Time for another blind taste test, this one focused on double/imperial IPAs. American craft beer lovers are crazy about hops, and the double IPA style is an ode to the glory of the humulus lupulus plant like no other. Although DIPAs are released throughout the year, they seem to peak in mid to late winter with releases of heavy hitters like Hopslam, Hop JuJu, and Chillwave. So it seemed a good time to roll up our sleeves, stick our nose in one glass of beer after another, and strip away all of the hype to identify the truly elite double IPAs.
In order to keep the number of beers manageable early on I made the decision to include only Ohio-brewed DIPAs. After all, when it comes to DIPAs I would contend that Ohio punches well above its weight. Ohio-brewed beers took home the Imperial IPA gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for three straight years (Hop JuJu in 2013, CBC Creeper in 2014, Hop JuJu again in 2015). Hop JuJu also received a bronze at the 2016 GABF and a gold at the 2016 World Beer Cup. Columbus Brewing Company’s Bodhi won a bronze medal at the GABF in 2014, albeit in the American IPA category, and came in runner up in a massive DIPA blind taste test conducted by Paste Magazine last year. The Brew Kettle’s El Lupelo Libre was crowned champion of the Brewing News National Imperial IPA competition in 2014. In addition to those award winning beers, DIPAs from breweries like Hoof Hearted, Seventh Son, MadTree, Jackie O’s, Homestead, Warped Wing, and Rhinegeist get a lot of love from the locals.
Double IPAs were developed by American craft brewers in the mid to late-1990s, which makes them both uniquely American and a relatively new addition to the lexicon of beer styles. Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo is often credited with concocting the first DIPA when he was running Blind Pig Brewery in Temecula, CA. That beer eventually evolved into the iconic Pliny the Elder, after Cilurzo moved to Russian River. West coast breweries like Rogue, Stone, Green Flash, and others soon followed suit. A DIPA category was first added to the Great American Beer Festival in 2003.
I think most people know a double IPA when they taste one, but it’s useful to revisit the description in the BJCP style guidelines as a refresher
An intensely hoppy, fairly strong pale ale without the big, rich, complex maltiness and residual sweetness and body of an American barleywine. Strongly hopped, but clean, dry, and lacking harshness. Drinkability is an important characteristic; this should not be a heavy, sipping beer.
The guidelines go onto say that abv should be 7.5-10.0%, international bittering units (IBUs) in the 60-120 range, and the color relatively pale (6-14 SRM).
The Judging Panel
As with previous blind taste tests this panel was a mix of professional brewers, homebrewers, beer writers, and craft beer aficionados. Ralph Wolfe, Ted Clark, Hannah Shafaat, Ian Krajbich, Hans Gorsuch, and Nick Bates have all earned their stripes in previous Pat’s Pints taste tests. Jim Sudduth and Tom Aguero, both of whom participated in the King of Ohio session ale competition this past fall, are experienced homebrewers and BJCP certified beer judges. Tom is also the man behind the Cincy beer blog, BrewMinds. Chris Welker and Angelo Signorino are both professional brewers, plying their trade at North High Brewing and Barley’s, respectively. I can think of few people more qualified to judge this contest than Angelo, who has brewing IPAs since before the double IPA style existed. Chris Buirley, who writes about beer part time for Food Republic, Steve Heink, Joe and Jill Proudfoot were all newbies to the rigor of a blind taste test, but made valuable contributions. Given the scope of the tasting—14 beers and 14 judges—I elected not to judge (making only one cameo contribution) and assumed stewarding duties.
Fred Lee was gracious enough to let us take over his office at Actual Brewing for the contest. With a pool table, 3D printer, piano, some chill background music, and a no holds barred embrace of the concept of entropy, it was an excellent venue for the event. A big shout out to Fred and the folks at Actual for hosting us.
As with past blind taste tests we tasted the beers sequentially and scored them using the BJCP scoring system (50 points in total, divided into 12 points for aroma, 3 points for appearance, 20 points for flavor, 5 points for mouthfeel, and 10 points for overall impression). Unlike the last few taste tests the tasting was split into two rounds as described below. To avoid a conflict of interest, Chris Welker was not involved in tasting any rounds where North High’s entry, Stardust to Stardust, was involved.
Efforts were made to get all of the most sought after DIPAs in Ohio, but it wasn’t possible to get several beers that I would have liked to include. Beers like Rhinegeist Saber Tooth Tiger, CBC Creeper, and Warped Wing Mr. Mean are brewed seasonally/periodically and were not on the shelves. We contacted MadTree and made arrangements to include Galaxy High and Citra High in the contest, but at the last minute that arrangement fell through. The somewhat inconvenient customer distribution model of Hoof Hearted, coupled with a lack of advance planning on my part, meant that we went with a less prominent Hoofy DIPA than some of you might have preferred. Finally, Jackie O’s Mandala was considered, but the freshest cans I could find were filled in mid-December and I felt it wouldn’t be fair to put those up against much fresher beers.
The fourteen beer field included some of the most decorated DIPAs in the state, as well as a couple of entries that just hit the market. In an attempt to reduce palate fatigue, not to mention inebriation, I split the beers into three groups as listed below. The beers were served in roughly 3 oz pours in clear plastic cups. Perhaps not optimal for capturing the aromas of a fragrant DIPA, but consistent across the field and not so different from the big beer festivals. The judges were asked to rate each beer in their group and then identify a winner and runner up. The three winners, and the top runner up (as judged by yours truly in a mini blind taste test between rounds), moved onto the finals where all judges participated. The judges rank ordered the final four beers and the scores were tallied to determine the top four places. The identities of the beers were kept blind until all rounds of judging had concluded.
Here are the groups, with the beers listed in the order they were tasted:
Group 1 (Judges: Tom Aguero, Chris Welker, Chris Buirley, Nick Bates, Joe Proudfoot)
- Wolf’s Ridge Howling Moon
- CBC Bodhi
- Homestead 3MCs
- Four String Rectifier
- Great Lakes Chillwave
Group 2 (Judges: Angelo Signorino, Steve Heink, Hans Gorsuch, Ralph Wolfe, Jill Proudfoot)
- Seventh Son Proliferous
- 50 West Punch You in the EyePA
- Commonhouse IBU UBME
- Fathead’s Hop JuJu
Group 3 (Judges: Jim Sudduth, Hannah Shafaat, Ian Krajbich, Ted Clark)
- Elevator Big Vic
- North High Stardust to Stardust
- Brew Kettle El Lupelo Libre
- Yellow Springs Wobbly Wheel
- Hoof Hearted Unglaublich
In the descriptions that follow, I’ve summarized the comments from the judges tasting sheets. In some cases I was able to go back and taste the beers to form my own opinions, or corroborate with past tasting notes, but not in every case. We start with the beers that earned respectable scores of 27-30 on the fifty point BJCP scale, but failed to rise above the pack.
Four String Rectifier
- 8.1% abv
- 70 IBU
- Hops featured = ?
- 16 oz can (canned on 1/16/2017)
With its light straw color and impressive clarity, Rectifier got nearly perfect marks for appearance. Unfortunately, appearance is only worth 3 points on the BJCP scoresheet. The judges had a hard time pinning down the aroma, but herbal (dank?) showed up on more than one set of tasting notes. The taste is hop forward with fairly generic citrus/pine flavors. Despite its relatively modest 70 IBU, the lowest number in the field, the judges perceived a higher level of bitterness than most of its peers. In my own tasting of this beer it seemed that the malts don’t have quite enough body to balance out the big charge of hops.
Commonhouse IBU UBME
- 8.6% abv
- 98 IBU
- Hops featured = Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic, Centennial
- 12 oz bottle (no bottling date)
In my opinion the Commonhouse session IPAs are notable for their flavorful malt profile, and that trend continues with their just released Double IPA. In IBU UBME the use of six different malts (American 2-row, British Pale, Crystal, Victory, Wheat, and flaked oats) gives toasty malt flavors and a ruddy gold appearance. There’s a firm back of the tongue bitterness that lingers at the finish. While some judges were able to pick out either fruity or piney contributions from the hops, it’s telling that hop flavors and aromas get relatively little mention on the tasting sheets.
The Brew Kettle El Lupelo Libre
- 8.8% abv
- 88 IBU
- Hops featured = Mosaic and other American hop varieties
- Growler (purchased from the Daily Growler 3/2/2017)
Originally brewed for Cinco de Mayo, the malt bill on this DIPA is modeled after a Mexican lager, featuring Vienna malts and flaked corn. El Lupelo Libre has a cult following in Ohio, due in part to its victory in the 2014 Brewing News National Imperial IPA competition, so it was a shocker when the votes were tallied and I learned that El Lupelo Libre not only didn’t make the final round, it received the lowest score of any beer in group 3. All four judges perceived the bitterness to be higher than its peers, and commented on the relatively restrained hop flavor and aroma.
Wondering if we might have been unlucky enough to get a bad batch from the growler shop, I sat down with a bottle the day after the contest and took my own tasting notes. Caramel from the malts pairs with the citrus from the hops resulting in a fruity flavor that is reminiscent of oranges, but just like the judges I was expecting a much bigger hop punch. Personally I didn’t find the bitterness to be off putting, but there is an alcohol note that appears at the finish. If the hop presence were turned up enough to deliver on the label’s promise of a “way hop forward brew”, I think this would be a very tasty DIPA. Unfortunately, that was not the case this time around. Maybe both the bottle and the keg were past their prime, but since The Brew Kettle doesn’t put bottling dates on their beers there is no way to know.
Hoof Hearted Unglaublich
- 8.0% abv
- 80 IBU
- Hops featured = Mandarina Bavaria, Hallertau Blanc
- Growler (purchased from the Hoof Hearted Brewpub 3/3/2017)
Hoof Hearted makes an entire stable of DIPAs, many of which are held in high enough regard that people regularly queue up in the fields of Marengo to get their hands on them. Among those Unglaublich is not the most heralded, but was included because that was the only DIPA Hannah and Ian were able to purchase at the brewpub on the eve of the contest. Unglaublich, which means unbelievable in German, is brewed with a both German malts (Vienna) and hops (Mandarina Bavaria and Hallertau Blanc). Once you realize that it contains non-traditional German hops some of the comments on the tasting sheet start to make sense. Jim commented that it was a different hop flavor, speculating that it might a new/experimental hop. Ian described the flavor as “Weird”, and said he didn’t know what to think at first but it grew on him, though apparently not enough to make a serious run at the finals. Hannah described the flavor as reminiscent of a breakfast cereal she remembered from childhood that came in an orange box with a bear on it. While I still have no fricken idea what Unglaublich tastes like, my curiosity is sufficiently piqued that I plan to order a pint the next time I see it on tap.
Columbus Brewing Company Bodhi
- 8.3% abv
- 80 IBU
- Hops featured = Citra + undisclosed other varieties
- 12 oz bottle (bottled 2/20/17)
The day of the tasting I sent out a tweet asking people which beer they thought would come out on top. Not surprisingly Bodhi got more votes of confidence than any other beer, and why not it’s got the accolades to justify that level of support. It’s an understatement to say that everyone at the tasting was surprised that Bodhi didn’t make it out of the preliminary round. It wasn’t that it just missed out either, not one judge in group 1 picked Bodhi as their favorite.
Looking back over the judges tasting notes there aren’t any flaws singled out, and very few negative comments. The judges noted both citrus and pine aromas, gave high marks for clarity and the smooth, creamy mouthfeel. Yet this four-pack of Bodhi didn’t have the extra something special needed to wow the judges. One judge ended his tasting notes by describing it as a “classic DIPA”, while another said “light DIPA”, and a third commented “nothing jumped out at me.” You can’t blame it on age either, as this batch was bottled just two weeks ago.
As if the world wasn’t already confusing enough, how can we make sense of this result? Bodhi has always occupied the border between the IPA and DIPA categories (its GABF bronze medal is in the American IPA category), so it’s conceivable that when you drink it side by side with bigger, more aggressively hopped DIPAs it just doesn’t stand out. It’s also possible that eminently drinkable Bodhi pairs better with a hot summer day than a cold, rainy day in early March. I don’t have all of the answers, but results like this are the beauty of a blind taste test.
Elevator Big Vic
- 8.6% abv
- 80 IBU
- Hops featured = ?
- 12 oz bottle (bottled 1/18/17)
If you’re looking for a DIPA that avoids the grapefruit/pine cliché and eschews bracing bitterness for a sweet malt base, Big Vic might be just what the doctor ordered. The aroma leans toward melons and tropical fruits. The taste combines toasty caramel/honey maltiness with a hop profile that accentuates stone fruits, tangerines, and melons. While that flavor combination is pretty enticing, three of the four judges in Group 3 felt that more bitterness was needed to balance out the malt sweetness. I’m drinking a bottle left over from the competition as I write this review, and I wholeheartedly concur with their analysis. On Saturday night the end result was split decision, with two judges ranking it near the top of the group and two ranking it dead last.
The Elite Eight
With average scores of 33-35 on the fifty point BJCP scale, the next four beers were a cut above the field, but still fell short of moving onto the final round.
Fifty West Punch You In The EyePA
- 9.2% abv
- 100 IBU
- Hop featured = ?
- Growler (purchased from Fifty West on 3/2/17)
The Fifty West entry gets high marks for a skillful balance between caramel leaning malts and fruity hops. Despite the 100 IBUs, no one perceived the bitterness was over the top. While one judge felt the net effect was “boring”, others described this beer with comments like “easy drinker” and “pleasantly balanced beer.” Angelo summed it up best with his overall analysis of the beer, “Hop bombs are the trend, and while beers like this one are not irrelevant they are not what people are going out of their way to find.”
Yellow Springs Wobbly Wheel
- 9.9% abv
- ? IBU
- Hops featured = Simcoe, Mosaic, Centennial
- 12 oz can (No date, but just released so probably less than 2 weeks old)
This crystal clear, golden straw colored beer is another one that seems designed for high drinkability. The aroma was not as bold as some beers in the field, but did check several boxes on the hop flavor wheel, including tropical fruit, floral, piney, and melon. The taste was described as balanced, with a appropriate lingering bitterness at the finish. In the final analysis Wobbly Wheel is a very solid, easy drinking DIPA, one that might even be passed off as an IPA, but like Punch You in the EyePA it lacked the wow factor needed to rise to the top in a contest like this.
- 9.8% abv
- 75 IBU
- Hops featured = M and C hops
- 12 oz bottle (no date)
Homestead starts with a pilsner malt base, slightly unusual for a DIPA, and then throws in copious amounts of hops starting with the letters M & C. There are several “M” hops and a baker’s dozen or more “C” hops out there, but I’d be surprised if Mosaic and Citra don’t figure into the equation in some way. The hefty 9.8% abv marks 3MCs as one of the strongest beers in the field, so it’s not too surprising that all five judges in group 1 mentioned a boozy note on their tasting sheets. There was also near unanimous consent that this was one of the fruitiest beers in the field. Descriptors like mango, stone fruit, tropical fruit, citrus fruit, and grapefruit can all be found all over the tasting sheets. Even though four of the five judges in group 1 ranked it first or second, when the dust had cleared it narrowly missed moving onto the finals.
Wolf’s Ridge Howling Moon
- 10% abv
- 75 IBU
- Hops featured = ?
- 12 oz bottle (bottled 1/11/17)
Howling Moon seems to have everything you look for in a DIPA—big citrus-forward nose; clean grainy malt base; dank, piney accents that add complexity but don’t overwhelm; and a good hop-malt balance. Most impressively for a beer that weighs in at 10% abv, only one of the five judges in group 1 felt it was too boozy. Nick summed it up nicely when he said “Drinkable, probably too drinkable considering the likely abv.”
The Final Four
We’ve finally made it to the elite DIPAs in the field, the ones that had the balls to turn the hops up to 11, while simultaneously crafting a malt base that perfectly balances and accentuates the hops. These beers were tasted side by side by the entire judging panel, with a few tweaks. The Proudfoot’s (Proudfeet?) had to leave and Chris Welker was recused to avoid any conflict of interest. Around that time Lenny Kolada dropped by and joined the judging panel for the final round. Each judge rank ordered the final four beers. I then tallied the scores to determine the places: one point for first place, two points for second place, etc. Just like golf, the lower the score the better.
