The Finals: IPAs #25-1
Here we go—the elite! Every beer in the finals made it through the initial blind tasting with flying colors—although we also added a couple high-scoring wild cards. We then brought all of those finalists back for another blind tasting with a full, 9-person crew to take notes and assign scores. The smell over the table was like the most fragrant fruit basket you could imagine.
It should go without saying that every one of these beers is fantastic, something we would seek out whenever we saw it. Many of them are beers we expected to see in the finals. Several are huge surprises that we never saw coming in a million years. Here are the results.
25. The Burnt Hickory Brewery The Didjits
City: Kennesaw, GA
The verdict: Burnt Hickory is one of the buzzier small breweries in Georgia, and “The Didgits” makes that easy to understand. An IPA infused with blood oranges, this beer understandably comes across with a candy-like sweetness—it’s intensely citric and juicy, in a unique way that tipped off tasters that there might be something more than simply American hops at work. It’s a bit earthier and more rounded in its maltiness than some of the other fruit or zest-infused IPAs, though, and there’s even the lightest bit of tartness present—this is not a simple or gimmicky IPA. Its unique, candied fruit character helped it stand out in its heat and earn a place in the finals.
24. Good People IPA
City: Birmingham, AL
The verdict: Good People’s IPA is a thing of subtlety and balance. It doesn’t brain you over the head with hop flavors, but they’re certainly there—predominantly floral and herbal in nature, a real perfumey force field just hangs over the glass, complemented by a bit of doughy, biscuit graininess. Its subtlety probably made it a long shot to triumph in the finals, but the mere fact that it advanced out of one of the toughest heats of 10 is a massive testament to how perfectly executed it is.
23. Alesmith IPA
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: One of the IPAs that built the reputation of San Diego as the IPA capital of the world, Alesmith’s India Pale Ale is a classic of the genre—no one has a bad word to say about this beer. It’s everything good about the style—medium-bodied, light on malt, high on piney, citric hops and boasting lingering, resinous bitterness. It calls out for a huge burger as a companion to complete an all-American meal. You wouldn’t taste it and say it’s unlike anything you’ve had before, but you’d probably recognize it as one of the best expressions of a venerated style of IPA. It’s one of the quintessential West Coast IPAs from one of the most dependably excellent breweries in the world.
22. Surly Brewing Co. Overrated IPA
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: We’re not quite sure why Surly specifically sent this particular IPA rather than both Overrated and Surly Furious, an elite eight contender from our 64-IPA “Top of the Hops” bracket in 2013, but it quickly proved itself to be a contender as well. It is, in a word, exuberant in its deployment of hops, almost absurdly so. “Citrus” is the byword, but citrus doesn’t even do it justice. It’s hazy, fresh, a little grassy and INTENSELY citrusy, like fresh-squeezed orange juice. If that’s your pet IPA profile, and you’re always chasing the next citrus bomb, then this is one you need to seek out for certain.
21. Fort George Brewery Vortex IPA
City: Astoria, OR
The verdict: Oregon’s Fort George is one of several breweries that sent us two IPAs (the maximum was two entries), and one of them that scored big as a result. This beer, the brewery’s #1 seller, is a real bruiser—almost DIPA-like in its intensity. It’s a complex offering, very woodsy on the nose, with a nice backing of caramel maltiness and citric hops, along with a definite booziness. Smelling it made me picture myself taking a stroll through some sort of huge, overgrown forest in the Pacific Northwest where the pine resin has perfumed the air. It’s an imposing beer that stood out as the most unique of its heat, where all the judges present were very curious to find out what exactly we were drinking.
20. Ballast Point Brewing Co. Sculpin
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: In terms of critical praise, Sculpin is probably the definitive West Coast IPA, especially for a year-round beer. Light of body, it’s a hop showcase first and foremost, with intense flavors of orange and peach, but also quite a lot of floral characteristics as well—orange blossom honey, maybe? It’s hard to believe this beer has now been around for 10 years, but it’s probably the best overall example one can give of how the California (and more regionally, San Diego)-style IPA redefined the style in America and pushed it into new territory. It’s as good today as it ever was, even as the style continues to branch out down new flavor avenues, and even as the Sculpin brand explores new variants (but more on that shortly).
