During my series of interviews last week with local brewers and brewery owners I found that even some of them have never attended an IPA Challenge before.
“I haven’t actually been to an IPA Challenge,” said Bosque co-owner Jotham Michnovicz. “Bosque hasn’t been there yet, but I’ve never been to one (either). Every year it’s fallen when I have something involving the family.”
So when I asked Jotham and brewer Gabe Jensen if they knew what they were in for, they both said they did not. That got me thinking that there will probably be plenty of people who will be attending the IPA Challenge at Marble this Saturday (and at Santa Fe Brewing on Friday) who have never done this before.
Because we’re a bunch of know-it-all’s in the Brew Crew, and as the most experienced IPA Challenge voter (four straight years), I, Stoutmeister, have put together this handy guide to surviving the IPA Challenge and doing your best to be a good voter (with other Crew members contributing here and there). And to not end up puking in the bathroom afterward.
Here is your step-by-step guide to making the IPA Challenge one of the best beer events you attend this year.
Step 1: Get a designated driver, dummy
This should be the first thing you do at any beer festival, but some people still forget about it or think they’ll be fine. You are going to be getting a tray of 14 IPA samples, each about 2-3 ounces of beer. That means up to 42 ounces of beer, more than two pints. And these are not light beers in ABV. Turtle Mountain’s Genesis IPA checks in between 6.5 and 6.8 percent. Chama River’s Hop Slap is 7.2 percent. And Il Vicino’s Exodus, well, heck, if it’s below 8 percent I would be surprised. Some of these beers may be even higher, more in the Double IPA or Imperial range.
And don’t forget, you get a full pint of your favorite IPA after you submit your vote. In other words, you’re drinking more than enough beer to put you above .08 percent in the eyes of the law. Do us all a favor and cash in that favor your friend/relative/spouse/significant other owes you, or trade a future favor with someone you can rely upon. Plus, anyone that has been to either SFBC or Marble knows that parking is at a premium.
Step 2: Don’t walk in on an empty stomach
Remember that line about puking? You don’t want to do that. This is a beer tasting experience, not a chance for you to go out and get drunk. If you’re coming to the IPA Challenge to help you forget about that person you just broke up with, please don’t show up. We don’t want you there. This is not an event to get drunk at, just like all of our microbreweries should not be a place for you to get wasted. Stay home if you’re intent on getting slammed, OK? It’s safer for us all.
So all that being said, lots of people inadvertently end up getting tipsy at these events. Did I not mention the high ABV of these beers? A good way to spare yourself any regrettable moments is to pack your belly beforehand. Don’t stuff yourself too much, just grab a good-sized sandwich or something else with a fair amount of carbs. Create that sponge in your stomach to help absorb the beer so all those hops don’t go straight to your head. Overly spicy or flavor-intensive foods should be avoided. Wrecking your palate in advance is not the best idea. I’ll probably wolf down a ham sandwich in advance, something nice and simple but filling.
Brandon: There is a reason why British or Irish-style pubs pack their menu with things like fish & chips, and that is they go well with beer! Keep your foods somewhat light and try not to have anything to sharp or spicy in flavor, as Stoutmeister mentioned. There’s nothing worse than gulping down a tasty stout and not being able to enjoy it because you’ve just put too much ghost chile sauce on your food (not that I have personally done that before … dozens of times). Snack on some chips or fries if nothing else is available.
As for eating during the Challenge, see Step 5 below.
Step 3: You don’t have to go in order
You’re going to get a tray of beers and they will be numbered 1 through 14. This does not mean you have to drink them 1 through 14. There are lots of ways to go.
“I think a lot of has to do with what number it’s placed at, from front five to back five,” said Adam Galarneau, the general manager up at Turtle Mountain. “A traditional person tastes one through 16. Some people say 16 to one. They go one way or the other. Some do it on clarity, ‘I like the lighter ones first.’ Usually the first six you try, you’re going to vote for one of those six. You’re not going to vote for one of the ones after that. Your palate is taken. Unless you have some sort of palate cleanser.” (Again, see Step 5 below)
Vary it up how you drink the beers. Maybe go even-numbered in order, then odd-numbered. Or just pick a pattern that is different. I don’t necessarily agree with Adam that you’ll pick one of the first six or so, because everyone’s palate is different and what you, as an individual, love in an IPA is probably different from what he likes, and I like, and other people like.
Step 4: Take your time, flavors can change
Turtle Mountain owner Nico Ortiz pointed out something quite interesting: “The problems are exacerbated by the fact the beers are served cool. As the beers warm up you get much more aromatics, the flavor profile shifts. You pick one and then it warms up. The hops you taste change.”
This is a huge reason why you do not down an entire sample and then move on. Take a sip or two or however much you need. Then take some notes, real or mental, and move on. Come back and try that beer again later. Nico is quite right, flavors do change as beers go from cold to warm, especially hop-heavy beers like IPAs. The Challenge lasts four hours. You do not have to sit there and take all four, but it’s not “he who is fastest wins.” Take your time and enjoy yourself.
