In January, we sampled every IPA made in the city of Portland—73 in all—in an epic blind tasting, with surprising results. The top five were all new-to-Portland breweries, and the top two came from Fat Head's.
But while tasting beers for our annual Beer Guide, we noticed a brew revolution happening in our suburb to the north, where the number of breweries have doubled in the past two years. And so last week we gave Vancouver the same treatment. We gathered a panel of eight beer experts—among them Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds, Saraveza publican Sarah Pederson, N.W.I.P.A.'s Jackson Wyatt and the New School blog's Ezra Johnson-Greenough—to blind-sample all 19 IPAs available at Vancouver's breweries. According to tasters who took part in both panels, Vancouver stacked up pretty well, with lower highs but also higher lows.
Vancouver's IPAs tend to be more classic—you won't find the Vermont-style beers like the Great Notion IPAs that have captured the attention of New Portland.
But a brand-new brewery again came out on top. Vancouver's best IPA is from a spot less than 3 months old, and the second and third best come from a brewery already halfway done moving to Portland.
1. Corner Window (Trusty)
ABV: 7 percent
Not only is Trusty Brewing Co. Vancouver's newest brewery—it opened in January—it's the first commercial brewing venture from longtime homebrewer Gary Paul.
But despite Paul opening his doors only three months ago, his light-bodied, straw-colored West Coast IPA blew away the competition. Even with 88 IBU, the beer—named for a corner-window seat at Trusty's brewpub—is deliciously sippable.
Paul doesn't come from Vancouver, though. He's from West Linn, and for years he'd been trying to start a brewery in Portland but was stymied by real estate prices. So he decided to buy a space in downtown Vancouver—a city whose beer scene Paul says will only grow from here.
"Vancouver is a ghost town compared to Portland," he says. "It's right across the river from the biggest brewing city in the world. I'm shocked that there's 14 breweries on this side, and 90 on the other side."
This has made finding a name for Trusty incredibly easy—Paul didn't have to distinguish himself from as many breweries as there are in Portland.
It's easy to attribute Trusty's success to Paul's 20 years of experience as a homebrewer in San Francisco and the Portland area, but he maintains it's also largely due to Vancouver's proximity to the Yakima and Willamette valleys and grain company Country Malt.
"A lot of people ask us about expansion," Paul says. "We are planning on expanding, but we're only three months in; we haven't even named all of our beers yet."
Comments from beer panelists: "Easy-drinking with Citra citrus." "Killer aroma, clean and hoppy all the way through." "Great example of West Coast IPA. Go 'Couv!"
2. Asylum Avenue (Mt. Tabor)
ABV: 6.3 percent
Unlike Trusty, Mt. Tabor Brewing is one of Vancouver's oldest brewpubs. The brewery opened in Portland in 2010, hence its name, but then moved to Vancouver in 2011. Now it's about to move back.
Owner and brewer Eric Surface will be opening a Southeast Portland Mt. Tabor Brewing location this summer in the Buckman neighborhood. Surface is originally from Portland, but moved the brewery to Vancouver to work a different full-time job without the long commute. Coming back to Portland has always been part of the brewery's master plan, he says.
The change is fitting. Several of Mt. Tabor's beers are named for Portland landmarks, including the Asylum Avenue, named after Hawthorne's Old Portland nickname.
Asylum Avenue was one of Surface's original homebrew recipes, using just Amarillo and Simcoe hops. He eventually added Mosaic, creating a balanced, easy-drinking beer that's not overly bitter.
Comments: "Solid. Could drink a lot of it." "Pineapple, strawberry, aromas. Yum." "This. I would order this a second time."
3. Bridge Lifter (Mt. Tabor)
ABV: 6.8 percent
The Bridge Lifter was born out of a shortage. In 2012, Tabor brewer Eric Surface couldn't find enough Amarillo hops to make his flagship Asylum Avenue.
So this brew uses Cascade, Zythos and Falconer's Flight to get a big hop flavor. Combined with near-aggressive bittering at 86 IBU, our panel praised this IPA for its old-school Northwest feel.
"I was late getting to the tasting room one Friday because of a bridge lift. We hadn't even named the beer yet, but that night I was like, 'Oh, I got this one,'" Surface says. "It's one of our most popular beers."
Comments: "Old-school. Miss you, 2008." "Balanced, clean old-school."
4. Shadow Ninja (Loowit)
ABV: 7.2 percent
Shadow Ninja has always been important to Loowit. When the brewery opened its doors downtown in 2012, Shadow Ninja was one of the first beers on tap. In 2013, it was the first beer Loowit bottled. Now, with a 20 barrels, 25 beers currently on tap and bottles sold in Washington and Oregon, Loowit has become one of the 'Couv's best breweries.
Comments: "I love it. Orange peel, malt, slightly sweet." "Clean, green aroma." "Woody hop, nutty malt."
