This has been in the inbox for far too long, so let's have a look at it now. Grant Golden sent me this question, and it is the key that opens a box of fascinating information.
"I was wondering if there is any chance you might be interested in writing about or even just shedding some light on what about Breakside's IPA woos judges in almost every major beer competition in the states. I think it is a solid built-to-style American IPA, however, I just can't see how it continues to shine through and dominate when there is a plethora of other very, very well-constructed IPAs out there."
As it happens, I've discussed this with Breakside's brewer, Ben Edmunds. In the months before Breakside won GABF gold for its flagship IPA, the brewers had set about re-engineering that beer so it was more shelf-stable. What people love about the best IPAs are their fresh hoppiness, which is that combination of aromatics, flavor, and bitterness and how those elements play off the malt bill and (in some cases) fermentation characteristics. One of my favorite quote comes from a technical paper on aging beer, and the writers put it this way: "However, the constituents of freshly bottled beer are not in chemical equilibrium. Thermodynamically, a bottle of beer is a closed system and will thus strive to reach a status of minimal energy and maximal entropy."
The entropy happens faster in IPAs, and the qualities that make the best ones so good are also the qualities that dissipate the quickest. When you put an IPA in a bottle, you have a very narrow window in which it will still taste as it does on tap at the brewery, and then it begins to go through a change. If you haven't prepared the beer for how it's going to taste at 30, 45, and 60 days as it goes through those changes you're left with an empty, hollow space where the flavor and aroma used to be. Here's Ben on that process:
“You have 20 days of brewery freshness and then it begins to degrade. If you bottle condition, you might buy yourself a week. But by day 30 you’re dealing with a fundamentally different beer than you had at day one. When you’re building these beers you should know what that beer will taste like at day 30. You can lament that ‘oh, it doesn’t taste like it used to.’ But knowing what that oxidative curve is and what those flavors will be is really important. Some hop aroma and flavors that oxidize are more pleasant than others.”
There's no research into the process Ben describes, and they've been approaching it through trial and error. One of the reasons Breakside's various IPAs do well in contests is because they taste better when flights are finally poured out for judges, weeks after brewing, than other beers. That's because the brewery isn't just trying to make the best IPA at day 15, but one that is still toothsome at day 90--which requires an entirely different recipe. Other breweries that ignore the changes their beers go through may be disappointed in contest results, but they're essentially being graded on different beers than they sent.
As we spoke, Ben described the sensory change their Wanderlust IPA goes through (it's not their flagship, which is just called "IPA") by way of description.
“If you take Wanderlust as an example, the first fifteen days is all Mosaic and then it goes through this adolescence and between day 15 and 30 and what’s happening is this weird interference with Mosaic dropping out, but around day 30 the Amarillo starts to come forward and it becomes this new beer around day 30. When you have that beer from day 30 to 45, it has a little bit of tropical dankness, but essentially all that Mosaic character is gone and it becomes more bright, citrus peel, marmalade. I like to think how a hoppy beer is going to last on a shelf, and I don’t mind it going through this evolution.”
He added that in their experience, some hops have "more legs" than others. Not surprisingly, they're some of the classics--Cascade and especially Centennial. Amarillo are good as well.
So there you go. Commercial breweries have different sets of challenges depending on when and how they sell beer. If you're a brewpub that can move a flagship IPA through the pub in a month, you don't have to think about this stuff. If you're sending it out in bottles, particularly if you're sending it throughout the country, you have to consider what violence age and oxidation will wreak. Or, I suppose, if you're sending it to Denver to win a medal in the IPA category.