Festivus may have come and gone, but I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!
Well, not all of you. Just those who have bastardized my once craft beer sanctuary that I lovingly refer to as Winter Beer Season. So as we sit here exactly halfway through winter, it’s time to reflect on what is taking place.
See, when the weather gets colder, my craft beer heart starts to go pitter-patter. That’s because not only are we leaving the scorching heat of summer behind, but I know the sweet taste of malty adult beverages is in the near future.
Beers served during the cooler months – think Marzens, Oktoberfests, Pumpkin Ales, Dunkels, Winter and Christmas Ales – all have a slightly sweeter character than the warm weather beers because of extra malt. And what’s even better is that these beers are often lower in alcohol, allowing you to enjoy an extra one here and there.
What makes these particular styles feel more malty, as opposed to their hoppy cousins like the Pale Ale and the ubiquitous IPA?
Mostly because the grains are roasted longer, leading to their darker coloring. But this also makes it harder for the yeast to turn the malt (e.g. roasted barley) into alcohol. So the unfermented material stays in the beer, giving it a thick, rich feel in your mouth as you imbibe. And because the yeast can’t process as much, you end up with lower alcohol content.
About 15-20 years ago, things changed. I believe it started with Sierra Nevada and its 65-IBU offering Celebration Ale. According to the brewery, it is an American-style IPA and “one of the few hop-forward holiday beers.” Well, it used to be.
New Belgium followed suit with its 2 Below Ale that has, they say, a deliberate “hoppy palate.” Soon other breweries were soon copying these big brothers of microbreweries.
For some reason – actually, I think I know the reason – brewers of craft beer have started infusing their Winter and Christmas beers with more and more hops. Rather than the thicker mouthfeel of malty sweetness, the Winter Beer Season is inundated with an unwelcomed hoppy takeover.
Now it seems there are more uber-hopped beers at Wintertime than malty concoctions. They’re everywhere. Here are just a few examples:
- Elysian Brewing Co.’s Bitfrost Winter Ale is really just a Pale Ale
- Hopworks Urban Brewery makes the Abominable Winter Ale that checks in at 70 IBUs
- Widmer Brothers Brewing makes a seasonal amber ale called the Brrr Hoppy Red
- New Belgium offers a second hoppy Winter beer, with its Snow Day Winter Ale a “backbone of hoppy bitterness”
- Big Sky Brewing Co. offers up the Powder Hound Winter Ale with its “generous dose of hops”
Then, I saw the one that made my once pitter-pattering heart lock up faster than my wife’s transmission when she fails to change the oil after nine years. This “style” of the beer is enough to ring the bell of death for the hope that Winter will ever be malty again. I give you … the Winter IPA.
Is that even possible?
Yes, because that’s what Highlander did when it produced the Frozen Hill Winter IPA with, according to its website, has “loads of piney North West hops.” The brewers go on to proclaim that the “hoppy nature of this beer will make it a holiday favorite.” Well, at least they didn’t call it a “traditional” favorite, because there’s nothing traditional about an IPA in the Winter.
Where are the Winter Warmers, the Christmas Ales, the Jubelales, and the Hanukkah Porters? Oh sure, you can still find a few here and there. But the majority of beers this Winter season are hopped up more than a pro wrestler on steroids.
Given that the IPA craze has taken over, it’s doubtful that Winter will ever be the malty world of joy that I once loved. If it does, it might take a Festivus miracle.
Winter Beer Season.
— Eric Van Steenburg
So you’re wondering who has the best IPA in your metropolis. But how in the world can you figure this out?
You can’t drink all of them at once. You’ll pass out before you finish and never know who won.
You can’t drink one a day until you’ve gone through them all. That would take too much time. And over time, people change. Hair styles change. Interest rates fluctuate.
There is an answer: The Annual (insert name of your town here) IPA Challenge.
It’s simple as 1, 2 3 … 4. OK, 5. Maybe 6.
- Assemble a group of friends, family, distant relatives, dentists, co-workers, sanitation engineers, Methodists, or just people you’ve passed once or twice on the street. The one thing they must have in common? They’re love of India Pale Ales.
- Find someone who doesn’t like that hoppy swill guaranteed to make you pucker more than a teenage girl taking a selfie. This individual will be in charge of procuring the samples, keeping things on time, knowing the order of the tasting, and generally chauffeuring everyone else around. The bossier the better.
- Pick an afternoon when almost everyone can attend. A Saturday not during the college football season is usually a safe bet.
- Make a list of all the breweries in an area of your choosing. If you live in a big city, maybe there are enough breweries in the chosen area that you can walk to and/or take public transportation. If you live in a smaller area, maybe it’s all breweries within a certain distance from the city center. Your choice. Then pick a route (clockwise and counter-clockwise work just fine) that lets you hit all the breweries in your chosen area.
- Visit each brewery, procuring samples of all of their IPAs for everyone (except the boss) and let the judges rate them from 1-5. Try to keep the identity of each IPA secret, if you can. NOTE: It’s OK if judges know the names of their fellow judges.
When you’ve hit every brewery, tally the points awarded for each different IPA, divide by the number of judges, and voila, the best IPAs will be the ones with the highest score.
That’s exactly what we did for the second consecutive year in Bozeman, Montana. And for the second year in a row, the winner is …
Well, not yet. First the details.
A distinguished group of IPA judges was assembled a few Saturdays ago to hit all the breweries in a 10-mile radius of downtown Bozeman. The breweries in the challenge, in order of visitation, included Bridger Brewing, Bunkhouse Brewery, White Dog Brewing Co., Bozeman Brewing Co., 406 Brewing, Map Brewing Co., Madison River Brewing, Bar 3 Bar-B-Q & Brewing, and Outlaw Brewing.
That’s nine breweries. In one afternoon. Can I get a “Hallelujah!”
The hope was to taste two IPAs at each brewery. But not every brewery had two IPAs. Two had three. And two had one. So the total number of IPAs tasted per person still ended up being 18.
Top three IPAs in town, as voted by the panel of experts, are the following:
Bronze Medal (tie) — Hop Juice Double IPA from Madison River and Horse Thief IPA by Outlaw Brewing. Each earned a 3.5 on the 5-point scale from the judges, who noted the following for the Horse Thief:
“Good IPA. Not a robust taste, but still tasty.”
“Nice IPA balance of hops and everything else. Bitter … in a good way.”
“Definitely an IPA. Hoppy. Tastes good.”
And had this to say about the Hop Juice DIPA:
“Well-balanced malt and hop flavors. Good IPA.”
“Very good. Flavorful. Balanced. Delicious.”
“Tastebuds are numb because this is &*%$ing awesome.”
Madison River’s double IPA hits you with 9% ABV and an IBU rating of 101, while the Outlaw’s IPA is a more standard offering at 5.6% ABV and 63 IBUs.
Silver Medal — Midas Crush West Coast IPA from Map Brewing is 6.9% ABV but 100% IPA goodness. The beer edged out the two third-place finishers by earning a 3.55 from the expert panel, who noted:
“Flinty. Quite nice. Interesting – hoppy and citrus.”
“Nice. Light. Good citrus.”
“Light, well balanced. I may be drunk but it tastes great.”
And finally, the winner … for the second year in row.
“Excellent IPA. Great balance of malt and hops.”
“Best real IPA. Floral tones. Lightly dry hopped.”
“Lovely. A classic IPA. Bitter, yet sweet. Nice mix of flavor intensities.”
There were a number of other IPAs that fared well during the challenge. And to those, we give an Honorable Mention nod. Checking in with a 3.1 average score were the Vigilante IPA from Bridger Brewing, the Double IPA from White Dog, and the Hop Punch IPA by 406 Brewing.
So there you have it. Another successful Annual Bozeman IPA Challenge.
Now I challenge you to create your own IPA challenge in your town.
— Eric Van Steenburg
With apologies to all the woodchucks who regularly read Beer-and-Burgers.com, today’s question is:
How many IPAs does an IPA drinker drink
if an IPA drinker dare drink IPAs?
And the answer appears to be 24, because that how many IPAs were served up at the Virginia IPA Challenge last Saturday at Capital Ale House in Harrisonburg, Va.
It was originally going to be 28 IPAs, but apparently IPA drinkers can’t chuck that many. Besides, if my designated drinker is any evidence, 24 IPAs was enough to taste.
The way Cap Ale had the contest orchestrated was cool. Each IPA chucker who wanted to get in on the tasting paid $10 for a card that had numbers 1-24 in a column on the left side. Next to each number was a line for drinkers to write any comments they wanted to make about each different beer, and presumably to help them remember what they’d tasted as the day wore on. To the right of each line was a place to rate the beer from 1-5 stars. And finally, at the far right was a box to mark off so each drinker, and more importantly our heroic bartenders, could keep track of which IPAs each person had already tried.
Participants got to sample four beers every time they went to the bar, which meant six trips to the bar. Each small taste – and thankfully that’s all they were, small tastes – was poured in a small plastic cup with a number on the front. So no one knew which brewer had entered which beer. Even representatives from the breweries in attendance didn’t know which numbers were theirs.
As I mentioned, I had a designated drinker with me. That’s because, as many of you know, I prefer the more malty side of the beer spectrum. Or, as my IPA swilling friend told someone after trip number five to the bar, “he perfers ports and stouters.” Uh, that would be stouts and porters.
More and more people showed up as the day went along. The lines got long, but seemed to move at a reasonable clip – at least from my vantage point at a table in the back where I sipped on an Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery, and later a Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout. And when the lines got really long, people didn’t complain too much because by then they’d already made 3-4 trips to the bar. There’s nothing like downing two dozen IPAs to make people hoppy.
Oh, and after tasting 24 IPAs, each chucker placed their vote for best Virginia IPA and then got a full pint of their favorite. Not a bad dessert.
Once the first keg was kicked, the tasting stopped and the bartenders (did I mention they were heroic), tallied up the votes. The winners were announced Monday and are:
- First place – Tall, Dark and Hopsom, a double black IPA by Isley Brewing Company (Richmond)
- Second place – The Admiral, an Imperial IPA from Three Brothers Brewing (Harrisonburg)
- Third place – Raucous Honey a double IPA by Three Notch’d Brewing Co. (Charolettesville)
I can’t contributed to the discussion on differences and qualities of the IPAs since I was enjoying my ports and stouters, but my designated drinker wrote down that Isley’s beer was “coffee,” that Three Brothers’ was “creamy” and the Three Notch’d was “yum.” So there’s the expert’s opinion.
Regardless of your beer style preference, the Virginia IPA Challenge was a blast. Shout out to D.J. at Cap Ale House for picking the excellent beers, and his fellow bartenders upstairs for working hard to make the lines move fast and keeping everyone hoppy. And a special shout out to Denise who worked the downstairs bar by herself early in the day as the IPA crowd was starting to swell, and for keeping everybody happy.
Of course, now I’m expecting a Winter and Christmas Virginia beer challenge in December. How’s that sound, D.J.?
— Eric Van Steenburg
When you’re hoppy and you know it, clap your hands.
When you’re hoppy and you know it … clap your hands.
When you’re hoppy and you know it, then your IPA will show it.
When you’re hoppy and you know it, clap your hands.
The reality is, unlike Pharrell Williams, I am not a hoppy person. I am malty. My preference in beer will always tilt toward porter and stout, and away from those overly-hopped IPAs that make my tongue feel like it needs to be mowed after just a few sips. OK, maybe that’s a little hopperbole. And it’s just one man’s hopinion. But you get my point.
But … I certainly understand the value of the hop in the beer-making process. Without it, beer would not be beer. After all, hops are one of the three ingredients allowed in beer according to the Reinheitsgebot, aka the German purity law.
Therefore, when presented with the hopportunity to help out a local farming family with their new hop yard, I was hoptimistic.
So last Saturday we went to visit Jane, Jason and Juli-Anna. Our mission? To find the leaders (or “bines”) of the hop plants and attach them to a string that we tied to an overhead wire and anchored in the ground next to the plant.
Motivated by the thought that these flowers would someday fulfill their destiny in a kettle of boiling water that would hoptimately become beer, we put in a hoptimum effort. Two hours and two rows later, our task was well hopsecuted. So much so, that Jane invited us back for the fall when it’s time to pick the hops. Who could be hopposed to that?
— Eric Van Steenburg