We also recommend you show up early, as in right when the event starts at 4 p.m. (Santa Fe) or noon (Marble). It gives you more time to carefully taste your beers. Also, as anyone will tell you, the freshest beer is at the top of the keg, not the bottom.
Step 5: Cleanse thy palate along the way
At past IPA Challenges water has been provided to help cleanse the palate, but let’s face it, hoppy beers do not go away with a swish or two of water. I checked in with Marble to see if you are allowed to bring in the great beer palate cleanser, the pretzel. They say outside food is permitted, so grab whatever works best (don’t overdo it and bring a backpack full of food; just something you can put in your pocket) and bbring it along.
Even with pretzels and water you won’t be able to completely cleanse your palate in between every beer. That’s why it is important not to overdo it when you are tasting your samples. Don’t drink too much, and take a minute or two in between beers. Again, this is not a race to finish first. These brewers put a lot of time and work into the IPAs you’re drinking. Show them some respect and take your time to make sure you taste them properly. We’re not asking you to correctly identify the two-to-five hops per beer, hell we can’t even do that, but to do this properly you need to be patient and methodical.
Brandon: This is an IPA challenge; prepare to have your palate assaulted. Cleanse frequently with water, swish if you must. Don’t use mouthwash or anything like that (yes, I’ve seen someone try this tactic to better taste their beers at festivals); that will kill your taste buds.
Step 6: Don’t try to guess your favorite brewery’s beer, pick the best one
OK, I know you have your favorite brewery. It’s the one you defend to its detractors, the one you spend more time at than any restaurant or coffee shop in the ABQ or Santa Fe area. You champion that brewery above all others. All of us in the Crew have our favorites for various reasons, and we’re always asked what those are. The thing for us is we try to find something we like at every place, whether it’s the atmosphere, the staff, or the various beers on tap.
Here’s the thing, though. This is not about your favorite brewery. It’s not about supporting that establishment. This is a blind taste test to pick the best IPA, by your personal standards, in New Mexico. So be fair, be honest, and vote for the best. It might end up being your favorite after all, or it might not. It might open your eyes to somewhere you’ve never been to before, or perhaps give you a reason to give another brewery a second chance.
So don’t spend your afternoon trying really hard to figure out if No. 7 or No. 12 is your favorite brewery’s entry. Pick the BEST DAMN BEER and then enjoy your pint. The brewers won’t take it personally. You can go back to your favorite watering hole later and still support it like you did before. This is not cheating, it’s not betrayal, it’s just saying that on one day this year, somebody else might have made a better IPA.
Step 7: Talk amongst yourselves
It’s OK to say hello to that stranger sitting next to you. If he or she wants to chat, cool. If he or she wants to be left alone, that’s cool, too. It’s like any time you’re at a brewery, there will be folks who want to talk about the beer and there will be those taking notes and minding their own business. Those of us in the Crew who are going will probably be conversing throughout. We like to talk beer, that should be obvious. Sometimes it’s OK to ask “hey, what is that piney flavor in No. 4?” and things like that.
Worried about someone trying to influence you? Hey, we’ve all had an annoying person sitting next to us at a bar. Just be polite, tell him/her that you would like to be left alone. The odds are, though, that the folks around you are good beer drinkers, just like you. Smile and be kind. You’re all there to have fun (see below). Plus, it can help you pass the time while your palate resets in between samples. You know how to behave in a brewery or bar. Just take that same mentality into the Challenge and you and those around you will be fine.
Brandon: Might we suggest talking to the group of bearded gentlemen in the Dark Side Brew Crew shirts?
Step 8: Have fun, darn it
No one takes the IPA Challenge too seriously, not even the brewers. Yes, they’re competing, but I guarantee you that after the trophy has been handed out, they’ll be back to talking and laughing and acting like they normally do. The brewing community in Albuquerque is like a fraternity minus the “thank you sir, may I have another.” They all get along for the most part and will even help each other out from time to time when one runs out of hops or malts or needs advice on how to make a beer better. Take a cue from that and have fun yourselves. This is a friendly competition, treat it as such. Yes, be serious and do your best to put in an honest vote for the best beer, but still make sure you’re enjoying the time you spend at SFBC or Marble. Say hello to the people you know, joke around, soak up the camaraderie.
The IPA Challenge is the start of the best time of year for beer, in my humble opinion. It is our farewell to summer and hello to autumn and all the great things that brings, from football (both ours and the rest of the world’s version) returning, to the baseball playoffs, to hockey down the line, the changing colors on the leaves, the cooler nights, and so much more. Plus, for those of you with kids, YOU’RE FREE as they’re back in school. Embrace this time of year. And hope the Pirates can hold on or I might have an epic meltdown of my own.
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That’s all from us; if any Challenge veterans have their own advice they would like to share, leave a comment here or on our Facebook page. We’ll share it with the masses.
See you all Saturday afternoon at Marble (and E-Rock will see some of you Friday at SFBC).