. NoDa’s Hop, Drop ‘n Roll might be called an excellent example of the loosely defined, now infrequently seen “East coast IPA” substyle in the way it balances its hop bill with a hefty balance of chewy, toasty, bready malt body. The hops are still layered on top in bunches, with character that vacillates between dank, sticky resin and perfume/grassiness. Assertive, full-bodied and in no way lacking character, Hop, Drop ‘n Roll makes its presence felt.

49-FireEagle-AustinBeerworks.jpg 49. Austin Beerworks Fire Eagle IPA
City: Austin, TX
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: A good example of an IPA that got its scores marked up as tasters went around the table a second and third time. Preliminary tastes had several judges noting “vegetal” notes in the nose, but further inspection revealed very pleasant fruitiness underneath—lots of grapefruit and bitter orange peel in particular. Bitterness is higher than average for its weight class—this is one for folks who like their IPAs dry, bitter and citrusy. Would probably make for a great pairing with Austin food truck tacos.

48-WipeOut-PortBrewing.jpg 48. Port Brewing Co. Wipeout IPA
City: San Marcos, CA
ABV: 7.5%
The verdict: American IPAs are really the heart and soul of the Port brand, so we’re not surprised to see them represented here. It doesn’t quite explode with hops the way its DIPA brother Mongo does, but it’s quintessential West Coast IPA all the way, primarily hitting the orange/lemon citrus notes the hardest thanks to the amarillo and centennial hops. There’s also a bit of the telltale amarillo grassiness—it’s a hop that tends to pleasantly remind one of a freshly mowed lawn. Except, you know … in a citrus orchard.

47-Tropicalia-CreatureComforts.jpg 47. Creature Comforts Tropicalia
City: Athens, GA
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: A beer that we’ve personally labeled as the best Georgian-made IPA on the market in the past, we honestly expected Tropicalia to have a great showing and make a stealth run into the finals, and were a little disappointed that this didn’t end up as the result—but that’s what you get with blind tastings. It’s still wonderfully refreshing stuff, bursting with the tropical fruit flavors (pineapple, mango) that the name would imply. It’s sweet, juicy, lighter-bodied, low on bitterness and frighteningly drinkable, which all adds up to create one of the best summer-drinking IPAs being made in the South today. It’s Georgia’s answer to Cigar City Jai Alai.

46-Alaskan-Icy-Bay.jpg 46. Alaskan Brewing Co. Icy Bay IPA
City: Juneau, AK
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: Here’s an unheralded, underrated IPA for you, Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Icy Bay, which is now a decade old. It’s a very crisp, easy-drinking offering with a pleasing, crackery/grainy maltiness that is kept in check by sweetly aromatic floral hops. Extremely well balanced and perhaps easy to overlook, this IPA nevertheless has soul and substance—it’s not really trying to dazzle you with monstrous, in your face flavors or push the boundaries too far in any one direction on the flavor wheel. Rather, there’s something to be said for an unassuming IPA that perfectly balances light, honeyed sweetness with a liberal handful of floral hops. We won’t overlook it again.

45-NeonGypsy-DuClaw.jpg 45. DuClaw Brewing Co. Neon Gypsy
City: Baltimore, MD
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: The words “clean” and “bitter” appear in pretty much all the judges’ notes for this newer beer from Baltimore’s DuClaw, and both of those are true. It’s a pale, clear hop delivery vehicle that hits you with lots of green, resinous, piney flavors first and foremost, with a bit of grapefruit going on as well—”rind bitterness,” as one taster put it. Totally West Coast, with no attempt at balance, just a celebration of fresh, piney hops.

44-Racer5-Bear-Republic.jpg 44. Bear Republic Brewing Co. Racer 5 IPA
City: Healdsburg, CA
ABV: 7.5%
The verdict: An older IPA brand that is still hanging in there, Bear Republic’s Racer 5 has been appearing on these sorts of lists for more than a decade. In terms of volume of flavor, it’s long since been lapped by some of the big, over-the-top IPAs that continue to redefine the style in terms of the mind of the American consumer, but Racer 5 still succeeds thanks to careful execution of a classic profile. Citrus, pine, grapefruit—it is THE classic California IPA flavor palette that made IPA so popular in the first place. You’d likely have a hard time identifying it blind because a lot of other IPAs have been made in the same way, but you’ll almost certainly nod and say “Ah, now there’s a classic American IPA.” That’s Racer 5.

