When we held our last blind tasting – a look at New England style IPAs – it was noticeable just how much discussion took place before, during and after the beers were presented. It went on longer and delved deeper than in any of the previous Getting Blind With Crafty tastings we've held over the years, in part due to debate over just what such a beer should be.
And so it proved with XPAs in the first blind tasting of 2019. The last time we looked at such beers in early 2015, there were so few around that we bunched them together with session IPAs and, even with some internationals on the lineup, still only had ten to assess. Here, there were far more – 30-plus in can or bottle in Australia alone, thus warranting a public vote to whittle them down to a reasonable number – yet no greater agreement on exactly what an XPA really is (see our 2017 article featuring XPA brewers at Wolf of the Willows, Balter and Akasha).
There remain no official style guidelines and many argue it's little more than a marketing tool, a name that's taken hold in the imagination of crafty beer drinkers in recent years and must thus be mined for all it's worth. That said, the success of a few local examples, not just Balter with their double Hottest 100 number one, but Philter with their serial trophy-winner or Wolf of the Willows with their much-loved XPA, tend to be paler than your average pale ale and favour hops of a more New World character. What's more, bitterness tends to be restrained.
Yet, after plenty of discussion even before the first flight of three was presented to the panel of six brewers, reps and writers, there was an acceptance that the beers could fluctuate either side of those paler, tropical, easy-going beers and still be considered valid for the not-yet-officially-a-style. What's more, given there is no defined XPA category yet, we included mid-strength, fruited and oaked versions too.
We ended up assessing 22 beers, with the lineup brought down from a long list of more than 30 as follows:
- A public vote from which the top ten was selected;
- Inclusion of any beers that had picked up golds or trophies at the most recent Australian International Beer Awards and Craft Beer Awards;
- A balancing of numbers to reflect the number of beers from each state in the original long list;
- Three lucky dip picks.
We then set about sourcing them, picking up as many as possible from retail in order to reflect the experience of our readers, while making sure we grabbed the freshest from the fridges where there were multiple batches. Where this wasn't possible, we had those that made the list sent to us by brewers direct; where they came from and their packaged on/best before dates are included below. The judging then followed the usual methods – outlined here.
As expected, there was a fair bit of variance over the course of the evening, not just in terms of quality but also character. Appearance ranged from paler than pale to amber (indeed, one beer would have fared far better in an English amber ale tasting) and from bright to cloudy. Aromas (at least those presenting as the brewers presumably intended) flitted from light and breezily tropical to citrusy to berries. Alcohol content landed everywhere from 3.5 percent ABV to close to 6 percent ABV.
That said, the most common approach taken by brewers was to aim for something in the realm of hazy, pale gold, tropical/citrusy and with a bitterness that was present without being punchy or obtrusive.
For the most part, the panel was in agreement as to a beer's qualities. There were a few where there would be one or two who felt differently to the majority, one where the beer was deliberately "out of style" that split the panel, and one interesting case where there was also a 50/50 split over a beer that's fared well in competitions over the years. If we'd been awarding medals rather than ranking the beers first to last, we might still be sat in the back room of The Dan O'Connell discussing the last of those now...
As for the beers that filled the upper echelons, the majority were of the paler, tropical and citrus, low bitterness ilk – although not exclusively – and are a mix of familiar and less familiar, trophy-winners and newcomers. So let's get to them...
The Top Ten
If you'd carried out a straw poll of beer lovers beforehand, there's a good chance the likes of Balter, Wolf of the Willows, Hawkers and Philter would have been chosen many for a top ranking. And so it proved.
While the brewery is no stranger to awards success, Hunter Valley's Hope may not have featured so prominently in predictions. And, as for newly-launched fundraising gypsy operation A Local Beer, well...
With a couple of left of centre XPAs also making the top ten – Ballistic's Oaked XPA (which took out a trophy in Queensland recently) and Stockade's Hop Splicer, which is brewed with fruit – it's certainly a colourful lineup. And, arguably, one that moves us no closer to agreement on just what an XPA should be.
As a side note, it's encouraging to see a greater percentage of beers coming with a packaged on or best before date – often both – over time. Just three here didn't come with one or the other (although see updates below on two of them...).
1. Hope Brewery XPA, 4.7% – from brewery; packaged 13/03/19
2. Balter XPA, 5.0% – Carwyn Cellars; packaged 11/02/19; best before 11/08/19
3. Wolf of the Willows XPA, 4.7% – Carwyn Cellars; packaged 09/01/19
4. A Local Beer XPA, 5.0% – from brewing company; no date
5. Hawkers XPA, 4.6%; Carwyn Cellars; best before 15/01/20
6. Philter XPA, 4.2% – Carwyn Cellars; best before 04/11/19
7. Mr Banks Extra Pale Ale, 5.0% – Carwyn Cellars; no date*
8. Stockade Brew Co Hop Splicer XPA, 4.4% – Purvis Beer; best before 18/12/19
9=. Ballistic Oaked XPA, 5.8% – Carwyn Cellars; packaged 19/12/18
9=. Beatnik XPA (by Hargreaves Hill), 5.0% – Purvis Beer; packaged 22/10/18
* We've been informed that every Mr Banks beer canned since the start of this year now comes with a packed on and best before date. And that A Local Beer usually have a packed on date on their cans, but a minor issue with the canning facility meant the current batch does not.
The other beers included in the tasting (in alphabetical order) were:
- Capital Summit Session XPA, 3.5% – from brewery; packaged 18/03/19; BBF 18/03/20
- Clare Valley XPA, 5.2% – from brewery; packaged 14/02/19
- CoConspirators The Salesman, 5.1% – Carwyn Cellars; packaged 18/02/19
- Detour XPA, 5.1% – Otter's Promise; packaged 23/01/19
- Hobart Brewing Company Extra Pale Ale, 5.2% – from brewery; packaged 14/03/19
- Holgate Brewhouse Alpha Crucis XPA, 5.5% – Carwyn Cellars; BBF 15/01/20
- Little Creatures XPA, 4.9% – Dan Murphy's, Alphington; BBF 18/07/19
- Murray's XPA, 4.5% – from brewery; BBF 22/01/20
- Old Wives Ales Hair Of The Dog XPA, 5.8% – from brewery; packaged 20/03/19
- Pioneer Brewery XPA, 5.6% – from brewery; packaged 23/01/19; BBF 23/01/20
- Prancing Pony XPA, 4.1% – from brewery; BBF 04/11/19
- West City Brewing XPA, 4.2% – Dan Murphy's, Brunswick; no date
You can view past blind tasting features here. If you'd like to join us for our biggest blind tasting to date, we're hosting a Pint of Origin Championship as part of Good Beer Week in May, with 16 IPAs representing the 16 #PoO19 regions and attendees crowning the champion. Details and tickets here.
Thanks to the five panelists and three stewards for giving up their Friday evening and to the crew at The Dan O'Connell for hosting.