The Taste Test: Blind-tasting 53 Minnesota IPAs

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Blind tastings. If you’ve never done one, you should. Comparing beers of similar style without the biases and preconceptions that come with brand identification is humbling at the very least. It’s mind-blowing at best. Beloved beers fall short of expectations. That much-derided brew suddenly gains new luster. You’re left with the realization that you don’t know as much as you thought.

In an effort to assess the state of local American IPA here in Minnesota, Northern Brewer Homebrew Supply and the staff at The Growler assembled a crew of aficionados for a massive blind tasting. Members of the group had varying levels of certification, including certified and national-level judges of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and certified cicerones. They hailed from a variety of backgrounds, both industry and non.

American IPA was chosen for this first survey because it, perhaps more than any other style, defines craft beer today. Sales statistics show it to be the most popular beer style in the country, and Minnesota is no exception. Minnesotans are a hop-loving people. IPA is also the category that receives the most entries in competitions, both homebrew and commercial. Almost every brewery makes one, even if the style falls outside of its core mission. American IPA is difficult to make well, with its heaps of hops serving as a way to mask underlying flaws in a brewery’s process.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

The tasting was run following the format of a BJCP competition. All Minnesota breweries were invited to submit their American IPAs. The 53 entered beers were evaluated in two rounds against the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines for category 21A: American IPA. Judges scored on the objective criteria of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel, as well as a more subjective overall impression of each beer.

In the first round, multiple panels of two judges—one BJCP-certified and one not—each scored eight beers, sending the best two or three from each flight to the second round. This narrowed the field to 18 beers that were judged by the BJCP judges using a “best of show” model, in which beers are compared not only to the guidelines but also to each other. Rapid-fire tasting and consensus eliminations winnowed the field to a top 11. A further consensus decision yielded a first- and second-place beer.

This competition format is generally effective. Judging beers against a set of guidelines reduces subjectivity. It insures that the same standards are being used in all judging panels. Beers are evaluated based on a concrete set of characteristics and scored according to the presence or absence of those qualities. Regardless of a judge’s personal preference, the beer must above all fit the style.

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The author, Michael Agnew, examines the aroma of a beer // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Of course, subjectivity can never be completely eliminated. Palates differ, as do interpretations of the guidelines. Nonetheless, despite the differences in palates, judging experience, and personal preferences, our panel came to a fairly neat consensus.

The format does, however, have its downsides. Judging against the BJCP guidelines generally discourages variations on the classic style. An IPA with too much malt would not score well in category 21A. The same goes for IPAs with Belgian-yeast flavors or the barnyard funk of Brettanomyces. No matter how delicious or well-crafted these beers might be, if they don’t conform to the American IPA style, they likely won’t make it beyond the first round.

Palate fatigue is another potential pitfall. Aggressively hopped beers wreck the palate quickly. Even though samples are small, eight IPAs is a lot. By the eighth beer, sensory faculties are not as acute as they were for the first. By the second round, I would argue that one’s ability to distinguish subtleties is significantly diminished.

Photo by Aaron Davidson

Photo by Aaron Davidson

While the system clearly isn’t perfect, my initial observation remains valid. Blind tastings are humbling and eye-opening. This one was no exception. The experience led me to reevaluate my impression of some Minnesota breweries—for better and for worse.

When the brands were revealed at the end of judging, I was amazed to learn that a pleasant, citrusy IPA I described as “delicate” was from a brewery that I have held in disregard since its opening. I had sampled this beer in other blind tastings and it had consistently under-performed. But there it was. We all agreed on its merits. At Winterfest a couple of days after judging, I stopped by their booth and found the beers—particularly the hoppy ones—to be surprisingly tasty. This brewery had clearly upped its game.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson

Equally surprising were those beers that didn’t make the cut. The most problematic beer from my first flight was revealed to be from a brewery that I have always championed. The knife cuts both ways, and the results confirmed what I’ve always known: that blind tasting is a great way to shake up your preconceptions.

And yet, some overall impressions still stand. Amid our recent discussions on the topic (see: Crap Beer: Slipping standards & lack of quality control threaten the industry), this experience reaffirmed the rising problem of poorly made beer in our local brewing scene. Under-attenuation was the most obvious error in this tasting, leaving beers overly sweet. Harsh, astringent bitterness was also common. Others tasted flat or thin, lacking the body and bright zestiness that a good IPA should have—most likely the result of a bad recipe or water chemistry. The worst entries were beset with off-flavors, indicating bigger process or sanitation issues at those breweries.

Even though there’s mediocre beer being made in Minnesota, this tasting also reaffirmed that we have justifiable sources of pride as well. The 11 beers that rose to the top are exceptional versions of American IPA, ones that consumers should be happy to find the next time they see a tap list. But be aware: quality can shift and breweries can get better. So just as brewers should constantly evaluate their quality-assurance measures to make sure our brewing scene keeps getting stronger, it’s a good idea for consumers to reevaluate their own biases on a regular basis, too.

Before getting down to the 11 beers that rose to the top in our tasting, below is the complete list* of the beers that were submitted for tasting after we put out a request for submissions to all Minnesota breweries and brewpubs:

*Correction: The original list of beer submitted for judging published in the April issue of The Growler and on growlermag.com mistakenly omitted Castle Danger’s Ode IPA.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.