This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
Cigar City’s Jai Alai has always been an IPA that impressed me, but looking back at the company’s history and realizing that it was introduced all the way back in 2009, I’m that much more impressed by how truly ahead of the curve this brewery was when they first unveiled it more than a decade ago.
Flash back a moment, to the end of the 2000s in the craft beer world. As the decade came to a close, the ideal of “juicy” India pale ales was still veritably unknown to the brewing world at large. Yes, there were small communities of devotees going to a select handful of trend-setting breweries in Vermont, and cults were beginning to form around IPAs from the likes of The Alchemist or Lawson’s Finest Liquids, but the impact of those beers had yet to fully permeate even New England, let alone the rest of the country. Beers like Heady Topper would remain underground sensations for at least a few more years before the hype really began to build in the first half of the 2010s, but at the same time, a few enterprising breweries began to evolve the style along parallel lines.
Up north, Maine Beer Co. (also class of 2009) was a prime example, becoming known as masters of the proto-hazy pale ale and IPA, as flavors began to push brighter, juicier and less bitter. But down south, Cigar City Brewing seemingly sensed the same budding movement, and set out to brew an IPA that captured some of the same flavor profile, while eschewing the hazy appearance that would become so popular within half a decade. What they ended up with was a prescient trendsetter that embodied some of the best IPAs of the pre-hazy era, while still including some subtle influences of the era that preceded it. The product, Jai Alai, was an approachable best of both worlds, and it quickly became a Florida (and then national) success story, becoming the obvious Cigar City flagship in the process.
Today, Jai Alai is still obviously the beer that economically drives Cigar City’s continued growth as a member of the private capital-owned CANarchy collective, but it’s also arguably now the most important flagship brand within all of CANarchy, unseating the likes of Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale. According to CANarchy’s own data, it was the top-performing flagship in the company in terms of growth in 2019, growing by 41% in retail scans nationwide as Cigar City expanded into new markets. But it hasn’t slowed up in Florida either, growing 37% last year in its home market. That is especially impressive in an era when most beer geeks immediately think “hazy” when they think of IPA—Cigar City’s flagship has proven resistant to the perception that its lack of visible haze denotes it as an outdated brand. And you can thank its trend-setting flavor profile for that, which hinted at the hazy era to come.
Ultimately, Cigar City has a very real claim on the title of “Florida’s IPA” in the form of Jai Alai, a beer that has aged far better than most other flagship IPAs introduced around the same time period. The only thing left to do is re-taste it, so let’s do exactly that.
Tasting: Cigar City Jai Alai IPA
I’ve been starting these tasting sections by including how the brewery describes the profile of the beer in its official description, but oddly, Cigar City doesn’t really do that for Jai Alai, instead spending that space talking about the history of the game of Jai Alai. I guess they just figure the beer speaks for itself, so I’ll go straight into tasting.
On the nose, the signature note of Jai Alai is, and has been, a pure and focused fragrance of fresh oranges. There’s orange zest, and the suggestion of a clementine-type sweetness, which flows into somewhat greener notes of freshly mowed grass and lemongrass herbaceousness. There’s also a hint of caramel there on the nose, the only real tell that it hails from a slightly earlier era, giving the overall aroma a tone something like toast with orange marmalade.
On the palate, there’s certainly some toasty malt there—it would be inaccurate to refer to it simply as “subtle”—but the hops are big enough that they’re unquestionably the star of the show. Fresh, juicy clementines show up again, making this arguably one of the first non-New England IPAs where the term “juicy” felt accurate, although a palate accustomed exclusively to modern hazy IPA might feel differently. Moderate, persistent bitterness ties it all together in a way that is present but not particularly assertive, hinting at the way that bitterness in IPAs would continue to decrease in the future. There’s some dank elements here as well, a combination of grassy and herbaceous that I’ve noticed seems more prominent in older cans of Jai Alai, while the citrus component is amplified by fresher cans.
All in all, the subtle sweetness and citrus notes, coupled with moderate bitterness, make Jai Alai very inviting and easy to drink—perhaps not what you’d call extremely complex, but very pure in its pursuit of a friendly citrus profile, which represented a game-changer when it arrived in 2009. Certainly you have to credit this beer, and Cigar City in general, with helping to kickstart the evolution of craft beer in Florida and the rest of the American southeast, raising the profile of an entire region in a perceptible way with an IPA that was truly ahead of its time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.