IPA Blind Tasting: Cutting Through The Hype

by Billy Broas

IPA blind tasting group

9 enter. 1 will emerge victorious.


A blind tasting is the great equalizer.

Take away the hype, the label, the expectations, and you’re left with what matters most – the flavor. IPAs are perhaps the most hyped beers due to the popularity of the style and America’s “hop mania”.

To find out what is really the best tasting IPA, I hosted a blind tasting with three other people last week. There was myself, Chris & Jeremy of Pintwell.com, and Sean (@beertographer). Chris and Jeremy are fellow BJCP judges. Sean is a homebrewer who is starting his own brewery and has a ton of tasting experience.

Here are the beers we tried. Our focus was on double IPAs because those are the ones that are most often talked about (e.g. Pliny, Heady Topper) although we tossed a couple standard IPAs in there as well:

  • Russian River Pliny the Elder
  • Port Brewing Wipeout IPA
  • Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
  • Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
  • Fat Heads Head Hunter IPA
  • Stone Ruination IPA
  • Marble IPA
  • Odell Myrcenary
  • The Alchemist Heady Topper

We conducted the tasting without having any idea of what beer we were drinking. This was quite a challenge because we didn’t have an extra person to conduct the tasting, but our beer-soaked brains managed to figure it out. We didn’t judge the beers to any sort of style guidelines. It was simply based on how much we liked the beer. We also refrained from talking about the beers while tasting to reduce bias.
IPA beer tasting

The Results

The moment you’ve all been waiting for, the winners!

  1. Odell Myrcenary
  2. The Alchemist Heady Topper
  3. Fat Heads Head Hunter IPA

Myrcenary won it! Are you shocked? Not shocked?

Personally this was my favorite IPA going into the competition and I was happy to see that it came out on top (It was first for me as well as overall). My notes recorded a “bright, fresh, lemony-citrus hop character and great balance.” The balance and depth of flavor is what really won it for me. Many of the other beers had a harsh bitterness and just pounded you with hops. Myrcenary seemed better crafted.

My personal second favorite beer was Wipeout and third was Heady Topper. They are both excellent as well and it was very close between the three.

You’re probably wondering where Pliny is on the list. Me too! I was surprised that I rated it near the bottom. To show that the sentiment wasn’t universally shared, however, Jeremy rated Pliny as his favorite. Such is the subjective nature of beer drinking.

We didn’t rank beyond the top three spots, but they were all pretty close. There were really no losers in the bunch. The 120 minute is not a bad beer but it stuck out like a sore thumb because it’s much more like an American Barleywine than an IPA.

The tasting was an enlightening experience and I suggest you try it sometime. I’d certainly like to do it again with another beer style, perhaps Russian Imperial Stouts.

What did you think of our results? Were you surprised?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheppy August 12, 2013 at 11:19 am

LOL … could you taste anything after trying 9 hop-bombs like that? Your tongues took quite a beating I am sure.

I’m actually glad to see Pliny did not come out on top. I do think hype has more to do with the fact that it always tops lists like Zymury’s Best Beer in America. I’m not saying I don’t like it or that it is not excellent. I just think it is a bit over-hyped.

I’m also glad Odell Myrcenary topped your list. I’m not shocked. I actually had it for the first time this past weekend (I know … weird that someone from Colorado has not had it), and I thought it was excellent. There was a little something different about it compared to most double IPA’s. I thought it more tropical fruit than old-school citrus (don’t know if that makes sense at all).

Also, I’m not a fan (at all) of the Dogfish Head 120.

Cool little experiment you did here, though. Subjective to be sure, but very interesting.

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Billy Broas August 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Our tongues were hurting afterwards. I was craving a nice malty porter for sure.

Glad to hear you like Myrcenary as well. Excellent beer!

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Nitch August 13, 2013 at 12:56 am

I’ve never had Odell Myrcenary! It is now on the must have list.
Blind taste testing is the ONLY way to get into the beauty of simply BEER (minus the marketing).

XOXO!

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Billy Broas August 13, 2013 at 9:36 pm

You MUST try it. If you have any other blind tasting suggestions, pass them on. I think those guys will be over within the hour if I tell them I am doing another one.

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John Verive August 13, 2013 at 10:45 am

Unfortunately, we don’t get the majority of those IPAs in Los Angeles. Odell wows me with their excellence every time I manage to try some, I’ll add Myrcenary to the top of my list!

Did you collect any data on the freshness of the contenders?

One thing I’ve experienced when hosting various IPA tastings is that individual hop varieties can have a huge impact on tasters opinions. For instance, my wife has an aversion to Nelson Sauvin and occasionally Simcoe, and she’ll usually rate beers that feature those hops lower. But give her an Amarillo- or Citra-heavy IPA and it will shoot to the top of the pack.

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Billy Broas August 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm

You’re right about preferences for different hops. I normally hate beers that use Summit hops, whereas a lot of people love them (e.g. Gubna). As for freshness, the ones that had dates were fresh. We drank everything shortly after buying them. I thought about that with the Pliny doing so poorly (for me), but it was bought from a store with high turnover and where it’s stored cold. So I don’t think freshness really hurt any of them.

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thom August 14, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Glad to see head Hunter up at the top. Great beer from my town Cleveland. Anybody need some maybe work a trade.

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John B November 9, 2013 at 6:21 am

Thom,

I have to say i agree!!. My work has brought me out to Pittsburgh probably 100 times in the past 4 years. FATHEADS on Carson street is still my favorite place and Headhunter IPA in my opinion is fantastic!! At least a 95 rating. The other two Odell Myrcenary and The Alchemist Heady Topper I have never come across in NJ or PA….

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cole August 14, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Billy,
So happy you did this. I’ve always wanted to do something like this with most of those beers! We just has a blind homebrew club tasting 100% blind no style, abv, nothing! and i think it went really well… no “perceived flavors” just naked beer.

I agree with the top 3 list even though i’ve never had the Myrcenary but HT and HH many times and both are fantastic in their own right. And give this test to 4 or 5 other people and you’ll get a whole different result i’m sure… as all of those beers are good However, i don’t care too much for the DFH 90 or 120.

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michael Ford August 14, 2013 at 5:49 pm

So glad to see Fat Head Headhunter in the mix. The midwest is dismissed by all the West coast snobs.

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Mark Tambascio August 14, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Pretty cool stuff guys. We ran a series of tastings once a month for a year in our back room at the restaurant a few years back, a different style every month up to 10 or 15 beers always blind to relieve any bias. Quite surprising on how many people didn’t like one of there favorite beers as much when tasted blind. I personally would of liked to see Gandi Bot in your IPA mix as i think it rivals many of the greats- CHEERS! Mark
PS- CUPS DIDN’T LOOK GREAT FOR TASTING

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:20 pm

The cups weren’t the best but I didn’t want to use clear ones because it might give away the beer. (I’m looking at you, Heady Topper…)

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Michael Vance August 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

There’s a group here in Indianapolis that puts on the occasional event called BrewBracket. It’s a blind single-elimination beer tournament. It’s within a particular style, but they will occasionally stretch that a bit, like when they did bourbon barrel-aged beers. Even for that, they partnered with a local distillery and provided the barrels to all of the brewers, so everyone was working with the same oak, even if they were otherwise unbounded when it came to style of beer. I’m not going to argue that it doesn’t have it’s faults if you’re looking for it to produce the “best” beer, but it’s a lot of fun. Check out http://brewbracket.com for the history and other info. And come to Indy to join in some time!

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Now that is pretty cool Michael. I would love to participate sometime.

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Michael Vance August 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Keep an eye on the web site if you ever want a good excuse to come to Indy. The next one is Oktoberfest on 9/28. They haven’t announced after that yet. But we have a plethora of new breweries and some of them are making outstanding beer.

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Steve August 15, 2013 at 12:36 am

Do a blind tasting of over rated impy stouts?

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Yes I think we need to. Now accepting donations of Dark Lord!

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David August 15, 2013 at 7:12 am

Sounds like fun! How did you conduct the logistics of the blind tasting if you had no one to act as administrator?

Cheers,

David

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Hey David, good question. The first thing we did was assign every beer a random color. Then someone put labels on the bottom of the cups with the color and put them in groups of four (for four people). Next, someone else rearranged the groups so we would lose track of where everything was. Finally, a different person would fetch the cups from the kitchen and write a number on the label so we could use it for our rankings. At the end of tasting we simply looked at the color on the bottom of the winning cups and matched it up with the beer that was written down on a piece of paper.