43-Torpedo-SierraNevada.jpg 43. Sierra Nevada Torpedo
City: Chico, CA
ABV: 7.2%
The verdict: And speaking of classic American IPAs, hey, there’s Torpedo. Sierra sort of flew under the radar in this tasting (per usual), but landed two beers in the top 50. Torpedo is of course a foundational American IPA, famous as the beer that was using Citra hops long before it was all the rage to do so. It’s still unusual, though, in the way it pulls a different flavor profile out of Citra than almost all the other beers made with that hop variety. Whereas most Citra beers are all intensely tropical, Torpedo comes at you with a big wave of pine … at first. We found this to be another beer that evolved over time and repeated tastes—the more we tasted it, the more we wondered how we’d initially glossed over the tropical notes that then come out, from kiwi to mango. This beer is already venerable, but it’s still plenty relevant.

42-Hoppyum-Foothills.jpg 42. Foothills Brewing Co. Hoppyum IPA
City: Winston-Salem, NC
ABV: 6.3%
The verdict: Foothills’ other well-known IPA, Jade, tends to be the more highly touted between the two, but in this tasting it was actually the year-round offering, Hoppyum, which shined brighter—it’s easy to see why this is the brewery’s biggest year-round seller. An all Simcoe IPA, it has all of that hop variety’s usual trademarks—strong pineyness, citrus and a bit of hard-to-place earthiness that defies description. A fairly well-balanced drinker, this one isn’t just about delivering a hop profile, but rather a complete beer with a few rough edges that give it character and memorability.

41-MondayNight-Eyepatch.jpg 41. Monday Night Brewing Eye Patch Ale
City: Atlanta, GA
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: A beer from Paste’s backyard, but one we’re still surprised to see in this position, the Eye Patch took several judges by surprise. It’s a more unconventional beer than any of us realized, with a base of lightly nutty English Maris Otter malt and a portion of rye malt in the grain bill as well for good measure. From one judge’s tasting sheet: “Pine, spice and tropical all at once. Orange on second pass. Divergent from other beers on the table.” From another: “Juicy, with a subtle bite.” In a blind competition of this nature, it’s almost always a plus to have some quality that makes a beer unique, and this is one of the IPAs to embody that principle.

40-SnakeDog-FlyingDog.jpg 40. Flying Dog Snake Dog
City: Frederick, MD
ABV: 7.1%
The verdict: By and large, you’ll likely find that our tastes stray toward intensely hop-forward, fruity, citric or otherwise juicy, hop-bomb IPAs, but that’s not to say the occasional malt-forward beer didn’t do well in the competition. Flying Dog’s entry is a solid amber in color, bolstered by caramel and toasted maltiness all the way through. As one judge wrote, “caramel nose, malty fullness,” and “fullness” is an excellent word for the beer as a whole—there’s grapefruit hoppiness (and even a bit of spice) there for sure, but the lasting impression from this beer is a reminder that well-balanced IPAs can show off an appreciation for hops while also letting the soul of crystal malt sing.

39-ModusHoperundi-Ska.jpg 39. Ska Brewing Co. Modus Hoperandi
City: Durango, CO
ABV: 6.8%
The verdict: A very predominantly West Coast IPA that has been a popular offering for Durango’s Ska Brewing for quite a while now, Modus Hoperandi is blessed by one of the best hop pun names in the biz and a pretty appealing flavor to go along with it. Resinous pine is the big name of the game here, with grapefruit citrus following behind. It’s bitter, on the drier side and plenty assertive—it might actually taste a bit bigger than its 6.8% ABV, especially in terms of a bitter rush of pine needles that are the beer’s most lasting impression. It’s fairly close to the platonic ideal most beer geeks have in their head when someone says “West Coast IPA”—as pine-forward ones go, anyway.

38-WroughtIron-Abita.jpg 38. Abita Brewing Co. Wrought Iron IPA
City: Abita Springs, LA
ABV: 6.9%
The verdict: As we wrote in our positive review when this beer was first released just a few months ago, it represents Abita’s re-entry into relevance discussion—a “legacy brewery” with lots of history but not a ton of critically acclaimed beers, coming through with a new release that has succeeded in turning some heads. They did this by analyzing the way the winds were blowing in the craft beer market and by fitting a beer that hit some of those flavor notes. Balanced caramel maltiness serves as the base for lots and lots of tropical fruity hoppiness—think grapefruit and melons, primarily. It claims 80 IBUs, but drinks far easier than that would suggest. It’s a great, balanced, everyday IPA that should now be considered the brewery’s new flagship, if it isn’t already.