19. Sixpoint Brewery Bengali
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Sixpoint has a well-structured set of IPAs that go all the way up to the elusive “triple IPA,” but their original, the Bengali (formerly Bengali Tiger) is still one of the best. It’s a beer that tastes a bit bigger than its 6.5% ABV—we’d believe you if you said this one was pushing DIPA territory, thanks to a commanding tropical and citrus hop character and late-appearing malty richness. Thanks to that bit of chewiness it’s still a fairly balanced IPA despite a pungent shield of hop aromatics the drinker will no doubt notice first. To describe the hops in two words? “Orange marmalade.”
18. Hermitage Brewing Citra IPA
City: San Jose, CA
The verdict: This beer began as one in a series of single-hop IPAs from Hermitage, but ended up being picked up year-round after it started winning awards. It’s pretty unusual stuff, with a nose that seemed to continuously be changing each time you returned to give it another try—okay, this time it’s really citrusy. Now it’s mostly ripe tropical fruits, sweet chunks of pineapple in heavy syrup. Now it’s almost got a musty, funky quality on top of all that fruit. At the very least, it was sweetly assertive and burly-feeling no matter when we tasted it—on the judges’ scorecards in the final round, the words “candied” and “tropical” appear repeatedly. It was a difficult beer to get a handle on, but that complexity made us want to come back to it time and time again.
17. Boneyard RPM
City: Bend, OR
The verdict: How this thing is 7.5% ABV, we have no idea—at times, it almost seems like the perfect expression of a session IPA, a blank canvas upon which a carpet-bombing of hop flavors are thrust. It drinks so lightly and so easily that it’s almost frightening, because the hop flavors are massive, all citrus and tropical—think tangerine and pink grapefruit, to quote one judge’s score sheet. Completely and utterly unbalanced in favor of the hops—the malt backbone is like the straight man in some insane SNL sketch who stands there being flustered while the madness unfolds around him. And what delicious, intoxicating madness it is. This is on the super refreshing end of IPA, a beer that would be cherished on a hot climate.
16. Angel City Brewery IPA
City: Los Angeles, CA
The verdict: This beer, or the idea of this beer, is why we did this ranking completely blind. When we began, none of us had really even heard of Angel City, a “brewery and public house” that has been in operation in L.A. since 1997, which is almost unheard-of in a city that didn’t truly embrace craft beer until the last five years or so. It was put into a difficult heat, against touted beers from San Diego, Chicago and North Carolina—and there it excelled, displaying a fresh, juicy set of citrus flavors backed by clean, biscuity malt. One could have chalked it up to a fluke or coincidence, but once again in the finals it held its own against an insanely difficult field and was not out of place. This beer doesn’t have an outstanding collection of ratings online, but we’ll gladly stand by our endorsement—this is a beautifully made, inherently solid West Coast IPA. We knew from the start that this format would generate a couple of surprises, so here’s one of them we’ll gladly seek out again the next time we’re in L.A.
15. Bell’s Brewery Two Hearted Ale
City: Kalamazoo, MI
The verdict: “Beautiful citrus/floral combination,” begins one judge’s tasting notes. “Nice citrus/spruce balance” says another, echoing a similar sentiment. Two Hearted is of course one of the best-known IPAs of the Midwest, a Michigan classic and flagship of Bell’s that you can now find in multiple formats, including 16 oz. cans. If anything typifies the ill-defined idea of a “Midwestern IPA,” this is as good as any to use as the Ur-example: Both intensely citrusy and floral, but with enough biscuit and caramel maltiness to back it up and make for something both balanced and memorable. A final four entrant in the Top of the Hops bracket back in 2013, it’s a beer that will keep earning very high praise in blind tastings for a long time to come.