It worked really well and nothing was given away.

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threefrenchs August 15, 2013 at 7:33 am

Out the top 3, the only beer I have had was the Odell Myrcenary. Myrcenary is by far one of my favorite big hoppy beers. I still love a Pliny and Wipeout in a go-to beer for me as well. Ruination is a classic DIPA and most likely inspired many of brewers to brew there own hop bombs. Great post, i would to see this done with a APA.

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Wick August 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Great post and good insight on blind tastings. I do wish more people would do things like this. People get hung up on the cult brands and don’t realize that there are other amazing beers out there to compete with the cult brands.

My only recommendations would be to thrown a homebrew into the mix, just to see how it would stand up to the big boys. Looks like I will be needing to get my hands on some of that Odell Myrcenary to try it out.

And as threefrenchs said, APAs would be awesome to try out also.

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Good call on including a homebrew. I’m don’t brew IPAs much but I know some guys that make great ones and they would probably do very well in this.

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Adam August 15, 2013 at 9:05 am

This is great! I’ve wanted to do this for years, but I want to blind taste 60-min, Two Hearted and Cigar City Jai Alai to find out which one is really my favorite.

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Man I’d have a tough time predicting a winner for that one.

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threefrenchs August 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Just to add (more) 2-cents to the post; Doing a blind tasting to ID your own taste preferences and then been able to ID those flavor elements within the beer would be an awesome way to get acquainted hops and some malts as a homebrewer. As Billy mentioned earlier he is not a fan of the Summit hop (I’m with ya Billy), but you need to know how that taste element works for you. Doing a blind tasting including Gubna (for example) and then being able to pick out those hops could really help you dial in your homebrews.

Second thing and to show some West Coast Pliny love. When it comes to West Coast DIPAs we get bombarded with not only hops but high ABV. There are a ton of SoCal breweries putting out 9, 10 and 11+ ABV DIPA. If memory serves my correctly, Pliny comes in about 7.75% an ABV that works so much better into a session and an 11%. I really hope SoCal realizes they can hop the shit out of a beer and still keep the ABV reasonable.

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Billy Broas August 19, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Pliny is 8% but you are right that it’s pretty low compared to some of those other monsters. A couple of those “standard” IPAs are about that so it shows that even those are creeping upwards in ABV. I personally don’t like it when an IPA gets much over 8% unless it’s really well hidden, which most aren’t.

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Paul Juster September 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Just curious as to the bottling date of the Pliny? Fresh Pliny is the best! I guess I’m spoiled here in NorCal because I can get Pliny on tap whenever I want!

I recently had a Heady Topper and, to me, that is the best, east of the Mississippi, IPA!!!

Dogfish 120 is definitely more of a barley wine. On tap, it tends to be very sweet on the back palate. I have a 2006 vintage that I haven’t opened yet…

I really enjoyed the RuinTen much more than the regular Ruination…

Never had the Odell Myrcenary. I will probably have to find it through beer trading, since Odell is not available in CA…

Really enjoyed the article!!!

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Billy Broas September 25, 2013 at 9:20 am

Don’t know the exact bottling date but I’m sure it was pretty fresh. We drank it the same day we bought it from a store with high turnover. Hope you get to try the Mycenary soon. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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Jeremy September 26, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Finally wrote up about this tasting: http://pintwell.com/2013/sep/20/who-makes-best-double-ipa/ — I had to get some more Pliny love out there.

Yeah, we need to get RIS tasting setup soon!

Cheers.

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Pat W. October 21, 2013 at 10:35 am

Very cool experiment, always interesting to see the results. I’ve not had a chance to try Myrcenary, but I won’t pass it up next time I get a chance. I did something similar with a few friends a couple of weeks back. 10 IPAs and three rounds spread over 3 days (to save our palates). I live in Ohio so the selection is different out here, more midwest IPAs in the mix. The only common one was Headhunter, plus we had a very fresh bottle of Stone Enjoy by 11-12-13, which I would say is similar if not a little better than Ruination. THe winner was White Rajah by The Brew Kettle, followed closely by the Stone. As you say it is very much about what kind of tastes you have, with different judges you probably would get a different order. If interested you can check out the results at

http://patspints.com/category/opinions-surveys-and-taste-tests/

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