Monday, June 8, 2015

Showdown! New England-style IPAs

Ever since Heady Topper took the beer world by storm a few years ago, it seems all the major breweries have been trying to imitate it (to varying degrees of success). I’ve noticed that whenever I drink an IPA or DIPA from a New England-based brewery, there is usually a Heady-ish quality to the beer. They tend to have a huge tropical fruit and herbal aroma with a spicy/grassy/earthy taste and strong bitterness. I eventually started referring to these types of beers as “New England-style IPAs.” But that’s not to say I find them uncreative or derivative – hey, a good beer is a good beer even if it’s trendy or faddish.

NEIPAS 005
The beers were sampled from left to right.

So which one really is the best? In order to answer that I thought it was time for what is becoming a semi-annual tradition around here: a showdown. I called in a few friends and I even put out an open call for additional judges. Thankfully, a “Beer Nut” reader named Kevin heeded the call and even donated a beer to the lineup. I’m considering limiting the next showdown just to readers to see how a group of strangers would play off each other instead of a group of friends and acquaintances.

As with any “Showdown,” there are always a few rules and prerequisites. Firstly, I wanted to keep the field limited to beers made in the New England states. Secondly, it wasn’t intended to be a “single IPA” or a “double IPA” competition per se. I made an effort to gather a group of entrants that were reasonably close in ABV and IBU range; session IPAs and triple/imperial IPAs were not eligible. Thirdly, I wanted the field limited to beers that are packaged in bottles or cans; no tap-only releases. Fourthly, I didn’t go out of my way to include any of these beers in the lineup. A few of them are indeed difficult to come by, but they were kindly donated by friends. Fifthly, “wild card” entries are allowed if they’re reasonably close to the style being judged. Lastly, even though we used BJCP scoresheets, we were not grading the beers to BJCP specifications; it was strictly personal preference.

Anyway, on to the results…

#10 Otter Creek Backseat Berner
10 Otter Creek

Technically, this beer tied with #9 as both had an average score of 29.8. Coincidentally enough, both also averaged 11.4 for flavor, so I decided to go with their average on the “Overall” category as the tiebreaker.

This the first time any of the judges had tried this beer. What’s interesting about it, though, is the range of the scores: three people scored it 32-34, while two people scored it 19-22. The consensus seemed to be that the beer was ridiculously bitter and dry so it wasn’t especially delectable, yet Garrett said he loved it because of that and scored it a whopping 44! And if that’s not enough, consider this: 44 was the highest score given all day (the other was for the #3 beer). I had expected many of these beers to average 45 or higher.

Thanks to commenter “Don’t Think Twice” who recommended this on Friday.

#9 Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA
09 Smuttynose

I included this as a quasi “wild card” entry since this beer has been around for years and doesn’t smell or taste much like the other New England-style IPAs. It’s a classic East Coast-style IPA with a lot of pine aroma and flavor with some citrus notes. It’s just started arriving in cans which is a smart move as I think that will enable to find a new audience.

Since the first beer of any flight tends to receive a slightly higher-than-average score, I made a point of using Finest Kind IPA as the first as I assumed it probably wouldn’t score that well. Looking at the scores, I suppose that’s what happened.

You’ll notice that no one really scored this harshly; everyone seemed to find it to be average.

#8 Jack’s Abby Hoponious Union
08 Jack's Abby

This was the second wild card entry as it’s technically an IPL rather than an IPA. I’ve had this beer many times and I find it does conform to the New England IPA genre quite well (as does its bigger brother, Mass Rising). Hoponious Union has more or less the same characteristics as the others, though the consensus seemed to be that it was not nearly as aromatic (notice that it received the lowest score for aroma). Only one person remarked that they suspected it was a lager, though most said it the mouthfeel seemed a little tepid.

#7 The Alchemist Heady Topper
07 Heady Topper

This is the most surprising score by far! Heady Topper pretty much single-handedly spawned the whole New England-style IPA craze and has been imitated – some might even say improved upon – by breweries from coast to coast. Yet, the judges seemed a bit underwhelmed by this entry. Many remarked by how much garlic and onion aroma and flavor it seemed to have. I actually detected a noticeable smell of dill. One judge literally described it as “a Heady Topper clone, but not nearly as good.”

I think this goes to show how hype, branding, and marketing can literally account for perception of quality. When it was revealed that this beer scored so low, nearly all the panelists were astounded and lamented along the lines of “I love that beer, how could I have not have picked it out of the lineup and why didn’t it taste as good as it usually does?”

Why indeed (that’ll be the subject of a forthcoming blog).

#6 Two Roads Road 2 Ruin
06 Two Roads

Whenever people ask me for a Heady Topper substitute I always recommend this beer as it’s quite comparable in all aspects (plus you can actually buy it in stores here). That seems to be the consensus of the judges as you can see it scored similar to Heady across the board (this had a better smell, but a worse mouthfeel).

Personally, I think it’s a great beer and was one of only two beers that received a 15 out of 20 in the flavor category for me. Though Road 2 Ruin had a wider range of scores (25-40) than Heady (28-39).

#5 NEBCO Sea Hag
05 NEBCO

I had a feeling this beer was going to score much worse than it did and worried that placing it as the second-to-last beer of the flight might’ve hurt its chances. At only 6.2% ABV, Sea Hag was definitely the lightest beer of the day and actually did score a little under the average in the flavor category (and the worst in the appearance category). However, through the magic of statistics and averages, this somehow managed to persevere and place right in the middle of the pack. Everyone seemed to enjoy its drinkability and that it was a lighter brew for a change.

#4 Long Trail Limbo IPA
04 Long Trail

This was definitely the sleeper entry of the showdown. When I first tried Limbo IPA I recognized it immediately as a New England-style IPA; though I thought it was only a good example, not a great one. I figured it would score rather low. I’m surprised as probably most readers are to see it this high on the list.

The judges seemed to find this beer a little more citrusy than most and it had a “candy” flavor to it. Probably the sweetest beer of the group (though not necessarily the maltiest). Everyone conceded that it was a good beer, not a great one; and yet no one penalized it as such as it actually scored above average on most categories.

#3 Tree House Julius
03 Tree House

Of all the breweries represented in this field, Tree House may be the hardest to come by (you can
only get bottles and cans at their taproom in central Massachusetts). I had been hearing great things about their entire portfolio for a while, but had not been able to try any of their beers until recently when a friend from Boston gave me a few cans when he was visiting (thanks, Jason!).

This can of Julius was actually donated by panelist and regular “Beer Nut” reader Kevin (thanks!). I had never had it before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone seemed to agree it was delicious (it did receive the highest score in the flavor category, after all). I noticed an orange creamsicle taste and everyone else seemed to mention picking up on an orange flavor of some sort, though it still had the classic New England grassy/herbal hoppy character, too.

#2 Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine
02 Lawson's

There are a lot of breweries in Vermont whose suds every beer geek is clamoring for – Lawson’s Finest Liquids being among the hottest of the moment. I’ve only been able to get a handful of their brews and they’ve all been pretty great, though their IPAs are especially good with Sip of Sunshine being the best of their regular offerings.

Some might say this beer had an unfair advantage since it’s pretty big at 8% ABV. It’s indeed robust, complex, and full-bodied and the judges scored it as such. I thought it was noticeably malty and well-balanced, yet still plenty bitter. It only averaged 0.2 points less than the top beer.

#1 Maine Beer Company’s “Another One”
01 Maine Beer

This brewery is probably best known for their “Lunch” IPA, yet they also make this beer which is identical in ABV at 7% and has a similar palette of flavors. When I reviewed it I thought it was fantastic, though during the showdown I was a tad underwhelmed. This beer has a lot of lemon aroma and flavor and was by far the palest, most yellow-hued brew of the flight (I actually docked it a point because of that, but it still averaged the highest score in that category anyway).

I suppose a cynic could argue this isn’t as good of a representation of the New England-style IPA as Lunch, but the difference is you can actually buy Another One at most local beverage centers. I highly recommend picking up a bottle and trying it for yourself.

REVIEWERS’ AVERAGES
Reviewers averages

FINAL THOUGHTS
This was an event I’ve been wanting to hold for well over a year, so it was nice to finally do it. I’ll be curious to see what my readers’ reaction to the results will be. I think it should go without saying, but this was in no way intended to be a scientific survey nor a judgement of how the beers conformed “to style.” It was just for fun.

Top10