14. Two Brothers Brewing Co. Wobble IPA
City: Warrenville, IL
The verdict: Two Brothers is one of those breweries I always tend to think of as embodying the idea of Midwestern craft brewers—places with their heads squarely on their shoulders and no time for outlandish creations or gimmickry. Midwestern craft beer, to me, is almost always about perfect balance, but with Wobble, Two Brothers broke their mold a bit by crafting an unapologetically hoppy IPA that has more in common with a West Coast example of the style. There’s a bit of bready malt there, but hops are really the heart and soul of the beer, with complex waves of citrus (lemon, grapefruit) and both pine and tropical fruitiness occasionally peeking out as well. It’s interesting to me that they brew two different IPAs at the exact same ABV as year-round offerings, as way of acknowledging the very different tastes that consumers have in this style. In Wobble, they’ve found one that should be a new star attraction.
13. Half Acre Senita
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Chicago’s Half Acre is a brewery that specializes in hop-forward offerings, and they’re uniformly excellent—perhaps none more so than Senita, which just last year won silver at the Great American Beer Fest (back when it was called Heyoka). The brewery’s usual strategy seems to be taking a beer style and adding intensity to it, and this is what happened when that outlook was applied to a classic West Coast IPA. It’s several things at once—very dank and grassy one the nose, while simultaneously citrusy and juicy on the palate, with more than a little pine as well. All of those flavors are very assertive—there’s no missing this one. It easily won the initial heat it was placed in, even beating out an 8.9% ABV DIPA that we accidentally included that day before realizing our mistake. If anything, though, Senita was the more flavorful of the two.
12. Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. IPA
City: Elmsford, NY
The verdict: You want a surprise? Here you go—probably the biggest dark horse surprise of the entire 116-IPA field: It’s Captain Lawrence IPA! I confess, I had not even heard of Captain Lawrence when we started this thing, although several judges said they’d tried solid beers from the suburban New York brewery before. The brewery says this dark golden beer came as a result of reverse engineering: Taking their DIPA and scaling it down into an IPA recipe. Perhaps that’s why it struck us so positively, but regardless of the reason it scored quite well both in its initial heat and in the final tasting. We found it very fresh, citric and juicy, with prominent flavors of orange and an undercurrent of tropical fruit as well. As one taster jestingly wrote, “MANGO MADNESS!” Of all the results in the final, this is the one that had the judges most surprised by a beer of such quality coming from a relatively un-hyped brewery.
11. Elysian Brewing Co. Space Dust IPA
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Anheuser Busch may own Seattle’s Elysian these days, to no small amount of consternation, but we have to give it up—Space Dust is still a damn good IPA. In its initial heat, every single judge picked it as one of their top two in order to advance to the finals. As one brewery owner wrote: “Just what I want—citrus and resin.” With large late additions of Citra and Amarillo, it’s unsurprisingly got plenty of that pithy orange and grassy flavors. The words “fresh,” “clean” and “crisp” appear repeatedly in all the judges’ descriptions—and those are the sort of descriptors that elevate a common style of IPA into a really great IPA.
10. Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai IPA
City: Tampa, FL
The verdict: Jai Alai was the runner-up of the Top of the Hops bracket in 2013, so we naturally expected big things from it in this tasting, and it didn’t disappoint. It was literally the only beer in the entire competition that one of the judges managed to identify blind without even knowing it was in that day’s heat—that’s how distinctive and well-loved it is in its distribution radius. Sticking a nose in the glass yields a huge rush of tropical fruit: mango, melons, and honeyed malt, and the flavors are more of the same, with mountains of fruity hops on top of very light caramel maltiness that only amplifies the hop presence. Every single judge selected this as their #1 beer in its initial heat—that unanimous vote almost never happened again.
9. Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Union Jack IPA
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: In 2013, this beer won the Top of the Hops tournament by narrowly edging out Jai Alai, and through some kind of celestial echo effect, it again ends up exactly one space ahead of Jai Alai two years later in a field of 116 beers—how that happens, we have no idea. The Champ faced even stiffer competition this time around, but still held up extremely well. It features a bit more malt presence than one might expect, which is almost necessary to stand up to its citrus bomb flavor profile—tons of grapefruit, tangerine and pine, and another beer where “clean” appears in nearly every description, as each flavor is well-defined and easy to single out. A silver medalist as recently as 2013 at the Great American Beer Fest, Union Jack remains an American classic and one of the first IPAs that will be suggested in any “best of” list of the style.
