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Report: 13th Annual IPA Festival (2010) at The Bistro: Hayward, CA

This past Saturday (August 7, 2010) I attended “The Bistro’s 13th Annual IPA Festival” in Hayward, CA. The event was like most of the Bistro’s beer festivals over the past few years – which means well-organized with great energy and a fantastic selection of beers to try.

The two-sided tasting sheet (reproduced below – click to see full-size images) listed 54 beers. I think all of them were present, with at least one semi-secret “extra” beer not listed (see comments below).

My general thoughts on the selections and the India Pale Ale style have not changed from last year (my full writeup of the 2009 festival here), so I’ll just repeat them:

Although The Bistro’s IPA Festival is second probably only to the Great American Beer Festival in the number of India Pale Ales under one roof, the lineup does not try to give an overview of this beer style in general. The beers here are almost exclusively from California, and almost exclusively brewed in the West Coast style popularized by breweries like Stone in Southern California and Bear Republic up north. These are dominated by citrus-y American hop varieties, tending more toward a fruitiness than the grainy spiciness of the India Pale Ale style invented in England.

This “American IPA” sub-style is probably my favorite type of beer. The good news is that California brewers have really dialed this style in – these days it’s hard to find an outright bad one anywhere. On the other hand, even hardcore proponents would probably admit that there’s not much stylistic variation among California IPAs. So even though I focused on beers that were new to the scene or more obscure than most, they were more similar than they were different.

This year I tried sixteen of the beers (including four of the five named winners of the formal judging and People’s Choice, the full results of which you can find on Jay Brooks’ excellent Brookston Beer Bulletin here). But my palate got tired, so I’ve only posted notes for those that I think registered properly. They’re in alphabetical order by brewery.

  • Ballast Point Sculpin (7.0+/10): A favorite of many beer geeks as the big brother to the brewery’s Big Eye IPA, and certainly priced as if it’s something special (22oz bombers sell for $8.99 in the San Francisco Bay Area). Generally in that citrus hop-forward American style, but I found the texture a little thin. Sculpin wasn’t on the printed list (Big Eye was), so discovering it was a special – if somewhat disappointing – treat.
  • Bear Republic Racer 5 (6.5/10): The day’s surprise. This is one of my all-time favorite beers, a desert island go-to. Racer 5 helped pioneer the American IPA style. But today it felt a little tired and unassertive. This is the last beer I tried before I pronounced my palate unfit for reliable feedback, so maybe that was part of the problem. Or maybe the American Pale Ale style has caught up to Racer 5, with American IPAs dialed up farther (Bear Repulic enters Racer 5 in the APA style at the GBF).
  • Drake’s Aroma Prieta (7.5+/10): “All bitterness, all the time. Slightly murky.” Interesting, but I don’t love the edgy bitter profile – I prefer some sweeter, heavier malt to keep things grounded.
  • Fifty Fifty RyePA (8.0/10): First tried at least year’s Festival (see my writeup and the brewer’s comments for some context). I’ve since had it at the brewery, and today’s sample is what I’ve come to know as this beer. Very murky yellow, though not unattractively so. Clean tasting, with lots of rye tang that avoids sharpness. Downright wonderful silky mouthfeel, like a Pinot Noir. Still, although I want to love this beer, I always end up just really liking it.
  • Fat Heads Head Hunter IPA (7.0+/10): This beer from Cleveland won the formal judging at last year’s festival, and this year rated Honorable Mention. I found it well made, but unusual – almost English tasting, with some heavy drying tannins reminiscent of a big American Cabernet. Head Hunter has personality, but it’s not one I want to revisit all that often.
  • Firehouse Hops on Rye (6.0-/10): I’ve still never had a beer that I enjoy from Sunnyvale’s Firehouse. I think the brewer and I have differently-calibrated palates. And I love rye beers! In this case I could see the beer polarizing drinkers in a “love it or hate it” way. Some earthy overtones, also maybe a minerality common in certain waters or wines. Very hard to describe.
  • Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA (9.0/10): Such a great beer. Beautiful amber color, not straw/yellow like many others of this style. Hop-forward, but remembers that beer is made from grain, with a great rich malted barley undertone. One of my favorites since it was introduced (at this festival!) several years ago.
  • Iron Springs The Crippla Version 2.1  (6.0/10): I love Iron Springs’ Casey Jones Double IPA, but Saturday’s beer bore little resemblance to its big brother. The Crippla Version 2.1 was thin and watery, closer to hop water than a robust beer. My notes read “Enough malt?”
  • Midnight Sun Sockeye Red IPA (7.5/10): It’s always a treat to be able to try beers from Alaska’s storied Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Their “Red IPA” was good. Though the hops are traditional American – listed as Centennial, Simcoe, and Cascade – I tasted more of the earth and spice I associate with British hops. Not citrus-dominant like most others at the festival.
  • Russian River Blind Pig (8.5/10): Always a great beer. Blind Pig has a downright wonderful hop aroma – such a hallmark of consistent quality. The character is just a little more “piney” than I like – more trees and less grapefruit than most other American IPAs.
  • Russian River HopFather (9.0/10): Probably my favorite of the day. And most others’, too – this beer won the People’s Choice, though it didn’t place in the formal judging. That wonderful aroma, with a welcome sharpness in the texture. A nice, bracing beer. I’ve heard that this one is only good fresh – that it quickly changes character for the worse as it ages in the keg – so your mileage may vary if you encounter the HopFather on draft. But it’s certainly worth the risk.
  • Sierra Nevada Chico IPA (9.0-/10): I loved this beer, made with “experimental hops.” A darker color than most, with a very substantial bitter character. The hops had the tangy character of New Zealand’s Nelson Sauvin, which I quite like (but probably isn’t to everyone’s taste). Chico IPA placed second in the formal judging, so I wasn’t the only one who thought it was great.
  • Triple Rock IPAX IPA (9.0-/10): Another huge favorite for me. This was the beer I would most want to have two or three of. Wonderfully balanced, but still with the hop-forward character of an American IPA. Not a sweet beer, but still gives the palate some releif from bitterness. This is the second time a Bistro festival has pleasantly surprised me with a great beer from Triple Rock in Berkeley. I need to get over there more. (And IPAX placed first in the formal judging!)

Kudos to Vic Kralj and team at The Bistro for putting on these festivals – and for keeping the price the same this year! I think it was $25 for a souvenir tasting glass and four tickets, with extra tickets something like $2 each. Not cheap, but worth the price.

My blog covers all sorts of unrelated topics. You can find just the posts on beer here, including writeups of several other beer festivals.

One Comment

  1. Chris

    I was in a bar in NYC (Keet’s, I think) and they had my staple Lagunitas IPA on tap. What a treat . . .
    You’re right-on at the head of this post: California brewers have really nailed the IPA. They’re so distinctive relative to the east coast IPAs that I miss the west coast version and their cascade/centennial hops when I’m on extended road trips back east and have to settle for (the very servicable) Harpoons or Hop Devils.

    Posted on 18-Nov-10 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

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