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Monday, December 16, 2013

Well, That's Settled: The Best IPAs

A few weeks back, Thrillist's Dan Gentile contacted me to help him assemble a best-IPAs list.  It's out now with the hopeful title "The Definitive Top Ten IPAs."  My guess is that "definitive" is going to be a hard sell--but this is actually an interesting list.  Gentile asked us all to submit our own top tens and then he assigned point values to each of our beers (ten for number 1, nine for number two and so on).  There were nine of us, meaning we each had 55 points to distribute, and any one beer might have scored as highly as 90 points.  There was a mathematical elegance to the results.  We collectively came up with 45 beers (out of a possible 90) and the winner also scored 45 of the possible ninety.

Click to enlarge.
If you selected any nine beer geeks at random, you would come up with a different list.  Or nine different brewers or nine different cicerones or nine different writers.  There are seven million IPAs out there, and we have very particular individual tastes.  Leave the list aside, though, and look more closely at the results--therein lie the lessons.  Four of the nine of us fingered Russian River Blind Pig as the best beer.  Bear Republic's Racer 5, meanwhile, didn't make anyone's top three list, but picked up enough points to come in sixth.  We may have differed over our favorite IPA, but when it came to filling out the ballot, Racer 5 was a gimme.

Eight of the top ten beers were brewed in California.  That's staggering dominance of the category, and I think it's a pretty accurate reflection of the state of things nationwide.  When I was making up my own list (see the end of this post), I didn't include anything west of Hood River.  On Facebook, some folks lobbied to have Bell's there.  But while Bell's is a classic beer and a fine IPA, I could easily find twenty other IPAs I like more.  Ten years ago we might have debated about who makes the best IPAs, but that argument was long ago settled.  Everyone looks to the west now (including Europeans).  If you look at the bottom of the list, there are also some surprises.  Stone IPA got but two points--either a ninth place showing from one voter or two tenth-place votes.  And New Belgium Ranger was dead last with a single point.

Notes on My List
I knew when I turned in my list that numbers two and three were long-shots to make the final list.  Double Mountain Vaporizer had a chance, but it was slim.  Lambrate Gaina had no chance at all--and probably no one who reads that article will ever have even heard of it.  Which is, of course, why I threw it on the list.  There are great IPAs made outside the US--but more than being great, they're different.

Lambrate is this wonderful little brewpub in Milan.  Founded by friends who have a buoyant attitude about brewing, they make Italian beers that reflect their personalities.  Italy does not do intense.  Hoppy beers are subtle and layered; sour beers are tart and toothsome, not lacerating.  In the case of Gaina, the hops were so fruity I literally asked what kind of fruit they had used to make it.  The flavors fell somewhere between apricot and strawberry.  No fruit--all hops.  Later I found another hop fan in Bruno Carilli when I visited Toccalmatto in Fidenza, Parma.  He also coaxed amazing flavors from his beers--but more perfumy and exotic, with lemon-mint and bergamot. 

Oh, and I would have included any IPA from genre had I put this list together--and my original number 1 was Russian River Pliny the Elder, the best hoppy beer in the world.  So I subbed in Blind Pig as a nod to Pliny's brewer.  (Plus, Blind Pig is excellent.)

Here's my list.
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder Blind Pig (California)
2. Lambrate Gaina (Italy)
3.  Double Mountain Vaporizer (Oregon)
4. Bear Republic Racer 5 (California)
5.  Van Eecke Poperings Hommelbier (Belgium)
6.  Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (England)
7.  Gigantic IPA (Oregon)
8. Green Flash Le Freak (California)
9.  Toccalmatto Re Hop (Italy)
10.  Deschutes Chainbreaker (Oregon)


  1. "Everyone looks to the west now..."

    Not a chance.

  2. Nothing from England using predominantly English hops - where the whole thing started? Horrors! :)

  3. Found it interesting that Heady Topper which has recently been called the "Best Beer in the World" ended up being the 25th best IPA. Something I somewhat agree with. Don't think Heady Topper should have been that low, but Bling Pig, Union Jack, Sculpin, and Racer 5 are category classics for sure.

  4. Just curious, Jeff, not a fan of Boneyard RPM?

  5. Alan: chance.

    Gary: in the Beer BIble, I did include old-timey English IPAs, but this asked for our favorites, not a sampling of the best in different categories. I'll admit it: one thing Americans do better than the English is IPAs.