8. Founders Brewing Co. Centennial IPA
City: Grand Rapids, MI
The verdict: Talk about a beer that benefitted from the wild card spots. Founders had the tough luck to be in a particularly strong initial heat, and it ended up as the beer with the single highest score to not directly make it into the finals. As one of only a couple wild cards, then, it made its finals appearance count: Judges unanimously praised its slightly toasty malt character and impeccable balance. Hops are a classic blend of citrus and florals—as one taster wrote, “floral, honey, bit of grain, and lemon zest citrus.” Despite that, this is not what anyone would call “flashy” beer—it’s easily findable just about everywhere Founders manages to distribute, but that doesn’t diminish its greatness. If anything, the fact that Founders can still mass-produce a beer this good on this kind of scale is a hell of an impressive achievement.
7. Heavy Seas Beer Loose Cannon IPA
City: Baltimore, MD
The verdict: If this number seems high to you, allow us to suggest that it may have been a while since the last time you actually had a Loose Cannon. That’s the way it was for a few of us, who had a good impression of this beer but few recent chances to sample—but tasting blind reminded us of just how great Heavy Seas’ most critically acclaimed beer is. All tasters noted its complex, unusual fruitiness—both in a strong grapefruit citrus character but also something closer to bright red berry flavors, in addition to herbal and piney qualities. In short, it’s an IPA that doesn’t lean too heavily on a single key flavor note but successfully spreads out over several complementary ones, and does so assertively. It’s also another beer that is well-liked but sort of flying under the radar—we didn’t expect quite so many of the high-ranking finalists to have national distribution, but these were the things we were pleased to discover thanks to tasting them blind.
6. Stone Brewing Co. Delicious IPA
City: Escondido, CA
The verdict: Stone’s new “gluten-reduced” IPA, Delicious, scored big both in its initial heat and in the final tasting. The brewery boasts of the new “Lemondrop” hop variety giving it a “lemon candy” flavor, but we actually picked up more tangerine and grapefruit, although we can certainly agree on the “candy” portion. This beer is unbalanced toward the sweeter end of the spectrum, and it’s also fairly strong—certainly much more in your face with its flavors than the original Stone IPA. It represents a brewery that helped define the American IPA style progressing and moving forward with that style as it evolves. In the same way that Stone is currently revamping classics such as their Ruination DIPA, they’ve continued to keep up with the times by developing new beers such as the Enjoy By series and Delicious IPA. It’s clear to us after the blind tasting that few people intuitively know this style more intimately than Mitch Steele, the guy who literally wrote the book on the subject.
5. Maine Beer Co. Another One
City: Freeport, ME
The verdict: During the final round, a discerning eye could have identified this extremely citrusy IPA because it was easily the lightest one on the table—an interesting combination of light color and haziness that almost makes it look like a Belgian wit. And indeed, as in a wit, citrus is a major factor here—this thing is very citrusy, in a fresh-squeezed orange/lemon kind of way. Simultaneously, it’s also very tropical—but of the “super juicy citrus” IPAs we sampled, this might have been the very best of the bunch. Easier drinking and light-bodied, it’s easy to see where the beer could have gotten its name. It’s an IPA that immediately calls for another one, and another, and another.
4. Breakside Brewery IPA
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: You never truly know if a beer that has won major awards will live up to the hype in a blind tasting. We knew that Breakside’s IPA was one with a major star next to its name—that’s what a gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival will get for you. But really, was it going to stand out in a crowd of 116 American IPAs? Answer: Yep. Absolutely. And yet the odd thing is, Breakside’s IPA isn’t extremely aggressive or easily identifiable by a certain flavor profile—if anything, it’s right down the middle, West Coast classic. It scored so highly because it just does everything well. It’s complex in every facet of the game, from a beautiful nose that blends resinous pine, florals and citrus, right down to a restrained caramel backbone. It’s dry, perfectly balanced and sophisticated, a real joy to analyze. It’s easy to see how it earned its medal.
3. Ballast Point Brewing Co. Grapefruit Sculpin
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: Grapefruit Sculpin was pretty much the only beer of the finals where it was completely obvious from the first whiff exactly what you were drinking—there’s just no way to hide it, because no other beer smells quite like this one. It’s an utterly unique product—we’ve had other beers that incorporate actual grapefruit into the brewing process, but none of them smell like this. Which is to say, Grapefruit Sculpin smells like the most delicious grapefruit candy you can imagine. The flavor is almost as good—sweet, but not as syrupy as you would imagine from the heavenly nose, which makes it still drinkable despite smelling like something that came from a confectioner. It almost sounds like something that would be too much, too outlandish to be appreciable on a daily basis, but if we had regular access to this thing we would drink it constantly. It is fruitiness incarnate.
2. Maine Beer Co. Lunch IPA
City: Freeport, ME
The verdict: Let’s a take a moment and acknowledge, first of all, the incredible fact that a small brewery in southern Maine managed to land two beers in the top five of this 116 IPA challenge. That is absurd. The only other brewery to get two beers into the finals at all was Ballast Point, but Maine clearly has the highest batting average in this competition. One brewery should not be able to score two hole-in-ones in a row, but they figured out a way, and here’s the other thing—Lunch is really nothing like their other IPA, Another One. They’re both equally great in completely different ways. Where Another One is very light, refreshing, intensely citric and juicy, Lunch is much more subtle, almost more in line with the same qualities that we praised in Breakside IPA. It’s awash in all kinds of different hop flavors: Citrus, pine, floral and tropical fruit (especially grapefruit) all at once, but at the same time it’s also very balanced by a light caramel richness. It’s almost like a miniaturized DIPA. It feels like something that a lot of time, effort and careful consideration went into designing.
1. The Brew Kettle White Rajah IPA
City: Strongsville, OH
The verdict: A few weeks before we started tasting IPAs for this challenge, my father texted me from the Cleveland area, saying he was eating dinner at a place called The Brew Kettle while on a business trip. An affirmed hop head, he was drinking their White Rajah IPA, so I looked it up. Seeing its critical praises, I added it to our list of beers to acquire, thinking that perhaps it would be a dark horse candidate.
Fast forward to the day it first appeared in a preliminary heat, and we were utterly blown away. The aromatics on this beer are otherworldly—it is extremely hop-forward, with an intensely resinous, “green” blast of fresh, sticky pine needles, followed up by huge citrus. Malt? This IPA don’t need no stinking malt! It’s close to bone dry—what sweetness is present is almost hop-derived by its intense citrusy qualities. The flavors (and bitterness) are just huge and almost overwhelmingly assertive, but we were drawn in over and over for more. Here’s the note from the one professional brewmaster present at the tastings: “Just perfect.”
We’ve praised a whole lot of balanced beers in the course of making this list, but in the end, when you drink an American IPA, on some level you’re looking to assault your palate with with the best in American hops. That’s what White Rajah represents. It’s an absolutely incredible beer, and although its critical ratings are through the roof, we are amazed that we don’t see its name mentioned more often in lists of the greatest American IPAs. Disagree with us? Conduct your own blind tasting, include White Rajah, and see what happens. It’s the champion of our 116 IPA tasting. Congratulations, Brew Kettle.
And that’s it. It is quite honestly a huge weight off our shoulders to finally wrap up this post. It took 13 tastings on separate days to make it happen. Thanks to every brewery that sent in beer, and thanks to all the local bottle shops that stocked the others that we bought for ourselves. Thanks to Spiegelau for the perfect glassware for the occasion. Thanks to every writer, brewer and beer geek who stopped by to help us with tastings and rankings. Thanks to everyone who reads this or skips to the comments to tell us how much we suck for not including that 117th beer. Believe me, there’s plenty of others we wish we could have had.
As if it really needs saying, our palates are now slightly burned out on IPA, at least until next week. Which works out well, because Paste’s next two monthly tastings will be American wheat beers and then American saisons—about as different as one can get. They will also be much smaller tastings, because we don’t intend to put these massive projects on ourselves until it’s another style that demands it. And that won’t happen anytime soon.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he overcome a complicated relationship with math in order to calculate these results. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer-related content.