Beer Run

Beer Run: In a blind IPA tasting, local options top list

The IPA tasting panel at the end of a lengthy session. L-R, Seann Rooney, Louie Toro and Sam Blackmon. Their standard for a well-made IPA? Do they want to drink it again?
The IPA tasting panel at the end of a lengthy session. L-R, Seann Rooney, Louie Toro and Sam Blackmon. Their standard for a well-made IPA? Do they want to drink it again?

Last week, Beer Run covered the upcoming Track 7 IPA Invitational, an exciting new event that will see some of the best breweries in the West, including local hotshots, vie for supremacy in the most popular category in craft beer.

So I wondered: How does Sacramento stack up? I recruited three of the most devoted beer geeks I know. I poured. They tasted and opined.

When it comes to the craft beer boom in Sacramento, I still hear people say that the beer is better elsewhere. Is that a lingering sense of insecurity? Or is it actually true? The only way to find out is by eliminating the bias of knowing which beer you are sipping and conducting a blind tasting. This was not intended to be comprehensive or definitive. But it did confirm my suspicions about local craft beer.

To make things interesting, I slipped in some of the biggest names in the India pale ale category: Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada and Stone. Additionally, we tasted IPAs from Device, Jack Rabbit, Rubicon, Knee Deep, New Glory, Track 7 and Sudwerk. I threw in an esoteric ringer by the Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, Ore., just to keep the tasters on their toes.

If the beers didn’t pass muster, sometimes freshness was to blame. It is fast becoming industry standard to put “best by” dates on IPAs. At least one of the IPAs was clearly battling old age. I actually went to that brewery a few days later for confirmation, and the IPA on tap was significantly better than the bottle at the tasting. If you’re a consumer, ask your favorite brewery to date its IPAs and pale ales. The beers whose freshness was in question were not contending for the top spot.

The panel: Seann Rooney, an urban planner; Louie Toro, owner of the store Wireless World; and Sam Blackmon, a Sacramento police officer. All have a wide range of beer benchmarks, have traveled extensively and are familiar with both the local beer scene and the wider craft beer market. Their passion for beer: off the charts.

We determined that the widely respected and ubiquitous Lagunitas IPA can be seen as something of a benchmark of West Coast style — with aromas of citrus and pine, lively hop flavors, an appealing bitterness that lingers on the finish, and an overall balance that makes it eminently drinkable.

But we also concluded, in the course of a rather intensive session, that the IPA category continues to evolve. What we once thought was a big, in-your-face tasting experience now seems a little timid. That’s not to say harshness, or bitterness, wins out. The most appealing IPAs of the moment embrace strong aromas — be it citrus, pine or tropical fruit — with flavors that are both big and balanced. I would describe it as aggressive finesse. That’s the way I’ve always thought of Pliny the Younger (the famous limited release triple IPA), which boasts an ABV (alcohol by volume) in the double digits but is so impeccably brewed that it is a joy to drink. All three tasters were surprised to learn that Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA seemed relatively ho-hum and old-school, ranking no better than mid-pack. Stone was also mid-pack.

Best in show: Breaking Bud from Knee Deep Brewing in Auburn.

Blackmon called the aroma “candied,” “fruity,” “tropical,” which is an apt description of the predominant Mosaic hops.

Toro: “I’m definitely getting mango on the taste and the aroma. … It’s really clean and a big drinker.”

Rooney: “It’s a smooth, quintessential IPA.”

A close second: Grapefruit Hopsauce from Rubicon Brewing in midtown. Blackmon said, “The aroma is awesome.” Then he tasted: “Big citrus, grapefruit, orange, mildly bitter, balanced. A slightly bitter finish, which is fine for an IPA.”

Toro said it “has a lot of citrus, predominantly grapefruit. It would be great in the morning.”

Rooney (who correctly identified the beer): “It’s pretty outstanding. It is definitely a grapefruit/citrusy-forward IPA. It’s one of the better local brews that’s on that grapefruit trend right now.”

The trio differed on Device’s Integral, which is one of my favorites. Toro felt he detected a gentle sweetness, “which leads me to malt, like maybe it is turning (getting old). … There is a definite hop there, but it’s malty.” Rooney concurred, suspecting the shelf life might have contributed to the muted aromas.

Blackmon said, “I thought it smelled like good hops, actually. It does taste slightly sweet, but it’s balanced. It might be a tad old, but I’m good with it overall.”

If you’re wondering about Track 7’s popular Panic IPA, the panel considered it a solid beer, on par with Lagunitas.

But the real winner is you, the local craft beer consumer. In a blind tasting, Sacramento’s best IPAs stood up to some of the best in the business.

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob