For comparison's sake, at last year's Great American Beer Festival, 34 beers were entered in the American-style premium lager category, in which Coors Banquet won gold. As for IPAs, there were 40 English-style IPAs, 134 American-style IPAs, and, for good measure, 77 imperial IPAs. If an American IPA is a beefed-up version of its U.K. counterpart, a double or imperial one, algebraically, is twice the beef, adding up to a brutal bitterness. Alas, no major breweries offer anything commercially, but there are several dozen craft versions available, so forgive us if we entered more than the usual number of horses in this race.
Panelists included (besides us) Best Of blogger Jesse Friedman of Beer & Nosh, fellow beer blogger Gail Williams of Beer by Bart, beer-blender extraordinaire Jason Henry (fresh from his invitation to alchemize at Beer Revolution), and ― because we're allowed to play favorites ― this blogger's new bride, Half Pint.The following are the IPAs -- scored on a scale of 1-10, based purely hedonistically --listed in order of overall preference. (Note: ABV stands for "alcohol by volume"; IBU refers to "international bitterness units.")
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder (Santa Rosa): 39 points. Nationally regarded as the gold standard IPA (okay, imperial IPA), Pliny out-hops and out-hustles the contenders. As Henry gushed, the "nose is a symphony of tropical fruit." ($5/500 ml, 8% ABV, 100 IBU)
2. Firestone Walker Union Jack (Paso Robles, Calif.): 37 points. Coincidence that this won gold two years running in the American IPA category at GABF? It ranked as Friedman's favorite, even when sampled last out of 10 high-alcohol beers. Afterward, we discovered this sample, bought at BevMo, was bottled in December, making us wonder if it would've placed first had it actually been fresh. ($4.50/22-oz, 7.5% ABV, 72 IBU)
3. Bear Republic Racer 5 (Healdsburg): 37 points. Every hophead in NorCal gushes over this local beer. Half Pint called it out as her favorite for its perfect balance of "lovely aroma" and caramel, almost vanilla maltiness. ($4.50/22-oz, 7% ABV, 75 IBU)
4. Russian River Blind Pig (Santa Rosa): 35 points. This blogger awarded two samples 9 points. And while the other one was stablemate Pliny, we selected this as tops for being more balanced and therefore "session-worthy" to drink all day and night. ($4/500-ml, 6.1%, 70 IBU)
5. Port Brewing Wipeout (San Marcos, Calif.): 32 points. Williams' gold star went to this SoCal offering with "a hop funkiness ... and nice, bitter, tongue-coating goodness." ($4/22-oz, 7%, 78 IBU)
6. Dogfish Head 60-Minute (Milton, Del.): 31 points. Failing to land in the top half by a point, this East Coast import tested all over the map, garnering flavor comments ranging from "cupcake" to "diesel." ($2/12-oz, 6% ABV, 60 IBU)