Editor’s note: Welcome to the first story by a member of our new Brew Crew Bullpen. Luke, being our first Santa Fe-based writer, headed over to Second Street Brewery for Round One of the IPA Challenge on Saturday. His enthusiasm for this is shining through every part of this story. Enjoy! — Stoutmeister

16 breweries. One winner. No mercy.

IPA Challenge pic 1

The 2014 IPA Challenge got off to a great start this weekend at Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe.

Luke here, the newest member of the Bullpen and the Santa Fe correspondent. Another year for the battle of the IPAs, and bragging rights are once more on the line. But the IPA Challenge is about more than just bragging rights. Well, OK so it’s mostly about bragging rights in a state that hails its hoppiest hitters. But despite all the limits being pushed and the ingredients being tweaked, I’ve learned that the IPA Challenge makes brewers better brewers, and makes us beer drinkers better as well.

Sixteen breweries (listed in the photo below) brought specially brewed IPAs to Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe on Saturday to compete in the first leg of an event unique to our state. The 12th running of the NM IPA Challenge had such a wide spectrum of IPAs that there was something for everyone’s palate, making it easy for no one to choose just one favorite. The IPAs ranged everywhere from colorful and complex to pure Pinesol, from questionably sessionable to hardcore ABViolators, and finally from malt-forward monsters to absolute hoptomic bombs.

It was not an easy event to judge. With a tray of 16 IPA-filled tasters in front of me (only identified by numbers), it was hard not to be intimidated. Thankfully, Todd Yocham, head of brewing operations at Duel Brewing in Santa Fe, helped me find a more efficient way to judge and smudge, something akin to “Hot or Not” until you’ve found your fave. Duel Brewing did not participate in the event, but Todd is no stranger to how we do things out here in the Southwest, high noon style.

When asked if he wanted to brew a beer for the competition he said, “Oh hell, yeah! Yeah. We talked seriously about doing it this year, but with some other events and things, and we’re still small. It would take more time than we have at the moment.” Busy with their expansion plans (Stoutmeister will have more in The Week Ahead in Beer State Edition this Thursday), it’s only a matter of time before we’ll see something from Duel, and I can’t wait for them to toss their 10-gallon hats in the ring.

But for the brewers that are currently in the Challenge, they were certainly in it to win it, no matter what style of IPA they made. I got to speak with Rod Tweet, Second Street’s brewer, very briefly, as that part-man, part-brewing machine does not stop moving for more than a minute at a time. He told me about Second Street’s IPA: “We took our Pivotal IPA and leveraged it so it’s Fulcrum (IPA). We amped up the dry hopping for four extra points of gravity and used nine hops in the beer. There’s a lot of complexity in there. We’re real happy with it. We made one that we want to drink.”

James Warren, head brewer at Blue Corn, had a similar approach. “I tried to do something balanced,” he said. “We use a really nice base malt for it.” He then mentioned some surprising hops, which I won’t divulge until after folks in all three competition locations have had a taste.

And of course I had to ask James, since John Bullard won last year with his Resurgence IPA at Blue Corn just before he left for Bosque, was there any pressure on new head brewer to bring it back? “Absolutely!” he said. “I absolutely want to see it back at Blue Corn. But I’ve had so many great beers in the last three months that it’d be hard to be disappointed.” I asked what it meant to the brewery to win, and he said, “It’s great to me, as kind of the new guy in the New Mexico brew scene, to come out and do this, but it also means a lot to other people in the brewery, besides me, already having that trophy.” But in the end, he said, confidently, “I made a beer I wanted to make.” I can dig that.

The numbers listed before each beer were what they were marked as for the blind taste test. The numbers to the right are the voting totals.

The numbers listed before each beer were what they were marked as for the blind taste test. The numbers to the right are the voting totals.

Well folks, with the results in out of 204 votes cast between noon and 4 p.m., it seems that John has the lead so far and could be on his way to earning another trophy for his new brewery, Bosque. But as we all know, it ain’t over till it’s over. There are still the second and third legs of the competition at Roosevelt Brewing in Portales on Wednesday and at Tractor Wells Park in Albuquerque on Sunday. Who knows how the judges will cast their votes? Only tastes and time will tell.

But bragging rights aside, these competitions are great for the industry. Chris Goblet, of the New Mexico Brewers Guild said, “The brewers knew early on how fun it would be to have a competitive competition, a friendly competition amongst the brewers in a category that was really exciting and interesting. So in 2002, these folks came together and had the first challenge and we realized very quickly that it was a great opportunity to really get to know the style.

“And so we’ve talked about, in the future, doing other events like the ‘Peak of the Pisners’ or ‘Land of the Lagers,’ where we would be able to get people to really have the opportunity to taste multiple beers on the same platform, so they could really start to educate their palates as to the diversity of style and what a style should taste like.”

Todd added, “It’s really about the camaraderie of the brewing industry here in New Mexico, gettin’ together and throwin’ down. It’s not important who wins, but it kinda is! (laughs)”

All the participants that I spoke to seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Local homebrewer and Sangre De Cristo Craft Brewers Club head Jim Steinbach said, “I had a hard time (to pick a winner). I had it down to about five. There were three that were what most people would consider a standard IPA and there were two kind of outstanding IPAs that I liked.” He also wanted to see Challenges for new styles like a stout challenge in the winter. (Way ahead of you there, Jim. — Stoutmeister) Non-IPA drinker Kyle, from Massachusetts, said it was easier now to pick the IPAs he liked, after trying 16 different ones. Chelsea, from Washington, DC., said it was much harder to pick a winner, being an IPA fan. And thanks to fellow bullpen member Reid for joining us in the midst of battle, and for those life-saving pretzels!

So what does all this all tell us? Bullard’s beers are tough hombres, tasting is teaching, and people from other states are here for the NM beer! So cheers and good luck to the brewers. May the hops be with you!

— Luke “Skyhopper”

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