37-ArtOfNeurosis-SecondShift.jpg 37. 2nd Shift Art of Neurosis
City: New Haven, MO
ABV: 7.7%
The verdict: 2nd Shift, located just outside the St. Louis area, is a weird little brewery but they make some very good hop-forward beers, including this one that they describe on their bizarre website as “a hop sandwich brewed with Simcoe and Columbus hope (they misspelled “hops”), which are the greatest thing in the world besides a good smack in the face.” This was also an odd beer in terms of the divisive tasting notes it generated: Almost every judge had positive things to say about it, but everyone found different aspects of its character to note. One judge notes “red fruit,” while another comments “Lemon zest,” and still another notes passionfruit and the malt backbone. It’s difficult to pin down, just like the brewery itself, but an IPA that left everyone going back for additional tastes in an attempt to unravel its little mysteries.

36-CrookedTree-DarkHorse.jpg 36. Dark Horse Brewing Co. Crooked Tree IPA
City: Marshall, MI
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: This IPA is well-known and well-liked by beer geeks of the upper Midwest, as is its big brother, Double Crooked Tree. Lighter of body and color but still complex in its flavors, it’s a hazy beer that one could almost imagine is sticky with hop resin. Malt is slight and toasted, but the flavors are predominantly hop-forward, both fruity (grapefruit) and uniquely herbal—sort of a savory thyme and piney rosemary cross. They call it “Michigan IPA,” which may be a smallish club, but a tasty one.

35-Lagunitas-IPA.jpg 35. Lagunitas IPA
City: Petaluma, CA
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: One of the nice things about this blind tasting challenge was that it gave us a chance to reevaluate some of the the industry’s foundational beers from a new point of reference. Lagunitas’ IPA is the kind of beer that blew people away with its hoppiness when it was sprung upon an unsuspecting public more than 15 years ago, but by today’s standards it’s evolved into an understated, approachable median offering—one we were pleasantly surprised to see score so high. Despite being light in color it brings more depth of malt character than most of the beers in the competition—very cereal grainy, with a touch of wheat’s mellow smoothness and creamy texture. The hops are herbal and grassy, in perfect balance—as one judge amusingly wrote on their score sheet, “Tastes like yard clippings—but in a good way.” We get what she meant.

34-Spiteful-IPA.jpg 34. Spiteful Brewing IPA
City: Chicago, IL
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: Lighter-bodied and more quenching than a Chicago compatriot like Revolution’s Anti-Hero, Spiteful’s IPA is the definition of drinkability. Not a complicated or particularly complex beer by any means, it does one thing really, really well—juicy-sweet citrusy goodness. Thanks to an all-Amarillo hop bill, there’s a bit of grassiness, but for the most part it leans very heavily on the orange/tangerine aspect of that hop to create a beer that is heavenly for fans of citrus-heavy IPA. It’s like a squeeze of fresh orange juice, something that makes you immediately pine for warm weather and an outdoor beer garden.

33-Harvest-SierraNevada.jpg 33. Sierra Nevada Harvest Single Hop IPA
City: Chico, CA
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: This particular batch of Sierra Nevada’s Harvest series, a single-hop IPA, is brewed with a brand new variety apparently known as “Idaho 7,” which SN describes as “aromas of orange and apricot mesh with hints of black tea-like character and a pleasant fresh herbal bouquet.” I can’t say we got all of those notes in the course of our own tasting, but what we did uncover was a sturdy backbone of husky graininess and perfumey floral aromatics. For a single-hop beer it’s pleasingly complex and makes us curious how other breweries might apply this “Idaho 7” in the future, or what its role might be in non-single hop applications.

32-T-IPA-Schlafly.jpg 32. Schlafly Tasmanian IPA
City: St. Louis, MO
ABV: 7.2%
The verdict: Tropical fruit flavors are all the rage in American IPA these days, and that’s quite apparent in Schlafly’s “T-IPA,” which is almost entirely hopped with the tough-to-get Australian variety Galaxy. This IPA is awash in all kinds of crazy tropical flavors—melon, honeydew, pineapple, passionfruit, etc, especially when fresh. There’s not a lot of malt character to get in the way, and it’s not an IPA that’s pretending to have any attempt at balance. This is a very pure expression of both hop rates and flavor profiles that are currently in the vogue, and for good reason. Now if only more breweries could get their hands on large quantities of these hops with any regularity…

31-StarrHill-ReviverRedIPA.jpg 31. Starr Hill Brewery Reviver Red IPA
City: Crozet, VA
ABV: 6.2%
The verdict: There were a handful of so-called “Red IPAs” in the tasting, a somewhat nebulous substyle that hasn’t quite done enough to claim itself as separate from American IPA as a whole, given that IPA has historically been open to amber-colored entries from the beginning. This Starr Hill one truly is red, though, and a dark red at that, and it brings to bear an intense, uncommon maltiness—toasty, nutty, caramel, even a bit of dried fruit. This firm, malty body is supported by a typical bouquet of citric American hops, but it’s the synthesis of the two that makes the beer stand out in an intriguing way. We had a few other RIPAs in the tasting that weren’t able to bring their two primary elements into a working arrangement—of those, this is probably the maltiest of the bunch, but somehow it still works beautifully, even as it makes us question whether the IPA title is truly accurate.