    JT: Heady Topper should not be on the list. Dan nixed my Pliny because he didn't want DIPAs. It might have been cited more if DIPAs were allowed. (Not by me!)

    Adam: IPAs have started to go in different directions, and I mostly like pilsner-malt versions with bright flavors. But when I want heavier, caramel-malt ones, I prefer Gigantic.

    Ted: psshaw. The English have many exceptional styles. IPAs were long ago abandoned by the English. Would I often choose a cask pale over an American IPA? Yes. Would I choose an English IPA over an American? No, and neither do most others--which is why beers like Meantime and Thornbridge are so popular (and Marble and Kernel and so on).

  6. Oh, and Chris and Alan, I'd like to hear your argument. It's a bit difficult to dispute it in its own absence. All I know is that everyone from Bakewell to Fidenza to Prague to New York City touts their beer as West Coast, and brew them that way, too. I have yet to see an "East Coast IPA" brewed anywhere but ... actually, anywhere at all.

  7. Any IPA list that doesn't include Boneyard's rpm is not well rounded. RPM slays every IPA on that list.

    Oh, and Chainbreaker? Gak!

  8. Chainbreaker wouldn't make any list of mine. It lacks character. If you're going to include it, where's Bridgeport IPA? There's another beer with almost no character. And LeFreak? Seriously? That has always seemed an odd beer to me.

    I don't know why you left RPM off your list. There's been a certain backlash to RPM's popularity in the beer geek crowd, but any IPA list that doesn't include it is incomplete. Particularly in Oregon. I suspect it doesn't quite mesh with your idea of what an IPA should be.

    As for the Definitive List, several of those beers wouldn't appear anywhere on my list of favorite IPAs. Not that it matters. These appear to be beers that are distributed widely. As we've discussed, IPAs don't travel well. So they are usually best when produced and consumed locally.

  9. It really is all about personal tastes, but lately I think Barley Browns has been crushing it. Had a WFO last night, damn good.

  10. What argument? You wrote "everyone" and it is patently untrue. It's a catchy brand that's collectively handy for folk wanting to make sales but, as we see with saison, there's plenty of wiggle room with throwing brand names around. But that doesn't make for a superlative. Everyone? Not in the slightest.

  11. Pete: which is to say, if I had your tastes, my list would be perfect! Ain't that the way with these lists? I agree about the traveling thing--a little-observed reality that a lot of people fail to account for.

    Alan: well, this has the makings of one of those pointless semantic battles, so I'll just withdraw quickly whilst pleading no contest.

  12. Jeff, I see no difference between English pale ale and English India Pale Ale - it is one and the same style historically with no clear boundary between the two. In the 1977 The World Guide To Beer, Jackson has a single chapter for pale ale and IPA is discussed within it, as is correct surely).

    Plus, I note that e.g. Vaporizer is called pale ale on the label...

    I have to disagree with you that American IPA bests English pale ale/IPA. When the latter is top of its game, the reverse is true, but that's an opinion again. Fuller Bengal Lancer, preferably on cask, is a good example. So are Greene King IPA, Burton Bridge's Empire, and many others. But certainly I take it that these do not appeal strongly to you.

    The American taste might be influential in England at the moment but that's fashion speaking to a large extent…


  13. Gary,

    I think we're wandering into some philosophical territory here--which of course always makes for an enjoyable trip. I think you're right that IPAs became meaningless in England. Greene King's is a 3.5% beer, which is by all measures not an IPA. Not by historical standards--or even recent ones. Bengal Lancer is 5%, which I suppose you could argue makes it comparably strong by British standards and therefore a qualifying IPA.

    The problem is, those categories exist in a weird (and slowly vanishing) English bubble. Nowhere else on earth are IPAs session ales with middling bitterness. What's the difference between an English IPA and an English strong bitter? They live a quasi-life.

    I do like both Greene King IPA and Bengal Lancer. I actually included Greene King in the Beer Bible--though of course in the bitter category. (Fuller has way too many good beers in front of Bengal Lancer for it to make the cut.)

    Yeah, Vaporizer does say pale on the label. But I'm obviously not particularly good about following brewer style designations. Six percent and 50 BUs? Good enough for me.

  14. Jeff, Greene King makes an export version which is 5% or over, I was referring to that one which would historically be closer to 1800's IPA. 5% is at most a point off the 1800's mean for IPA and some dipped under 6%. Bengal Lancer seemed to me more "IPA" than the other Fuller beers in the range, but as always it is a matter of taste.


  15. There are no semantics in "everyone" but, yes, there is no argument. Just note all the not-West-Coast IPAs and ask yourself what you could have meant.

  16. "I have yet to see an "East Coast IPA" brewed anywhere." Exactly! I was chagrined upon my last East Coast jaunt to have ordered, and been saddened by, every single IPA except for Cambridge's (which, let's be honest, is a West Coast IPA). I'm also not the least bit shocked that 8 of 10 are from California. I'll just chalk it up to being a native Californian that those Dudes instill much more citrus hop character whereas Oregon IPAs (and WA ones) go for a redder "PNW IPA" character and maybe that is more "balanced," but that's not what today's beer drinkers want out of an IPA. Oh they may say they do, but it ain't true. Just like people don't admit liking sugarier sodas or less-nuanced dark roast coffee, but our consumption proves that's not the case.

    Lastly, since many chime in on the actual list and Jeff's in particular, I'm happy to say my personal Top 4 matches the final lists to a T. Guess that makes me a populist. Blind Pig is the best IPA. PTE is the best DIPA. Very glad they didn't include DIPAs but at the same time, "Racer 5 IPA" is an American-Style Strong Pale Ale according to Bear Republic since that's what they enter it as in GABF. And that's what Vaporizer is. Double Mtn refers to it as a pale ale. They call Hop Lava an IPA. Shit. My top 4 actually includes Hop Lava at # 4 over Bells. It also includes Ft. George Vortex around #8. And for Pete's sake (literally Pete Dunlop's sake), RPM comes in at #11 because that's how I participate in the backlash. Funnily, there's no backlash on the consumer side if you look at the sales. But I can surely tell you that there is on the producer side especially in Bend. Sour hops!

  17. House Ales, the in-house brewing arm of Bar Volo in Toronto (one of the best craft beer bars anywhere) makes its excellent Eastside IPA, in fact it was on the blackboard last night. House Ales also makes a "Westside IPA" and I was told the intent is that "Eastside" be more English in character.

    Certainly I take the point it is not common to see an English IPA brewed in North America, but numerous such are available in North America even though the specific designation isn't used. IIRC beeradvocate has a category called English IPA where beers are listed (most North American) felt to be of that character.


  18. It's the same in the U.K. - IPAs from The Kernel, Magic Rock, Buxton etc. are designated as 'American IPAs' because of the hops used. I think the use of American non-estery yeast strains also contribute to the style although malt bills tend to be good ol' English Maris Otter.
    That said English breweries were importing hops from the U.S. back in the late 1800s, does that make the olde worlde IPAs 'American' as well?

  19. In part, yes, but English pale ale/IPA predates use of American hops in England by a couple of generations at least. I'd argue too the keynote to the style was the burst of dry hop flavour and for dry-hopping they used the best English strains.

    Just speaking generally now of the style, some of the European-based readers might know of the John Martin range of Belgium, notably Matin's Pale Ale but they also have an India Pale Ale so-styled. These beers were once English-brewed but in recent years are made in Belgium. I'd put them, at their freshest, in my top 10 IPA. But of course the range of choice around the world is endless…

    No question of course Jeff has listed some great IPAs, and they'd have to be (some anyway) in anyone's top 10 I'd think.


  20. Nothing gets the juices flowing like a "best IPA" discussion. So, here goes . . . .

    Agree with deleting Pliny. Most overrated beer ever. I have had it in a few blind tastings and it never scores that well. It is a good beer, but far from great.

    Vaporizer? I love Double Mountain's beers and always have a keg of IRA on tap in the kegerator. But shouldn't you be able to taste hops in a beer before it goes on a best IPA list? That DM yeast overpowers everything which is why, as good as their beer is, it all tastes the same.

    And, yes, if you are going to include even one Oregon beer on the list, it has to be Boneyard's IPA. Best in the state.

  21. Good point about yeast dominating a beer (although I have no experience with that specific one). It is something that occurs quite often and I wonder if the fashion for unfiltered beers, i.e., beers showing visible cloud and particulate matter, is worsening the problem. By the way looking idly at how the Martin beers I mentioned did on BA and RB, they just did so-so, not outstanding certainly. I think they are great though. I think what is happening is old world IPA looks less effective than new world simply because the hops taste so different. Or maybe the Martin beers have changed in recent years, hard to say...