To the brewers and brewery owners who have been involved since the beginning, the IPA Challenge has come a long way as its 12th incarnation is set to begin this afternoon at High Desert Brewing in Las Cruces.
Taking the way-back machine with Il Vicino’s Brady McKeown and Turtle Mountain’s Nico Ortiz, the origin of this massively popular event was rather simple.
Brady said there was a gathering of brewery folks back in 2002. The issue of who made the best IPA came up and someone, he was not quite sure who, said they should hold a competition.
Nico and the others thought it was a great idea.
“As far as I can remember, we obviously take great pride in our IPAs so we wanted to have an in-state challenge as far as bragging rights as what the best IPA in the state was,” Nico said. “Sort of a head-to-head type of a challenge.”
The first IPA Challenge took place at three venues back in 2002. It featured a rather interesting way of deciding the best IPA.
“The original rules were first keg to float, which obviously as you might imagine was rife with conflict,” Nico explained. “Blue Corn (Albuquerque, now Chama River) won the first cup at Turtle because their keg floated. Their GM came in and just started buying people beers.
“Turtle obviously took advantage of that fact in year two. We were at Assets and the final one was up at Second Street. We were up there and there were like six of us so I was buying rounds of beer until our keg kicked.”
Brady said the floating keg idea “wasn’t very popular,” so it was changed to a blind taste test in year three.
Despite winning one of those years, even Nico does not recognize it as a real victory.
“Those are sort of asterisks kind of like Barry Bonds,” Nico said. “That does not make you the best IPA. In year three that’s when we started doing legitimate blind tasting, which is not foolproof but it’s much more foolproof than first keg to kick.”
Even year three (2004) featured some controversy. Brady said he did not produce enough Wet Mountain IPA to get through all three rounds of the competition so he had to bring in a fresh batch to the final event.
Nico, among others, was not too happy when Wet Mountain gave Il Vicino its first trophy.
“You can argue that it was a fresh batch of IPA that tasted better than what was at the bottom of the tank of the previous batch,” Nico said. “A fresh batch of IPA was superior and gave him an edge that none of us had. We wrote up the rule that all of your kegs had to be from the same batch.”
Other than that one rule, Brady said the main philosophy on the IPA Challenge is that “there are no rules.” Brewers can submit IPAs, Double IPAs, India Pale Lagers, Black IPAs, and there was even the infamous Eske’s Green Chile IPA in 2011.
The Challenge has grown along with the number of breweries in New Mexico, expanding from three events per year to four.
“Typically one was in Albuquerque, one was in Santa Fe, one was in the hinterlands,” Nico said. “I went up to Farmington a couple years, down to Cruces a couple years, and went to Artesia one year also.”
As the event grew in popularity it helped the New Mexico Brewers Guild grow into what it is today.
“At one point before we had a director and did the Beer Premier and all these other things, this was how we made all the money for the Guild,” Brady said. “We kind of had to make it a big deal.”
Despite making it a bigger deal every year, Nico said no one has really had much to complain about over the years. Well, other than Il Vicino’s four-year winning streak that it will take into this year’s competition.
“We haven’t really had a whole lot of controversy,” Nico said. “The batch rule obviously came into play on that day down at Blue Corn (Albuquerque). But the previous ones, pretty much it’s a traveling IPA roadshow is what it is. It’s a fundraiser for the Guild. It’s kind of morphed into — yeah, there’s bragging rights and yes, all of us are very interested in unseating Brady.
“Because while obviously GABF and World Beer Cup medals are much more important, this one because it’s blind tasting across all the palates all over the state and it’s sort of head-to-head, this one means an awful lot to those of us who participate. If you can win this, it means that overall now four venues of people have determined your IPA to be the best. That means something.”
There have been whispers of some shenanigans, Nico said, with people from breweries allegedly figuring out which beer is theirs and telling the voters what to vote for. That has never been proven and, as he noted, it probably did not make much difference.
“The IPA Challenge has never really been decided by a mere handful of votes,” Nico said. “It’s always been considerable. If the IPA Challenge was decided by two or three votes then obviously that would be a much bigger deal.”
For instance, Il Vicino’s Exodus won last year’s competition with 114 votes. Marble was a distant second with 61.
“You certainly can’t argue with Brady’s Exodus,” Nico said. “It is a damn fine beer. It’s just amazing over every venue that we’ve gone to that he’s managed to win it the last four years. Granted, Albuquerque is the one that decides the cup. Marble, La Cumbre, everybody has their followings. I would probably say that Il Vicino does not have the following strength of Marble. And yet still it wins. Kudos to Brady for that.”
Brady admitted that while he’s probably one of the nicest people you’ll meet, the IPA Challenge does fire him up.
“We are always trying to be competitive — well, I am — trying to tweak the IPA,” Brady said. “Everyone here tries to be competitive. Maybe it’s just me.
“Doug is pretty even keel, he likes to brew beer, keep it the same so the customer gets used to it. That’s fine. Doug’s pretty competitive, he just doesn’t show it.”
There have been changes beyond the number of venues. There were 14 participating breweries last year and will be 14 again this year, though four breweries (Blue Heron, Mimbres Valley, Nexus, 3 Rivers) dropped out from last year and were replaced by a quartet of newcomers (Bosque, Broken Bottle, Taos Mesa, The Wellhead).
Another change this year will be having the venues spread over two weekends, on Fridays and Saturdays both times instead of having any midweek events.
“It definitely will likely mean that the number of votes tallied will be higher,” Nico said. “Which obviously the more votes the greater likelihood of a little more parity. Yeah, the rationale of having it during week was we didn’t want to stretch it out over a two-week period but since we added a fourth venue it’s kind of necessary. So I think it’s a positive change to have it on a Friday-Saturday because that’s typically when people are going to go out anyway.
“Typically the Farmington, Artesia, Las Cruces events have only had 50 to 60, max 80 votes whereas you have 300 votes in Albuquerque. Even Santa Fe turnouts have not been that great. I don’t think anybody outside of Albuquerque had more than 80 votes.”
The beers have changed, too.
“The thing about the IPA Challenge was Brady’s first win was with Wet Mountain,” Nico said. “Wet Mountain would never win these days. Our only legitimate victory was with the TMBC IPA which was similar to Wet Mountain in that was a very balanced, malty, probably 65 BU. A 65 BU IPA is never going to win now. The alcohol and the hops have gone up considerably over the years as everybody’s palates have changed, too. The Exodus is a burly beer.”
Both Brady and Nico agreed that the evolution of the IPAs has coincided with the many new varieties of hops, as well as the changing palates of their customers.
“We are using a lot of Citra so it really stands out,” Brady said of Exodus. “But as that hop becomes more widely grown and accessible, there will be a point where we may change it up. There are probably 20 experimental hops coming up. In five years it will be something totally different. Whoever can contract that will keep things constantly changing.”
One thing that won’t change is the trophy that has been sitting dead center at the bar counter at the Il Vicino Canteen.
“The whole crux of this thing was for bragging rights for the best IPA in the state,” Nico said. “The trophy was made by Robert Lee over at Milagro (Brewing) when Milagro was in business. He’s a metal worker so it looks like the bottom of a fermenter. The winning brewery puts their plaque on there and they get the chance to have it in the brewery for the whole year.”
The competition will continue at Taos Mesa on Saturday, Santa Fe Brewing next Friday, and conclude at Marble’s downtown pub next Saturday.
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For the curious, here is the complete list of winners, taken from the Challenge trophy itself. The first two entries are starred due to the “first keg floats” rule as opposed to the current blind taste test format.
2002: Blue Corn Albuquerque, Proving Ground*
2003: Turtle Mountain, Maximus*
2004: Il Vicino, Wet Mountain
2005: Il Vicino, Wet Mountain
2006: Chama River, Dangerous Intentions
2007: Turtle Mountain, TMBC IPA
2008: Chama River, The March Hare
2009: Il Vicino, India Pale Lager
2010: Il Vicino, Exodus
2011: Il Vicino, Exodus
2012: Il Vicino, Exodus
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That’s all for today. We will have short recaps of the first two rounds as provided to us by the Brewers Guild and plenty more stories next week, including your guide to proper festival behavior, a primer on this year’s IPAs from several of the participating breweries, and whatever else we can cobble together from all these lengthy interviews I have been conducting.
Good luck to all the breweries participating!