And by everyone, I mean the big boys you know from your local grocer: Pyramid, Goose Island, Sierra Nevada, Alaskan and Leinenkugel. Yes, Leinenkugel—the Wisconsin brewery best known for its shandy, berry weiss and fruity wheat beers. It seems Big Ten sorority girls will now consume beers with more than 7 percent alcohol by volume and 60-plus international bitterness units.
We brought 40 different bottles back to our office for a blind taste test conducted in random order, inviting a few friends with beer-judging and brewing expertise. The result? The Middle Left Coast—namely breweries north of San Francisco but south of the Columbia—rolled over the competition. And perhaps it’s just the Cascadian palate, but two Portland breweries actually toppled the legendary Pliny the Elder.
1. India Golden Ale (Breakside)
Score: 86.4 points
Breakside makes a lot of beer—100 different releases in 2013 between its two local outposts—and most of it is pretty good. But few Breakside brews can match the newly bottled India Golden Ale Double IPA. It pours a gleaming gold and is light in body. It’s fresh and ultra hoppy, but at 60 international bitterness units, it’s more rose and grapefruit than bitter pine resin thanks to big doses of two newish hop varieties, Mosaic and El Dorado. You can’t do better than this—especially at $6 for a 22-ounce bottle.
Comments: “Softly sweet.” “Love the lack of syrup.” “Well-balanced, could definitely drink a pint of this.”
2. Green Mammoth Organic Imperial IPA (Laurelwood)
The imperial version of Laurelwood’s Green Elephant IPA, Green Mammoth can be tough to find but proves well worth the effort thanks to handfuls of Cascade, Ahtanum and Amarillo hops. Tasters loved the balance and the clean hit of bitterness. And it’s organic…which means it’s healthy!
Comments: “Perfect! Almost exactly what I think an IPA should be.” “Total fan.” “Smells like grapefruit, balanced, delicious.”
3. Pliny the Elder (Russian River)
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is the granddaddy of ’em all. Widely considered the world’s first true double IPA, this brew debuted in 1999 and still disappears from shelves within a day at the few stores that can get it. It’s always fresh, explosively hoppy and a living legend—but only the third-best imperial IPA available in town, based on our blind taste test.
Comments: “Not bad, but a bit like fish sauce and grains.” “Super-citrusy hop bomb.”
4. Hop Stoopid Ale (Lagunitas)
Another well-known Northern California double, Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid uses hop extract, the test-tube-bred liquid bitterness prized for its stability in macro lagers. Lagunitas slips it in instead of gummy hop pellets to get a clean-sipping but powerfully hoppy beer.
Comments: “Solid, crackly.” “Give me more.”
5. Hoptimum Imperial IPA (Sierra Nevada)
Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum takes the opposite approach of Hop Stoopid, using whole cone hops to get a full 100 IBUs—experts say you can only taste the first 80—into a 12-ounce bottle that’s right on the border between a double and triple IPA. The brewery uses Magnum, Chinook, Simcoe and a new experimental hop variety exclusive to Sierra Nevada, with a sturdy malt backbone.
Comments: “Malt, hoppy and goodness!” “Like teddy bears’ hugs—drunken teddy bears.”
6. C-Note Imperial IPA (Lompoc)
Just shy of 7 percent alcohol, Lompoc’s C-Note is on the bottom border of imperial IPA, but our tasters responded well to this maltier, slightly herbal brew. Unlike so many bitter and brightly green competitors, this beer actually has some caramel and toffee notes along with all seven “C” hop varieties: Cascade, Centennial, Challenger, Chinook, Cluster, Columbus and Crystal.
Comments: “Caramel and old hazelnuts.” “Caramel malt!”
7. Yulesmith Summer Holiday Ale (Alesmith)
The best imperial IPA from outside Oregon or Northern California comes from…Southern California! Actually, we were surprised this very limited seasonal from the vaunted San Diego brewery didn’t fare better. The brewery aims for a citrus bomb with big orange, grapefruit and tangerine, but we found the body was too light to carry them to glory.
Comments: “IPA tonic water.” “It’s like beer that didn’t brush its teeth.”
