Norcal ales

Sierra Nevada hits a home run in tasting of regional IPAs

LINE ’EM UP<br>Beer tastings— a warm way to party with friends.

Beer tastings— a warm way to party with friends.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

You are standing in front of an array of refrigeration coolers at Mangrove Bottle Shop, Ray’s Liquor or your local friendly market. There are maybe 40 different beers to choose from for your Super Bowl Sunday, your social gathering or perhaps just to accompany your daily bread.

There are your “old reliable” favorites, and yet, you wonder: Could any of those other 37 beers taste great? Are you missing out by being afraid to try something new? And yet, it’s $8 or $9 for a sixer of that mysterious craft beer with the edgy, or annoying, or beautifully designed label. What if it’s … yucky?

One way to answer this question without busting the budget is to have a beer-tasting party with your friends. It’s a wonderful excuse to get together and socialize.

On a recent Friday evening, 11 friends and I did just that. We each contributed roughly $7 apiece to taste three ounces each of nine different India Pale Ales, all local, from north of San Francisco to the Oregon border.

I blinded the bottles in white paper, numbered them and gave everyone a scoring sheet, and asked them to describe and rank them. We put on Tommy Emmanuel and some Brazilian music, had finger food, and drank samples for two hours, “comparing and contrasting” (just like we learned in English class).

An IPA is only one type of brew, and it’s a bit stronger than your average beer, with an alcohol content around 7 percent. This was done so that the ale would survive the transport and storage from England to India. (My question would be: Why didn’t they just create a brewery and distribution system in India?)

What did we learn from this structured partying? That not all local beers are created equally.

My first choice was (surprise, surprise) Sierra Nevada’s just-released Torpedo IPA (as it was for three-quarters of the tasters), followed by North Coast Brewing Co.'s Acme (Fort Bragg), then Chico’s Butte Creek Brewing Co.'s Initial Attack (the 22 oz. bottle with the firefighter logo).

In addition to recording general comments and descriptors, we used a 10-point scoring system, with 10 being “Exquisite, lovely, delectable, yummy; I would never refuse this, even in the morning (if unemployed or on vacation, of course),” and 1 being “How did this ever get to the stage where it was bottled and sold in stores?”

The group’s first choice was also far and away Sierra Nevada. The Torpedo won everyone over, garnering four 10s and four 9s, suggesting that although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, certain beauties are almost universally loved. Sierra Nevada’s winning average was 8.6, and garnered such descriptors as “spicy,” “herbal,” “delicious,” “mildly bitter,” “crisp,” “smooth” and “nice aroma.”

This was followed by a gaggle of five pretty decent choices: Racer 5 from Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg (7.3: herbaceous, crisp, light); Mountain High from Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. in Weed (7.2: bready, fruity, copper); and Organic IPA from Eel River Brewing Co. in Fortuna (7.2: malty, metallic, fruity). Right behind were Acme California IPA from North Coast (6.9: floral hop flavor, light, crisp), and Hop Ottin’ from Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville (6.9: caramel, smoky, sweet).

Rounding out the group tasting was Butte Creek’s Initial Attack (6.5: hoppy, floral, citrus bitterness); Lagunitas IPA from Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma (6.3: light, metallic, cheesy) and White Hawk from Mendocino Brewing Co. in Hopland (5.8: herbal, crisp, light).

There was an eclectic array of flavors coming from these North State breweries, and the results reflected the fact that some of us prefer crisp and herbaceous over malty and smoky. A well-deserved gentlemanly tip of the hat goes to Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman for his commitment to quality above all else. Brew it and they will come!