5. Mortal Peril (Brother Ass)
ABV: 7.5 percent
After working in the insurance business for 30 years, brewer Wally Wakeman decided to retire. A homebrewer with limited experience, he couldn't find a job at a brewery, so he decided to open his own. He admits Mortal Peril had a ways to go when it was first brewed, but like his priorities in life, he seems to have figured it out.
Comments: "Grassy with underlying citrus, slight banana, candied and caramel." "Reminds me of a softer Sierra Nevada pale."
6. Evergreen (Old Ivy)
ABV: 6.1 percent
Old Ivy rebooted in June with veteran brewer Chris Spollen, who has 22 years' brewing experience, including time at Rogue in Newport and Amnesia in Portland. At Old Ivy, Spollen created Evergreen IPA, a classic Northwest-style brew with big citrus notes.
Comments: "Garden fresh. Great summer IPA." "Great aroma with tropical fruit."
7. Flawless Victory (Loowit)
ABV: 7.5 percent
Loowit's Flawless Victory didn't win, but the brewpub that pours it is still Vancouver's best hang.
Comments: "Floral, herbal and complex hop flavor." "Grapefruit, earthy, funky." "SweeTarts!"
8. Johnny Chinook & the Crystals (Old Ivy)
ABV: 6.7 percent
Despite a judge's comment, this IPA has Chinook and Crystal hops and zero Rice Krispies, although Old Ivy does also make a cream ale brewed with flaked corn.
Comments: "Oddly smells like root beer." "Smells like Rice Krispies with berries." "Hot and sulfuric, not especially harmonious."
9. Koronides (Loowit)
ABV: 6.4 percent
Loowit's newest IPA is infused with grapefruit peel.
Comments: "Not much happening." "Great orange juice flavor. Minty." "Aroma of forest."
10. Transcend (Heathen)
ABV: 6.2 percent
Small-batch brewery Heathen makes "progressive ales for the promiscuous palate." While Transcend didn't win here, it did win the People's Choice Award at both the Portland Spring Beer and Wine Festival in 2013 and Vancouver Summer Brewfest in 2014.
Comments: "Papaya and banana." "Autumn leafy." "This owns."
11. Hopnado 2 (McMenamins on the Columbia)
ABV: 5.4 percent
McMenamins' tropical version of its Hopnado beer tasted more like pot than pineapple to our panel.
Comments: "Smells like pot. Roll me a joint." "Easy drinking."
12. 5K (Ghost Runners)
ABV: 6.4 percent
Rob Ziebell and Jeff Seibel started Ghost Runners in 2012. Both runners, they often fueled their runs with the promise of a beer afterward—hence the name of their 5K IPA, the highest ranking of the three IPAs they entered.
Comments: "Flavor is on point." "Put some soul into this beer!"
13. Carnage (Heathen)
ABV: 7.6 percent
Heathen calls Carnage "a massacre of hops." In our Portland IPA tasting, we found that tasters tend to move away from ultra-hoppy IPAs to lighter, more sessionable brews, which explains one judge's comment: "Older-school."
Comments: "Hops a bit sweaty." "Pine resin. Merry Christmas!"
14. Metal Meltdown (Heavy Metal)
ABV: 7.5 percent
Heavy Metal Brewing Company may welcome a judge's description of its beer as having a "tobaccolike note." The brand-new brewery—which makes its current two brews at Doomsday Brewing in Washougal—also specializes in pizza and metal jam sessions.
Comments: "Harsh savory." "Needs finishing hops/bitterness." "Dead leaves filled my mouth."
15. Fortside (Fortside)
ABV: 6.2 percent
Fortside was founded this past September by Vancouver natives with the goal of putting the 'Couv on the West Coast beer map, with beers like Couve A'licious and Straight Outta Yakima.
Comments: "Cellarlike malt flavor." "Zesty." "Caramelized honey bomb."
16. Hydration (Ghost Runners)
ABV: 7 percent
This beer proved a bit too bitter to be thirst-quenching.
Comments: "Bitter orange." "Laundry detergent." "Initial aroma pungent, then it grows on you."
17. Trestle NW (Railside)
ABV: 6.9 percent
Brewer Mike Davis and his wife originally opened Railside in Washougal back in 2012. Now in Vancouver, Davis designed the English-style Trestle NW to have big hops and big malt, which our panel found too sweet.
Comments: "Artificial fruit flavor. Good for kids of the '80s." "Murky orange lemon like unfiltered yeast on shelf."
18. Trap Door (Trap Door)
ABV: 7.1 percent
Trap Door opened its doors last November. We really enjoyed our visit in January—and the patio will be hopping come summer—but our tasters did not like the IPA.
Comments: "Chewy granola bar made from a hippie." "Canned green beans. Jolly green giant." "Dries out at the end."
19. Hawaiian Hydration (Ghost Runners)
ABV: 7 percent
The tropical version of the Hydration IPA was funky in a bad way
Comments: "Lost in space." "One-dimensional." "Pond water got blended in!"