8. Idiot IPA (Coronado)
The No. 2-rated beer from outside Oregon or the grape-covered valleys of Northern California comes from…Southern California! Coronado uses Nugget and four of the seven “C” hop varieties (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus) for a classic imperial IPA flavor that generated lovers and meh-ers in equal proportions.
Comments: “Non-controversial.” “What a drink!”
9. Molten Lava (Double Mountain)
Big sister to the well-loved Hop Lava, Molten Lava is a double IPA made the classic way—by basically doubling the recipe. Several tasters said it reminded them of orange juice.
Comments: “Orange syrup.” “Grass, orange and honey.”
10. Maximus (Lagunitas)
The second entry from Lagunitas doesn’t match its Hop Stoopid, but it still lands in the 75th percentile thanks to endearing citrus notes.
Comments: “Lots of orange juice,” “Her shirt might read ‘Squeeze Me.’” “Wussy.”
11. Double Jack Proprietors Reserve Series (Firestone Walker)
Paso Robles, Calif.
It has a fancy name, a wax-dipped bottle and lots of festival medals, but it wasn’t among our top choices.
Comments: “One bitter stab, then a furtive escape.” “Syrupy, but smooth.” “Jammy.”
12. Blue Dot (Hair of the Dog)
The text on the bottle reads: “Blue Dot is named after our planet: we are only a pale blue dot in this universe… Make every day Earth Day. Do something nice for your mother.”
Comments: “Miller Lite lemonade IPA.” “Pale warrior still knows how to fight.” “Good for sorority parties.”
13. Heelch O’Hops (Anderson Valley)
It’s balanced and a little honeyed, but offended some tasters with a little stankiness.
Comments: “Malty and spicy, but lacks the hops.” “Beekeeping is still cool.” “If this was a horse, I would shoot it.”
14. The Illinois (Goose Island)
Finally, something from outside the West Coast. Goose Island is now owned by Big Bud, but in a blind taste test it struck us as very complex and relatively endearing.
Comments: “Papaya and cough syrup.” “Like a lobster, all the flavor’s in the finish.” “Chillwave.”
15. Hercules Double IPA (Great Divide)
Because of Colorado’s weird brewing laws, much of the best beer made in the state stays there. Yet Great Divide makes some very nice brews, including this malty double IPA.
Comments: “Gritty burlap, heavy-handed.” “Something corn-nutty about it.”
16. Pocket Aces (Wingman)
The highest-ranking double IPA from our neighbors to the north—though if Black Raven’s Wisdom Seeker were bottled, our top results may have been quite different.
Comments: “Tart, soapy finish with roasted orange notes.” “Bitter Batman.”
17. Hop Juice (Left Coast)
San Clemente, Calif.
This beer is heavily dry-hopped and has an ester-abetted complexity that some tasters loved and others hated.
Comments: “Metallo fights Superman.” “Toasty, cereal aroma.” “Burnt coffee.” “Banana peel, bittersweet, lovely.”
18. H7 Unfiltered Imperial IPA (Pyramid)
Pyramid is known for its sweet and drinkable apricot ale. This brew is fruity and clean—a little too much so for some tasters.
Comments: “Froot Loops finish.” “Bud Light does IPA?”
19. Exponential Series Imperial IPA (Epic)
Denver and Salt Lake City
Sampled near the end of our tasting, Epic was perhaps at a disadvantage. A cheesy flavor didn’t help it, though.
Comments: “It’s the cheesiest!” “It’s almost fuck-this-shit o’clock”
20. Double Daddy (Speakeasy)
The lager of double IPAs.
Comments: “Vienna.” “Pretty average—I’m bored with these.”
21. Yellow Wolf Imperial IPA (Alameda)
Alameda’s Yellow Wolf proved to be one of the most divisive beers in the tasting—too dry for some, just dry enough for others.
Comments: “The Champagne of IPAs.” “Dry like a desert—pucker up!”
22. Hopothermia (Alaskan)
It’s soooooper sweet, dontyaknow.
Comments: “Hello, Juicy Fruit!” “Really expensive malt liquor.” “Sweet as crap.”
23. Moylander Double IPA (Moylan’s)
Now seems like a good time to mention just how much double IPAs run together when you drink 40 of them.
Comments: “Old ladies and bad medicine.” “Le pew! Skunked.”
24. Son of Malice IPA (Heathen)
Vancouver’s Heathen actually suggests you serve this beer at 50 degrees to get more flavor out of it. That wouldn’t have helped with some tasters, who found it too funky.
Comments: “Nice, resiny frankincense flavor.” “Tastes like foot.”
25. Alpha Centauri (Hop Valley)
I’ve had two of these on draft in the last week, and they were much, much better than the bottle.
Comments: “Did they use last year’s hops?” “Cheesy hop aroma.”
26. Hoptopia (Scuttlebutt)
Dig that pirate on the label.
Comments: “Old corn.” “Smells like marshmallows.”
27. Ginormous Imperial IPA (Gigantic)
Southeast Portland’s Gigantic had been on a roll in WW’s seasonal blind tastings, winning two of the last three. Not this time.
Comments: “Limp up front.” “Light beer in big-boy pants.”
28. Big Eddy Imperial IPA (Jacob Leinenkugel)
Chippewa Falls, Wis.
Leinenkugel’s—maker of the famous berry weiss—makes an imperial IPA better than at least 11 other imperial IPAs. Think on that.
Comments: “Floral finish.” “Like drinking suntan lotion.”
29. West Coast IPA (Green Flash)
It was late in the day, but this “West Coast IPA” (which apparently means double IPA) didn’t land a direct hit.
Comments: “I can haz beer? [cat face].” “More cheese.”
30. Organic Kermit the Hop Double Simcoe IPA (Bison)
It’s totally organic…which means it’s healthy!
Comments: “Tropical fruit cocktail, and then the can.” “Smells like pineapple and pennies.”
31. Alpha Dog Imperial IPA (Laughing Dog)
A little oxidized.
Comments: “The world’s first corrugated beer.”
32. Leafer Madness Imperial Pale Ale (Beer Valley)
In 2008, there was a hop shortage. Leafer Madness was created by Eastern Oregon’s Bear Valley to basically be the Hummer H2 of beers, using up a huge mass of hops just because they could. Like a Hummer H2, it’s wildly excessive, but also not very good at its intended use.
Comments: “Cloudy. Exploded in my mouth.” “Lemon, hoppy, paper, cardboard.”
33. Red Betty Imperial IPA (Central City)
Central City’s regular ol’ canned IPA is a revelation. This beer, made with Yakima hops and floor-malted Maris Otter English barley, not so much.
Comments: “Like a freshly lacquered deck in summer.” “Bruised fruit.” “Smells like boozy prunes.”
34. Imperial IPA (Worthy)
Worthy uses eight Oregon-grown hop varieties in this beer. Maybe it should try it with seven or nine.
Comments: “Smells great, tastes like frog butt.”
35. Rampant (New Belgium)
Fort Collins, Colo.
Even the Fat Tire-maker is getting into the double IPA game with this modestly priced 12-ounce bottle. We’d like to try it fresh from the tap in its native land.
Comments: “Smells like passion fruit ‘juice’ beverage.” “Oxidized—past its time!”
36. Forester Double IPA (Two Beers)
Two Beers? Nah, maybe just one.
Comments: “A shell of a beer.” “No flavor up front, dry finish.”
37. 90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head)
A surprisingly poor showing for this popular Delaware brewery—perhaps that road trip across the country was rough on the brew.
Comments: “Tastes like burning couch.” “Smells like a wet Kmart parking lot.”
38. Dorado Double IPA (Ballast Point)
We love Ballast Point’s Sculpin. The doubled-up version? Not so much.
Comments: “Like digging up weeds.” “Get your bitter-beer face on.”
39. Ascension (Two Beers)
Two Beers? No thanks, I’ve gotta get going soon.
Comments: “I think this beer is broken.” “Nasty. With chunks.”
40. Old Grogham (Natian)
This canned double IPA from Portland’s Natian fared the worst in our blind taste-off.
Comments: “Tastes like a black Twizzler dunked in beer.” “I scored it 20 for the year of Prohibition.”