30-Sweet-Water-IPA.jpg 30. SweetWater Brewing Co. IPA
City: Atlanta, GA
ABV: 6.3%
The verdict: Of all the beers that Paste staffers and Atlanta locals see on a daily basis, this is probably the result that surprised us the most. Sure, we’ve always thought of SweetWater’s IPA as a fine beer, but even in terms of local reputation it’s not quite as iconic as the 420 Pale Ale. Tasted blind, though, it was a bit of a revelation—very clean and dry, with biscuity malt and a classic bouquet of pine, citrus and especially floral notes. A good reminder that great, balanced IPAs can be found hiding right in your own backyard, where you’ve long since progressed past taking them for granted.

29-DawnoftheRed-Ninkasi.jpg 29. Ninkasi Brewing Co. Dawn of the Red
City: Eugene, OR
ABV: 7%
The verdict: Another “red IPA,” Ninkasi’s Dawn of the Red shows the range within this particular substyle when simply compared to #31, Starr Hill’s Reviver. Where the Reviver is a heavier, deeply malty beer that pushes the boundaries of how “red” one can go while still being an IPA, this lighter, amber IPA simply uses the title to add a splash of caramel character as a foundation for loads of tropical fruity American hops. This is actually a combination that works really well, as the sweetness and chewiness added by a decent charge of crystal malt works in tandem with tropical fruit hoppiness to make those hop flavors seem more “juicy” than they would if the beer was dry as a bone. You end up with something that is very well-balanced but substantial—not in your face, but not lacking character.

28-AntiHero-Revolution.jpg 28. Revolution Brewing Co. Anti-Hero IPA
City: Chicago, IL
ABV: 6.5%
The verdict: Anti-Hero is a big part of the reason why Chicago’s Revolution Brewing was able to open as a brewpub in 2010 and get a full production facility cranking out cans only three years later. Already a city staple—maybe Chicago’s signature IPA these days, actually—this IPA almost made the finals but had the misfortune to be in what turned out to be a particularly strong heat. It’s hopped to the gills but still fairly balance—there’s enough caramel malt here that at times, it almost seems to venture into “hoppy American red” or “India red ale” territory. But make no mistake, hops are still the star attraction, and it’s a perfect blend of citrus and tropical flavors in particular: grapefruit, orange and pineapple juice. Mildly sweet, quaffable and emblematic of the evolution the IPA style has undergone in the last 10 years.

27-Rhye-IPA-Smuttynose.jpg 27. Smuttynose Rhye IPA
City: Hampton, NH
ABV: 6.8%
The verdict: The year-round IPA from Smuttynose, Finestkind, is a well-respected beer but the one that really caught our attention was this seasonal rye IPA. Even tasting blind, it was clear that something unusual and unique was going on here—from one judge’s scoresheet: “Complex, spicy, unusual, fruity, peppery.” Once the label was revealed, those “spicy/peppery” qualities made a lot more sense as a product of the rye malt in play. In fact, this beer was an excellent example of the complexity that non-barley grains can add to a classic American IPA—you see a lot of them with rye on the market these days, but few that really use the grain in such a way that it gives a unique flavor note that punches through so cleanly as it does here. A standard-bearing version of this particular IPA substyle.

26-Gigantic-IPA.jpg 26. Gigantic Brewing Co. IPA
City: Portland, OR
ABV: 7.3%
The verdict: The simply named flagship of Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Co., this IPA isn’t quite as burly as the name would imply—in actuality, it’s pretty quaffable, and that’s a good thing. Cascade, centennial, simcoe—it’s a classic West Coast IPA all the way, with a refreshing bevy of citrus and pine flavors. One might very well ask how many IPAs the market (or this kind of tasting/ranking) could handle that tread some of this same ground, but there will always be a place for the kind of well-made American IPA that helped the style grow into what it is today—and there will always be a large gulf between the “meh” examples of the style and the exemplary ones. Gigantic’s IPA is one of the latter, a perfectly balanced offering that is exactly the kind of India Pale Ale that made Portland a destination city for craft beer geeks in the first place.

Next: The Finals: IPAs #25-1

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