4. Greatlakes Chillwave (37 points)
- 9.0% abv
- 80 IBU
- Hops featured = Mosaic, Nugget, Cascade
- 12 oz bottle (best by 4/11/2017, which I believe means bottled on 2/11/2017)
When Chillwave debuted four years ago, as Alchemy Hour, it was one of the first beers I’d encountered with Mosaic hops. Since that time the popularity of Mosaic hops has skyrocketed, so I was interested to see how Chillwave would be fare now that Mosaic hops are so ubiquitous. As it turns out the old boy still does a few things that set it apart from the field. Firstly, in a field full of über pale beers, it’s copper colored hue is a refreshing change. Secondly, the use of honey malts gives a sweet malt base that perfectly accentuates the intense fruity flavors of the Mosaic hops. Finally, like all of the Great Lakes products you get a beautiful looking beer. The combination was enough to finish at the top of a very strong group that contained Bodhi, 3MCs and Howling Moon, but not enough to make a splash in the final round.
3. Seventh Son Proliferous (33 points)
- 8.3% abv
- 85 IBU
- Hops featured = Mosaic + undisclosed other varieties
- 16 oz can (canned 1/19/2017)
Proliferous was unlucky enough to be paired with Hop JuJu in the preliminary round, but advanced to the final round by topping Howling Moon and Wobbly Wheel in the second place showdown. Once again in the final round it couldn’t quite match Hop JuJu, but there are few beers who can. Like all four beers that reached the final round Proliferous entices you with a big hop nose. While Mosaic hops play a prominent role in Proliferous as they do in Chillwave, the aroma here leans a little more in the piney, dank, coniferous direction. The taste is notable for how well the bready malt flavors accentuate and balance the flavorful hop character, where the hop contributions are fruitier than they are in the nose.
1 (tie). Fat Head’s Hop JuJu (25 points)
- 9.0% abv
- 100 IBU
- Hops featured = Chinook, Centennial, Simcoe, Cascade, Citra
- 12 oz bottle (bottled 2/10/2017)
It would be a bit disconcerting if the reigning gold medalist from the World Beer Cup and two-time GABF gold medalist didn’t finish at or near the top. I’m happy to say that Hop JuJu did not disappoint. I think I’ll quote Angelo’s tasting notes verbatim because they closely echo a review I wrote a couple of weeks ago, where I commented that the malt profile is what sets this beer apart from a crowded field of hop bombs. Aroma: Whoa! Dank, fruit, pine, tons of hop aroma, some musk. Appearance: copper colored, low head, bright. Flavor: Maltier than aroma would indicate, the hop presence is not insignificant, but malt backs it up. Mouthfeel: Medium full, balanced bitterness appropriate for the style. Overall: Excellent example of the style, it’s a hop bomb but the malt backs it up.
While Hop JuJu was the runaway winner in group 1, to everyone’s surprise it met an equal in the final round.
1 (tie). North High Stardust to Stardust (25 points)
- 8.8% abv
- 72 IBU
- Hops featured = Galaxy, Comet, Apollo
- Growler (filled at the brewery 3/3/2017)
North High first brewed this beer last year in limited draft-only quantities as a tribute to David Bowie. Made exclusively with space themed hops (Apollo, Comet, Galaxy) the recipe for this beer strikes me as something of a marketing ploy, but it sure doesn’t drink that way. Comet hops were first released in 1974, and I’ll tip my hat to the first person who can name a non-space themed beer that prominently features Comet hops. Apollo hops are a super high alpha acid variety (15-19%) bred from Zeus, so one would have to figure they are used as the bittering hop. That leads me to believe that Galaxy is shouldering a big share of the load when it comes to flavor and aroma. Whatever the mix, the judges were wowed by the big hoppy nose using half of the adjectives on the hop flavor wheel to describe the aroma—tropical fruits, piney, grassy, citrusy, and dank. The taste balances sweet honey-like malts, big hop flavor (fruity and piney), and a finish that Hannah described as “bitter, but in a good way.” The end result is a beer that got first place votes from 6 of the 12 judges in the final round of judging, more than any other beer.
While the world might yawn at yet another accolade for the incomparable Hop JuJu, Ohio hopheads should take notice at the surprising finish of Stardust to Stardust. This is a beer that upon writing this article has a total of four reviews on BeerAdvocate.com, and has seen little exposure outside of the North High taproom. I’m confident all of that is about to change. North High will be releasing a limited number of cases at the taproom next Wednesday (3/15/17), followed by a statewide release on March 21st. I know I’ll be seeking it out, because 3 ounces was not nearly enough to satisfy me.