It’s been eons since I posted the last installment of my Ohio vs the World series, a sporadic feature where we see how local favorites stack up against highly respected competitors from all corners of the globe in a blind taste test. In case you have forgotten the score, and who could blame you after a 20 month hiatus, the series is currently tied with two wins for Ohio and two for the world.
In keeping with the season, today’s matchup of features hoppy holiday IPAs with wildly different pedigrees. Columbus Brewing Company’s Citra Noel, a beer that made its debut just last month, is going up against Sierra Nevada’s Fresh Hop IPA, a beer first brewed in 1981 that can rightfully claim to have started the entire genre of hop-forward holiday ales.
The judging panel assembled for today’s showdown is an all-star cast of characters, most of whom need little introduction. Barley’s brewmaster Angelo Signorino has been in the business for over two decades and is undeniably one of the most experienced brewers in the Buckeye state. It’s appropriate that Angelo could join us for this round, because his love for Sierra Nevada’s Celebration IPA led to the creation of one of Ohio’s first native IPAs, Barley’s Centennial IPA. Jim Ellison, owner and tour guide for Columbus Brew Adventures, spends more time in local breweries than Donald Trump spends on Twitter. Columbus Business First writer Dan Eaton may be a newcomer to the panel, but is a household name to anyone who follows craft beer in central Ohio. Mark Richards is a man who wears many hats: Pat’s Pints artistic director, operations manager at Land Grant Brewing, former home brewer, certified BJCP judge, and closet curling fanatic. The panel is rounded out by Ralph Wolfe, a part time Columbus Brew Adventures tour guide and companion of mine on many beer adventures.
Here’s the tale of the tape for these two hop-heavy holiday ales.
Celebration Fresh Hop IPA
- Brewery: Sierra Nevada (Chico, CA)
- ABV: 6.8%
- IBU: 65
- Price: $9.99 for a 6-pack of 12 oz bottles
- Freshness: Bottles packaged on Oct. 20, 2016 (45 days old at tasting)
- Notes: Features Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, a holiday favorite since 1981
- Brewery: Columbus Brewing Company (Columbus, OH)
- ABV: 7.3%
- IBU: 34
- Price: $9.99 for a 6-pack of 12 oz bottles
- Freshness: Bottles packaged on Nov. 15, 2016 (19 days old at tasting)
- Notes: Features Citra hops and a deep rich malt character, a brand spanking new beer in the CBC portfolio
Conveniently both CBC and Sierra Nevada beers come in a heritage bottle, so prior to the contest I used brown paper bags and packing tape to cover the labels completely then marked the bottom of each bag with either a 1 or a 2 depending on the identity of the beer under wraps. When it was time for the tasting to begin I popped the caps off of the bottles and discarded them. I then asked Dan to come into the kitchen and mark the front of each bag with a letter of his choosing for beer 1 and a different letter for beer 2. That way everyone could distinguish the beers and administer their own pours while retaining the blind aspect of the tasting. As it turns out this elaborate scheme was somewhat for naught, because the beers were sufficiently different that most of us could correctly guess their identities.
Celebration IPA is dark amber in color with good clarity. It’s topped with a lovely, creamy head, that recedes very slowly leaving a distinctive lacing pattern on the walls of the glass (see photo below). Citra Noel is unquestionably darker, sporting a handsome deep reddish-copper hue. A full pour also yields an ample head, but the retention doesn’t quite match up to that of Celebration IPA. When it comes to aroma Citra Noel is nothing less than stunning. As a homebrewer it reminds me of the blast of hop aroma you get when you first tear open a sealed bag of pelletized hops. Descriptions from the judges tasting sheets include “pine, grapefruit, tons of hops” (Angelo), “overwhelming citra hop presence” (Mark), “huge blast of hop aroma” (Dan), “dank and pungent, cannibis-like and piney” (Pat). I think you get the picture. By comparison the nose of Celebration IPA is pretty tame. I’m sure it would have seemed shockingly hoppy in 1992, but to quote Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin’. Adjectives like perfumey and balanced can be found on the tasting sheets. When it comes to the taste, hops are dominant in both beers but each manages to achieve a fairly good hop-malt balance. The similarities end there. Citra Noel has a rather rich caramel malt backbone that somehow manages to avoid being drowned out by the overwhelming citra hop presence. The fact that it is packing only 35 IBUs shows up in the relative lack of perceived bitterness or alcohol on the finish. By comparison Celebration IPA has a lighter, breadier malt profile that doesn’t completely mask the hop bitterness and alcohol. Still well balanced, but with a more assertive bitterness.
The initial stages of the tasting were pretty quiet. Each judge examined their beers using the full range of senses, all the while scribbling notes on BJCP scoresheets. This was followed by a discussion where we shared our thoughts on each beer. In the sake of full disclosure I should note that we dropped the charade of pretending we couldn’t figure out which beer was which at the discussion stage. Finally each judge cast a vote for his favorite. The results are as follows:
- Angelo – Citra Noel
- Dan – Citra Noel
- Jim – abstain, too different to compare
- Mark – Citra Noel
- Pat – Citra Noel
- Ralph – Citra Noel
We haven’t seen an ass whipping like this since round 3 when Fathead’s Bonehead Red dismantled Troeg’s Nugget Nectar. Once again its a case of a new beer that embraces the changing hop landscape leaving behind a beer that first appeared in a different era and has stayed true to its origins.
In retrospect this wasn’t really a fair fight. Celebration Ale was formulated almost a decade before Citra hops were first bred, and 25 years before they started appearing in craft beers. The other big difference between the two beers is how the hops are utilized. Despite the fact that Citra Noel is bursting at the seams with fresh hop aroma it has only half the IBUs of Celebration IPA. It’s not too hard to guess that CBC must have used an abundance of Citra hops in the whirlpool and dry hop to craft this beer. The shock and awe of the aroma paired with the use of crystal malts (I assume) to get a nice caramel malt backbone makes for a winning combination of that gets high marks for drinkabability while delivering an intense flavor experience. I think Angelo’s overall impression on his tasting notes sums up our opinion of Citra Noel, “I like hop bombs and this is a good one.” I might go a step further and say that I’ve found a new favorite holiday beer. Kudos to CBC! That’s not to say that long time fans of Celebration IPA might not have a different opinion, but if you are a fan of hop-forward holiday beers you should really try them side by side and decide for yourself.
This win for Citra Noel means that Ohio beers have opened up a narrow 3-2 lead over the World. You can revisit earlier matches in this series by following the links below: