Friday, June 10, 2011

IPA Throwdown: US vs. UK - Round 1

I'm on the fence about beer rating sites—like BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer. I'm not opposed to the concept of grading beer in an open forum, in fact I think both places can be a wealth of information, and a great jumping-off point as an introduction to a new style. However, browsing through both sites, I've noticed there seems to be a bias toward beers within a style. I realize that both sites are opinion polls, so there's no right or wrong and I'm not talking about one beer simply being "better" than another, either. It's more complex than that. There seems to be a preference for certain beer characteristics—even within a style or sub-group—almost like pedigree dog breeding. Let's take India Pale Ale as an example. Ratebeer's top 25 IPAs are exclusively made in the United States. Over on the BeerAdvocate side, 25 of 25 American-made IPAs were given a grade of "A", while UK-made IPAs went 6 for 25. Yes, you can say that most of the raters or reviewers are American, or the US has a deeper pool of drinkers to dip from, but both sites do have reviewers from across the globe. Nevertheless, at some level, certain characteristics of American-made IPAs appear to be more desirable for the two groups as a whole, and not just in the US.

IPA is interesting in that it started from a purpose-built, British brewing tradition of the nineteenth century; then came to the U.S., and over time was adopted and adapted by American brewers. This sojourn across the Atlantic would result in an evolutionary split for IPA. On one hand you have the beer's earlier state, the subtle English-style IPA, and on the other hand, the more recent and assertive, American-style IPA. While both are still IPAs, they each have enough diverse characteristics to warrant two distinct styles. Here's where it gets really interesting: A growing number of UK brewers are adding American-style IPAs to their repertoires. Meanwhile back in the states, some breweries—although still producing American-style IPAs—are adding "traditional" English-style IPAs to their stables. This raises the question, if UK brewers are now making American-style IPAs, and American brewers are making English-style IPAs—how are they doing?

So here's what I'm going to do—a head-to-head match-up of IPAs—although, I not going to do it, how you are expecting me to. I'm going to try and answer that "how are they doing?" question, with a three-round title bout (Just to let you know, I'm going to riddle the rest of this post with boxing jargon.)

Round one: Can the UK produce a first-class, American-style IPA, compared to an American-made, American-style IPA, and which one is better?

Round two: Can the US produce a top-notch English-style IPA, compared to a UK-made, English-style IPA, and which one is better?

Round three: Who does the best job, overall?

Okay, so who are the scrappers? Since I'm working at an international level, availability is an issue. I tried to choose four solid beers, to represents a diverse IPA population. You might not agree with the choices, but there's only so much beer available to me at any given time. What can you do? So, here's the first match-up: 

Round one: American-style IPA

Ladies and Gentlemen... Welcome to the main event of the night... In the category of American IPA here in Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada... Now in the green corner... Weighing in at 12 ounces and 6.9% ABV...Hailing from Escondido, California, USA... Stooooooone I-P-A! ...His opponent in the blue corner... Topping the scales at 330ml and 6.0% ABV...from The United Kingdom... Fraserburgh, Scotland's own... BrewDog Puuuuuuunk I-P-A! Gentleman, let's set some guidelines. Your going to need a prominent hop aroma and a medium body; a good amount of hop flavor and bitterness but enough malt to balance them out; with a finish on the drier side. American ingredients are a plus and I'd really like to see an ABV in 5.5-7.5% range. Anything else—flavor profiles, color, carbonation—is up for interpretation.

Let's get it on! Ding! Ding! Ding!

I'll admit, Stone has the advantage. By nature, it's an American-style IPA, plus it's got the reach, at 6.9% ABV on the Punk. But, in the glass is where it is really going to count. Each beer pours a nearly identical color—bright, golden-orange, with the Punk being slightly hazy to the crystal-clear Stone. Both produce a good, half-inch foamy, white head, and leave a nice bit of lacing. The Stone reeks of hoppy bright, citrusy, almost tropical notes; the Punk while aromatic (jab to the Punk!) is far less forceful, with a more earthy tone (another jab to the Punk!) Both beers have a pleasant, mildly dry smoothness (cliching). The Stone brings a flowery and tart orange/grapefruit flavor, bordering on peach-like (right hook to the Punk's cheek!) with a touch of bready sweetness and a hint of alcohol. The Punk's hop notes are subdued and a bit grassy (right cross to the Punk's jaw!) with a slightly dull quality. A rich, caramel and stone-fruit sweetness weaves throughout the background. Both beers are aggressively bitter, especially on the back end, but the Punk seems to be bitter just for bitter's sake. It's got all the bite but none of that resiny, candy-like quality, so associated with American-style IPAs (Uppercut to the Punk's chin... He's is on the mat! 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10—Ding! Ding! Ding!)

That's it, I've got to give this one to Stone's IPA. Granted, BrewDog doesn't label Punk as an American-style IPA, but it's obvious, that's the vibe they are going for. Honestly, it was no contest, BrewDog made a great beer, but it's just not in the same league as the Stone. If intensity is the hallmark of an American-style IPA, the Punk just isn't intense enough. I checked out their website, and I can pick out the issue in two words—Maris Otter. The hops were fine (Chinook, Simcoe, Ahtanum and Nelson Sauvin) a bit earthy, but well-selected. It's the Maris Otter—it's too, well... British. That malt brings, again, too much earthiness for a proper American IPA, it muddled everything. I really wanted Punk to stand up to the Stone, but it just didn't have the balance of subtle malt and a citrusy hop profile, to fit the bill. It's just not bright enough. It seems that UK brewers making American-style IPAs, still have some work to do.

Decision by knockout: WINNER - Stone IPA, Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, California, USA

Stay tuned for the next round. English-style IPAs.

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