I had the chance recently to do an IPA tasting with a few of my drinking buddies. I claimed this IPA tasting to be the best ever done in Oklahoma, and I feel that I might actually be able to make a case around that point.
I only need one piece of evidence:
From left to right:
Pliny The Elder - Russian River Brewing Company (California)
Hello, My Name is IPA - my Dogfish Head 90 minute clone from last January
Ruination IPA - Stone (California)
Myrcenary IPA - ODell (Colorado)
Inversion IPA - Deschutes (Oregon)
90 Minute IPA - Dogfish Head (Delaware)
Furious - Surly (Minnesota)
The lessons learned from sampling all these beers were pretty simple.
1. Fresh is better. The 90 minute itself had aged reasonably well, but with it being well over a year old it was just syrupy sweet. My 90 minute clone suffered from the same problem, but to a greater extreme. There was little hop flavor or aroma left. Conversely, the Pliny had been bottled in mid-December, and it was an amazing hoppy experience.
2. Lighter and dryer finishes are better - in our opinion. When working through all these beers in a night, we didn't want to feel full or bloated, and the dryer finishing beers (pliny, ruination) were much more well received. It just was a more pleasant DRINKING experience, as opposed to a 'sipping' experience. This may have been tied to mood, or quantity, but it's something that I feel generally holds true. I tend to reach for a barleywine or imperial stout when I'm in the mood for a sipper.
3. Roastiness just isn't a flavor we want in an IPA. We found the roastiness in the Surly Furious to be an interesting taste, but not one that we wanted to go back to. This could be tied to age somewhat - this particular can was probably about six months old, and the balance may have faded.
4. Bitter isn't a flavor - it's a complement. This is directed at the Ruination. I have had a number of Ruinations, and loved every single one. But when it's stacked up against some of the other beers above, you lose the taste of the hops due to the overwhelming bitterness. The Ruination name is appropriate - it really does ruin your palate. After drinking that beer we all agreed we still love it, it just wasn't as well balanced as some of the others due to the extreme bitterness.
5. There's a reason why Pliny the Elder is held in such high regard by the beer community. It really is just. that. good. The piney aromas and the well-balanced flavors and bitterness made this beer the head of the pack.
6. Unfortunately, the bottle of Inversion I procured appeared to have gotten infected. It was the last of the six pack and I don't remember off flavors in any of the other bottles. But this one definitely had some funk in it, perhaps a strain of Brett. It was a shame that we couldn't line it up against the others appropriately.
Trying to apply these lessons to my beer is easier said than done. I already have a pretty solid base IPA, and I would like to keep it from going too extreme in any direction. The trade-off is, most great beers are GREAT due to their uniqueness. I need to spend some time thinking what notes, if any, I would want to emphasize.
Still, there's a couple obvious lessons: First, I should probably focus on making my beer just a bit lighter. The pound of Caramel 60 I had used in it wound up giving it a darker color than I intended, and I feel it may have offset the hops just a bit too much. I may switch to a pound of Caramel 40, or a blend of Carapils and Caramel 60.
Second, fresher is truly better. I need to make sure I'm kegging/bottling my IPAs while they are at their strongest - about a month after brewing, in my opinion. I'm also not sure I will keep as much stashed back of my future batch IPAs as I do with other beers, as the age factor renders it a far less interesting beer.
Finally, I'm thinking I need to up my late hop additions. I'm sure I've experienced the lupulin shift at this point (where your palate gets accustomed to hops and wants more and more), but I like the big, bright hop flavors and aromas in an IPA. I may up the bitterness to balance it and allow it hold a bit longer, but only slightly. I want to avoid going down the road of the Ruination.
I'm glad we took the time do something like this. The learning experience from sampling these beers side by side has taught me a lot. Building a great IPA is definitely a challenge, and one I'm glad I've accepted.