Beer reviews, beer places, beer science.

Beer Battle: Session IPA Tournament Final Four

Over the past month, I have sampled 16 different Session IPA beers in groups of four.  Each regional grouping consisted of four beers.  These four beers were randomly poured into four different glasses.  I then chose two of the four glasses randomly to drink.  I selected which one I liked more than the other.  Then, I tasted the other two remaining beers, and picked a winner from those two.  I then took the two “winners” and had those beers square off against one another for one overall winner from the four beers.  This process left me with four remaining beers from a starting point of 16.

Session Beer Tournament_2015_4

For the final four bracket, I wanted to include other opinions.  I thought it would be fun to invite a few friends spanning all beer expertise levels.  Some people were seasoned veterans and brewers; some people didn’t even really care for IPAs as a style.  But everyone’s opinion mattered.

The four beers in the final bracket were:

Final Four_FINAL

Here are some pictures of our samplers in action.  Judging took place at Big Ditch Brewing Company.

Alex and Matt judging final four sessions.
IMG_5145 (2)
Ryan, Mike, Laura, Omar, and Sheila judging final four samples.
Final Four
Final Four

The beers were chosen randomly to square off against each other in exactly the same format that I had followed throughout the entire tournament.  The bartender (in the next room) chose two beers at random.  These two beers, identified as “Sample 1” and “Sample 2”, were tasted side by side.  A winner was selected by majority vote.  Then, “Sample 3” squared off against “Sample 4”.  The beers were unbeknownst to us at the time of tasting, and only discovered after a final victor was chosen.  Nonetheless, here is a list of the beers.  ( ratings are in parentheses)

Sample 1: Oskar Blues Pinner: 4.9% (86)
Sample 2: 21st Amendment Down To Earth: 4.4% (86)
Sample 3: Ballast Point Even Keel: 3.8% (86)
Sample 4: Green Flash Citra Session: 4.5%, (88)

Judges were encouraged to use any criteria they wished to evaluate the beers, but were reminded that session beer is all about drinkability.  So beers were scored high in the drinkability category.  Judges were reminded of the question: “Which beer do you want another one of, right now?”.

The first tasting battle was between Oskar Blues Pinner and 21st Amendment Down To Earth.  People felt as though Oskar Blues Pinner possessed aroma ranging from a slight fruit note to really no nose at all.  This beer was found to be highly drinkable due to a lack of any real heavy or complex flavor profiles.  Judges found that 21st Amendment Down To Earth was perhaps not as crisp as Oskar Blues Pinner, but contained a smoother tone.  This smoothness was identified as having more floral tastes and a more complex taste profile.  In the end, and by a near 50/50 split decision, Oskar Blues Pinner advanced to the final battle, owing largely to a slightly higher drinkability factor.

The second battle was between Ballast Point Even Keel and Green Flash Citra Session.   Ballast Point Even Keel was described by one judge as “lovely, clean, and crisp”.  Another judge lauded Ballast Point Even Keel for it’s “good bitter bite”.  This crispy and “eminently drinkable” ale received very high marks from the judges.  Green Flash Citra Session, on the other hand, did not fair well against the competition.  Some found the Citra hop character lacking, which was in retrospect surprising for a beer supposedly made with “100% Citra”.  This beer possessed a more complex malt profile than the competition.  This beer may also have been older than it’s competition.  But in the end, and by a near-unanimous vote, Ballast Point Even Keel advanced to the final battle.

The last and final battle was between Ballast Point Even Keel and Oskar Blues Pinner.  Both beers were described as crisp.  Both were described as having very high drinkability.  With Ballast Point Even Keel, there was a crisp bitterness that balanced the light body, whereas with Oskar Blues Pinner, the crispness was less disturbed or distracted by other flavors.  In the end, the judges were reminded of the question “Which beer do you want another one of, right now?”.  And again in a near-unanimous vote, the overall winner of the 2015 Buffalo Beer Biochemist Session IPA Tournament challenge is….

Even Keel
Session IPA Tournament Champion!

Final Thoughts

This Session IPA tournament project was started over a month ago.  The high point for me was being able to involve other people and share my love of beer.  In the end, here are some points I learned along the way:

  • In a blind tasting,YOUR PALATE WINS- NOT MARKETING.  Some of the “heavy hitters” you might have expected to be in the final four were not.  Expectation and the power of suggestion are real, and that’s why marketing departments get paid.  But when you remove the marketing, the beer must still be good.
  • LOW ABV can still be good.  The overall winner of the tournament had the lowest ABV of the 16 beer entries.  3.8%.
  • FRESH FTW.  After the tournament winner was selected, we critiqued a locally available beer from Big Ditch Brewing Company, called FC (Fantastically Crushable).  This beer was so fresh and in a blind taste test would have  undoubtedly ranked very high against any of the 16 beers in this tournament.  Fresh beer is awesomesauce.  Which is why you should #drinklocal when possible.
  • DRINKABILITY with session beers is key.  Sometimes too much flavor profile affects drinkability.  Mainstream ‘Murica doesn’t want lots of hops, they want drinkable and poundable.
  • CLEAN and CRISP prevail.  A nice dry finish is important when deciding if you want another session beer.

Here is the final bracket all filled in.  (Note: Keep in mind that the final four were shuffled around by random design.)

Session Beer Tournament_2015_Final

Thanks to all who have followed the tournament.  I’d like to thank Aurora Brew Works, because without them, some other beer would have won!  They were able to obtain Ballast Point Even Keel for me as the 16th and final entrant into the tournament.  Special thanks to Big Ditch and Matt Kahn for hosting our Final Four party.  Thanks to all who attended the Final Four tasting.  And of course a special thanks to my wife, for pouring me all those beers so that I might maintain entrant anonymity.

I’m already thinking about which beer style to chose for the next tournament!  As I do that, I’m actually looking forward to drinking a double IPA.

About Buffalo Beer Biochemist

Buffalo Beer Biochemist
Born and raised in Western New York. Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Professor of Microbiology and Chemistry. And lover of beer.

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