More than seven months (and three Melbourne lockdowns) on from our last public blind tasting at Good Beer Week, and eight months after we pulled together an expert panel to look at pale lagers, we finally got back to business with a final Getting Blind With Crafty of 2021.
It was a tasting with a difference too. Normally, we assess styles found in brewers’ lineups all year round, but here we trained our attention on what’s still an emerging trend, maybe even a flash in the pan: cold IPAs, chosen following a shout out for suggestions.
As a result, every beer on the lineup was a limited release (at least for now). There were other early examples of the style we were unable to obtain as they were already sold out, and there are others that have been released in the past few days too, but which arrived too late to be included.
It also means that, as much as anything, the tasting was an exploratory one. Rather than taking an established style and seeing who in Australia was doing it best, this was more a case of: “What is this style?” and “What do we think of it?” – with a bit of “Who’s doing it best right now (of those beers we were able to source)?” for good measure, of course.
If you’ve not heard of such beers before, you can check out this article we ran a few months ago addressing both cold IPAs and the new dip-hopping technique. For more on the former, you can check out these comments by one of the style’s pioneers, Kevin Davey of US brewery Wayfinder, who we quoted in our article.
As you’ll see from his words, while they’re often described as IPAs created with a lager yeast fermented at ale yeast temperatures, his approach is rather more involved. Ultimately, however, the aim is to create lean, crisp, sessionable beers in which vibrant hop varieties are free to sing unencumbered by much in the way of malt- or yeast-derived characteristics.
Of the early Australian examples we managed to get our mitts on, not all are fermented with lager yeasts but all have been released as cold IPAs (with some featuring dip-hopping too - which we also explored in this article).
Other than the above caveat, the tasting was conducted in the same manner as usual. Seven judges with years of experience in the craft beer world – writers, reps, brewers and a venue owner – were presented with the beers in flights of three (and one of four) with tasting and scoring proceeding as outlined here.
The only slight adaptation was when it came to totalling the scores at the end. Occasionally, there will be a judge who scores a beer significantly higher or lower than the rest of the panel. While each flight is discussed once each panelist has finished assessing the beers in front of them to see if there are any anomalies that require a follow up pour or reassessment, there are times when outliers remain, perhaps when a judge is blind to a particular characteristic or fault (commonplace even at the top of the beer industry), or simply loves / hates a beer in contrast to everyone else.
So, to minimise the risk of one extreme outlier skewing the overall results, we limited the maximum number of points the highest or lowest score could be from the next highest or lowest. In the end, this only applied to three scores out of 112, and the only impact was that one beer which would have scraped into the top ten on the back of one high score (and six average ones) dropped out of the ten.
So, what did we learn? In general terms, our experience of tasting the beers blind suggests the style doesn’t work as well with higher ABVs: no beer above 7 percent in alcohol content made the top ten, presumably in some cases down to the fact that, with a stripped back malt backbone, there’s less with which to contain the booze.
The older beers often, but not always, fared worse too, but you’d expect that with any form of highly-hopped, contemporary IPA style.
You’ll often hear people ask what the difference is between cold IPAs and IPLs (Indie pale lagers) given both feature hefty amounts of hops and lager yeasts. As a result, we snuck an IPL in for shits and giggles. We’d intended to include Beerfarm’s IPL – a longstanding WA classic – but the challenges of the postal service meant it arrived the morning afterwards, so we went with Tallboy & Moose’s recent limited release Skux Life instead. Rather amusingly, when making notes on said beer, one judge wrote: “This is what I expect from a cold IPA.”
It was one of a few entertaining comments on the night, with others including: “This one smells like a TV dinner that’s been cooked too long.” “It’s like an old man forced to make a new style.”
When contacting retailers to see if we could fill in any gaps in the lineup where brewers were out of stock, I quipped we were assessing the style “before it goes the way of the Brut IPA”. Having completed the blind tasting, the better offerings suggest cold IPAs have more to give than that IPA variant, so perhaps they’ll prove more than a flash in the pan.
As for the beers we enjoyed the most, they were those that were leanest, cleanest and tightest, yet without diminishing the impact of the hops on judges’ olfactory systems. So, time for the reveal…
THE TOP TEN + 1
As you’ll see, our top ten actually features 11 beers, and that’s due to the curveball – Skux Life made the ten but is technically an IPL so comes with an asterisk. The same brewery's cold IPA fared better anyway, which we're sure will delight the crew at the Preston brewpub.
In a rather neat touch, the brewer we interviewed about cold IPAs for the article linked above, who was also one of the first to release such a beer in Australia, came out on top too. Special mention for our Mick Wust here; when he sent in his write-up on the beer last month, the accompanying email said simply: "Bangin' IPA. Enjoy this one at the blind tasting." Thanks, Mick. We did!
Sweet Escape isn’t Sunday Road’s first such beer, and hopefully they’ll keep making them as this is a cracker. The biggest surprise about it came when we’d finished the unveil and discovered it contained no Kiwi hops; Mick O’Rance has created a beer that certainly shares common ground with IPAs brewed with NZ hops.
Flurry from Adelaide’s Shapeshifter also possessed that beer’s clean, vibrant hop character and crisp, dry finish. The brewery has been the subject of more excited chatter than most over the past year or two and this beer makes it easy to see why. Coincidentally, the beers in first and second were both packaged on the same day and have the same best before date...
As for the beer in third, it almost warrants an asterisk of its own. Blackman’s Cold IPA brought back memories of the discussions we had around Bright’s Alpine Lager in our pale lager tasting. While not as out of style as that beer, it would probably have fared even better in a hazy IPA blind tasting. Yet, while judges marked it down where appropriate for style, it had so much that was enjoyable it benefitted from our Overall score system.
This is where we encourage judges to mark up out of style beers that are delicious, or mark down beers that meet style criteria but aren’t enjoyable to drink. Why? We’re not assessing beers to hand out medals or trophies but instead to give readers insight into which beers are good and worthy of buying. As such, we don’t want to overly punish beers we’d love to drink just because they don’t meet guidelines for style.
Elsewhere, Hop Nation’s Gaining Momentum warrants special mention too. In all the years of doing these tastings, I can’t recall a beer that’s divided opinion so much, with scores akin to a blindfolded person throwing darts at a board. In the end, we had to agree to disagree on this one!
Anyway, enough chat, here’s the beers, all of which were sourced direct from the brewers.
1. Sunday Road Sweet Escape – 6.8% – Packaged 03/11/2021; Best Before 03/08/2022
2. Shapeshifter Flurry – 6.4% – Packaged 03/11/2021; Best Before 03/08/2022
3. Blackman's Cold IPA – 6.5% – Packaged 07/09/2021; Best Before 07/09/2022
4. Ballistic & Currumbin Valley Frosty Yowie – 6.0% – Packaged 01/10/2021; Best Before 19/07/2022
5. Tallboy & Moose Recalibrate The Sensor Array – 6.5% – Packaged 21/09/2021; Best Before 18/06/2022
6. Slipstream Polar Cold IPA – 6.8% – Packaged 29/09/2021; Best Before 29/09/2022
Tallboy & Moose Skux Life* – 6.0% – Packaged 01/10/2021; Best Before 24/07/2022
7. Grassy Knoll Cold IPA – 6.7% – Packaged 11/10/2021; Best Before 11/07/2022
8. Hop Nation Gaining Momentum – 6.9% – Packaged 19/10/2021; Best Before 19/10/2022
9. Killer Sprocket Prophecy Of The Laser Witch – 6.6% – Packaged 22/10/2021; Best Before 22/03/2022
10. Six String Cold Dip IPA – 6.0% – Best Before 03/08/2022
The other beers featured in the tasting were, in alphabetical order:
Bacchus Hop-Bomb-In-Able Snowman (8.1%; P 03/11/2021; BBF 01/11/2022); Blackman's Mr West Colder IPA (6.5%; P 13/10/2021; BBF 13/10/2022); Bridge Road Brewers NEeD Vol.5 Cold IPA (7.0% P 03/08/2021; BBF 03/02/2022); Little Bang Zero Kelvin (7.1%; BBF 10/11/2022); White Bay & Mountain Culture Grandma's XO (7.7%; P 27/10/2021; BBF 27/04/2022).
Thanks as ever to the judges and stewards who gave up a Thursday evening for the tasting, and to Miss Moses for allowing us to take over their upstairs bar.
Feel free to let us know if there are styles you'd like us to tackle in 2022, when hopefully we won't have to navigate more lockdowns. And don't forget if your beer or one you love hasn't been featured, you can keep an eye out for chances to vote favourites into future tastings.
You'll find all past blind tastings here. And if you're a beer lover living in or near Bendigo, eyes peeled for news of a public one coming early in 2022...