The good folks over at Brewing News have been holding their own version of March Madness for the last seven years, pitting the best IPAs across the country against each other in a tournament that started with around 30 entrants and now has 128.
As our headline states, the 2014 champion is La Cumbre’s wildly popular Project Dank. To get to the top, Dank had to defeat Blue Corn’s Tomorrow IPA in the quarterfinals, before taking down Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack IPA (the 2013 GABF gold-medal winner in the American IPA category) in the semifinals, and then finally conquering Fat Heads’ IBUsive in the championship match.
With another victory in hand for La Cumbre and our fair state’s brewing industry, I figured it was a good idea to stop by and chat with Jeff Erway late Tuesday afternoon before I had to head out to cover the Lobo baseball game (hence why this story is running Wednesday).
Q: How did you get into the competition?
Jeff: They invited me to enter the competition. … It’s grown more and more prestigious than for no other reason than the caliber of the competition. You’ve got a lot of breweries that are throwing their hats in the ring that are very, very well known. If you look at the beers that were entered into this competition, all three of the medaling beers from the Great American Beer Festival were in there, as well as all three from the last three years at (GABF). They had a really good lineup of beers (from) a lot of breweries I have a lot of respect for, so it was only natural I’d want to enter that competition, try to throw my hat in the ring.
Q: Is this the first year you guys did it?
Jeff: This is our third year. This is the first year we entered Dank, yeah. Elevated IPA, the first year we entered it and it didn’t get past the first round. Last year we entered it and I think we got to the fourth round. I should have entered that one as well, but I just didn’t bother. As far as Dank goes, this is the first year we’ve entered that.
Q: How would you describe what makes Dank so popular?
Jeff: And I say this as we’re about to release a double IPA of monstrous proportions next month, I’m not a huge, huge fan of the double IPA style. I’m OK with them, but I tend to not like that much alcohol, enter the 10-and-a-half-percent alcohol double IPA. To me, I tend to like the amount of hop aroma, I tend to like the amount of juicy hop flavor. I don’t want all that alcohol. The Elevated IPA was kind of a step toward that. And the Elevated IPA, nicely enough, became, whether it was out of my design or my customers’ design, our flagship and that was good, good for us.
Dank is kind of my asking for a little bit of artistic freedom. It allows me to produce beer that is truly higher hopped than almost any even double IPA out there. And change it up all the time. We’re constantly changing the hop varieties and I think people like that. The intention always stays the same, though, to produce something that is not just a beverage for quaffing but truly an experience. I think about when I first tried some of the Belgian ales that I love, some of those beers that really stick out in my mind as true experiences. I think that’s more than anything what people are after when they pay a pretty high price for a really intense IPA like Project Dank. They want more than just a beverage, they want an experience, and that’s what we try to give them.
So we use all sorts of crazy hop varieties that aren’t really readily available. Luckily, due to my relationships with hop brokers and growers I’m able to procure those. At the end of the day, people are looking for something more, something interesting, and that’s what I’m trying to give them.
Q: You had to beat Blue Corn on the way to the finals. Must have been interesting to see two breweries from New Mexico going head-to-head that far into the competition.
Jeff: John (Bullard) is a great brewer, obviously. I only spent a month with John at Chama River, but I’d like to think I have some influence over his brewing style. And then Nathan Zerbe (whose) Blackwatch IPA was also in that (quarterfinal). Nathan, some of you remember, was an assistant brewer here for around a year before he took the job at Adirondack Brewery.
I went up against John’s Tomorrow IPA, which I’d had a few weeks beforehand. It’s a fantastic beer. That’s the problem nowadays, everybody has gotten so good at brewing these beers. They are shockingly good beers, a lot of them. You get to this kind of competition (and) the competition is very, very stiff. Someday we’ll have a Scotch ale competition like this and it will be a lot easier. When IPAs are this popular it’s pretty hard.
Q: People have said the popularity of IPAs will die off. I disagree, especially in this part of the country, where people like big and bold flavors in everything.
Jeff: What’s interesting, though, is it’s not just about slap-in-the-face bitterness, people want that, but they really want huge aromas, huge flavors. I don’t think they necessarily knew that before I started brewing some of these beers and Ted and Brady. You brew these beers and they try them and they’re absolutely ecstatic for them.
Q: We did our Irish Red Challenge (Monday) and we still wanted good aromas, even with those styles. We’re really looking for something to invite us to the glass.
Jeff: I term it compelling, something that is truly compelling, it’s not just your everyday beer. It’s what separates so much of what we brew that’s OK from what is truly shocking. It’s because whether it’s a 70 Shilling or a pilsner, beer geeks, people that are truly into beer, no matter what style it is they’re looking for something that is more. And that’s at the end of the day, that’s why Project Dank is getting attention, because it is truly something more than you probably were even expecting.
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Thanks as always to Jeff for taking some time out of his (very) busy day. He also shared some other not-quite-ready-for-print news that we will follow up with in the future, so lots of good times are ahead for La Cumbre and their many fans.
Congratulations to Jeff and the entire La Cumbre staff on Project Dank’s victory. It’s not just a win for them, but for brewing in our entire state.