So I got to thinking the other day: Who makes the best IPA in town?
These days polarizing, palate-wrecking IPAs dominate the craft beer landscape. One way to measure a brewery is to see how far they’re willing to push the limits in their most extreme ale. Do they go all-out? Search for a sweet spot? Or show restraint?
Here’s what I've found, so far, at our local breweries.
Wander Boot Toss Triple IPA. Nine hop varieties, 100-plus IBU, and 10.3-percent alcohol. On paper it’s the most over-the-top local IPA in recent memory. A truckload of hop bitterness enlivens the beefy, translucent amber malt backbone. There’s a lot to talk about: the heady caramel-medicinal aroma, the grapefruit tartness that lingers and lingers, the general go-big-or-go-home attitude to this ale. Yet unlike, say, a Green Flash IPA, an intense beer where you can still pick out layered hop flavors, the hop profile of the Boot Toss comes at you in one big roar. Is that bad? I can’t answer for you, but to me, for the first time in a Wander beer, it’s overkill. Hop addicts will get their fix and then some. Mere mortals will find it impenetrable. C
Wander Chota Session IPA. This IPA, the second-runnings from the Boot Toss, pours a frail pilsner yellow. Aroma, too, is light. Hardly present, in fact, and all around Chota has the outward signs of a very delicate beer. This is an IPA? Then in the body you get an undainty sucker-punch of dry, sharp bitterness. Oh, right, this is an IPA. Still, don’t expect a big beer. Naysayers will call it watery, but no, Chota even sacrifices some drinkability for hop flavor, and it’s a fair trade-off. B
Chuckanut British IPA. You get a sense that this beer is almost begrudgingly on tap at Chuckanut, where pilsner, Kölsch and European lagers are king. People demand IPAs, though, so here we are. Funny thing is, in the Pacific Northwest we hardly know what to make of an India Pale Ale that’s 45 IBU, kind of mellow even by British standards, and mellower than many regular American pale ales. But that’s within the tradition. Hops, the deal-breaker in American IPAs, take a back seat, while a rich copper-amber body is on center stage. Mild is an understatement. It’s sweeter than it is bitter, and to an ex-pat of the British isles, this might be a godsend. To hopheads, it’ll be letdown. That’s not Chuckanut’s target audience, and they're OK with that. C+
North Fork IPA. Pours a warm, cloudy gold, a few shades darker and hazier than North Fork’s Lighter Shade of Pale. Fresh at the brewery, this beer has just enough zip to it, between light, dry hop flavors and swirling carbonation, and it fits snug among the array of alluringly roughhewn British-American brews at the beer shrine. However, for better or worse, sometimes the flavors of the IPA don’t seem quite the same each time I go back — either due to experiment, accident, a bit of luck of the draw in open fermentation, or a faulty memory — as sometimes the hops come out airy, upfront, crisp; other times, like now, they recede into the body, while malt flavors come forward to make it more grainy, more sweet. B-
— A very scientific online poll by the folks at the Bellingham Tap Trail found Bellingham’s least favorite beer style, by a landslide, is the IPA. (Makes sense. Who buys IPAs here? Hey, wait a minute.) So as was the agreement, Menace Brewing, the house brewery at The Local on Railroad Avenue, has agreed to brew that style to change everyone’s mind. Godspeed.
— Some beers off the beaten path: Aslan Brewing Co., tapped a reduced-alcohol IPA, called Safety Line; for the past month or so, Kulshan Brewing has been serving up their Small Beer, i.e. the second-runnings of its barleywine; Chuckanut Brewery will release its Märzen, a spring lager, on Friday evening, Märzen 6.