UPDATE: The results are now up!
March was a busy month for Paste, between the addition of new team members and the musical madness of SXSW, but there was one project we conducted from start to finish that I’m fairly confident I can say will be the most interesting for our beer-savvy readership.
If you’ve spent any time at all in our drinks tab since the fall, then you’ve probably noticed our monthly beer style tastings and rankings. In September, it was pumpkin beer. In October, marzens/Octoberfest lagers. In December, Christmas ales. In January, two different sets of imperial stouts—standard and barrel-aged. In February, American porters. We’ve kept it as varied and seasonably appropriate as possible, and our readers have responded by making each of those pieces heavily trafficked and shared. But we’re now attempting something that is so much larger and more ambitious that belongs to another tier, all by itself.
Throughout the month of March, the writers, editors and friends of Paste have conducted what has been by far the largest, most comprehensive and most carefully organized tasting in our history, tackling the most beloved and ubiquitous style in the world of craft beer: American-style India Pale ale. This is our way of updating 2013’s Top of the Hops tournament, wherein Paste conducted a 64-IPA bracket-style challenge (Firestone Walker Union Jack is the returning champ). This time, though, we took our game to the next level, gathering IPAs from every inch of the U.S.A. until the total stood at a truly ridiculous 116, almost doubling our previous figure. And we tasted all of those beers completely blind.
Almost every day in March, we’ve conducted the tasting by selecting 10 beers to assess blind. I was given the job of creating sensible daily groupings or “heats” that capture a fair dichotomy of the overall field of entries—no one day can have too many hyped or top-ranking beers, so it was important to make every day similar in terms of overall quality. We rated every single beer with numeral scores ranging from 1-100, and the top two from each heat were selected to move on to a final tasting of 25 IPAs, from which a champion will be drawn. We’ll be conducting that grand finale tasting later today, the reward for dozens of hours of very real labor that were put into this particular tasting, particularly in the time spent reaching out to breweries and acquiring the 116 entries. We assure you, that part wasn’t easy—the sheer number of emails and phone calls I made about American IPAs in the last couple months boggles the mind.
For that very reason, allow us to take this moment to answer a few preemptive questions:
Q. Which beers were considered?
A. Any “standard” American India Pale ale under 8% ABV, which was set as the cut-off between IPA and DIPA. The BJCP guidelines actually say 7.5%, but we bumped it up slightly. Note that this does still disqualify a couple of IPAs that are 8% and above, but with so many other breweries calling their beers DIPA at that alcohol range, it gets too confusing and inconsistent from 8% onward. Likewise, only “single” American IPA is on this list: No session IPA. No DIPA. No black IPA. No Belgian IPA, or anything with a Belgian yeast strain. Just classic American-style IPA.
Q. Why isn’t ____ beer on the list?
A. Chances are very high that we tried to get it but couldn’t, for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the beer might be seasonal. Some breweries don’t ship beer as a rule or for legal reasons. Sometimes, we’re told beer is on its way to us and then it never shows up. Other times, breweries simply choose not to participate, often because they’re already so buzzy that they’re not looking for additional exposure. You’d better believe we spent time contacting representatives of The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, etc. trying to get IPAs—it’s impossible to get them all, but we put together the most amazing collection of the style that I’ve ever seen. Disappointed there’s no Three Floyds? Perhaps take into consideration the fact that FFF doesn’t really make many single IPAs (mostly pale ales/DIPAs) before you lodge that complaint.
Q. Any other criteria on which breweries were included?
A. Not a one. There are entries on the list from tiny breweries we’d never heard of before, alongside the giants of the industry. All had the same fair chance to shine in the blind tastings.
Q. Who are you to think you can objectively rate beers?
A. Tasters included professional beer writers, editors, journalists, people who run beer news websites, brewery owners and brewmasters, including at least one that is BJCP certified.
Predictably, the results of those tastings produced some surprises, but in the end I emerged with a newfound confidence in our own palates. The 25 finalists include some damn good beers, from perennial favorites (Cigar City, Bell’s, Firestone Walker), to buzzy newcomers, to underappreciated veteran brewers who have been making world-class beer that is passing by under the radar. It’s a great mix of comfortably familiar and refreshingly experimental.
Are there some shocks? Of course, both in what we praised and what we didn’t. Were we all surprised to not immediately fall in love with Russian River’s Blind Pig IPA in a blind tasting? We sure were—almost as shocked as we were to select an IPA from say, Angel City Brewery in Los Angeles, a place that most of us had never even heard of. But that’s why you do the tastings. If you’re not open to an unexpected potential outcome, why bother doing it blind?
After today’s tasting, I’ll likely be spending a large chunk of the weekend compiling the final data, and we’ll then announce a winner, along with a full list of entries and a top 50 with accompanying tasting notes. To the winner: Congratulations in advance. Triumphing over a field of 116 top-notch American IPAs is a tremendous achievement.
Be sure to check back for Paste’s American IPA winner, and keep an eye out for our next few upcoming style tastings/rankings, which will include American wheat beers and American saisons.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he loves a solid IPA. His taste buds are probably completely burned out on lupulin by the time you read this. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer updates.