Jun 29 2016

The Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree, and the Freedom in IPA Meaninglessness

Throw shade towards the IPA “style” as much as you want, it has already conquered craft beer.

It is the flagship for most American breweries, and not having an IPA in your year-round portfolio seemingly borders on insubordination. And to further the sprawl and creep from this style, it isn’t limited to merely American and Imperial IPAs. There are red, black, white, brown, Belgian, rye, fruit, fruit peel, and session IPAs, as well. Tart IPAs are beginning to surface now, as well. (In full disclosure, I am brewing a tart IPA with a local brewery in the coming weeks so, yeah, I’m part of the problem, too.)

When any base style, or color I suppose, can be turned into an IPA, is anything an IPA anymore?

Given that rather nihilistic introduction, you’ll understand why I wasn’t immediately excited about an all IPA festival. The yearly “holiday” of IPA Day that occurs each summer only furthers the notion that history is written by the victors. I’m not a conspiracy guy and IPAs, which I really do enjoy, are not a virus leeching diversity from rows of tap handles, but their growth over the years is something that I have watched with some concern.

And if you are a west coast coaster reading this, you might scoff at an east coast IPA festival, and you have a point. Although after spending a week in San Diego last year, I was left a little underwhelmed by the state of IPAs there. While the finest IPAs do come out of the west coast, the number of unbalanced and Chinook-the-throat-destroyer beers that composed much of the rest of the west coast scene was saddening.

While IPAs have become the vanguard of experimentation for a lot of the American brewing scene, I think the first casualty is drinkability.

“What? Cool, you’ve added a new fruit/hop/grain/yeast to an IPA. No, I don’t want another pint. Honestly, I’m going to struggle to finish this one.” – Me

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

So, Saturday, June 25th, was Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree, which was a beer festival focusing solely on IPAs. Including Starr Hill, there were 16 Virginia breweries pouring at least two IPAs each. This netted out to over 50 IPAs with 33 from other breweries and 21 from Starr Hill alone.

The gig was broken into two events for me, as there was a homebrew component the night before, and then the festival the next day:

 

Homebrew Jambeeree

The Homebrew Jambeeree was a Pro-Am Competition for Starr Hill and homebrewers were asked to make IPAs which could be English, American, Speciality, or Double versions. The top 25 entries would be invited to the brewery for a private tour, and the best of show winner would brew their beer with Starr Hill for this year’s GABF.

I made the top 25, which is honestly not much of bragging point, but the thrust of the tour and gig was about celebrating the spirit of homebrewing, the backstory to many a pro brewer, and letting that group geek down with the pros and industrial equipment. I had done a Pro-Am with Starr Hill back in 2010, too, so I wasn’t really worried about the actual competition and I was happy to see someone else get a chance.

Starr Hill Hops Cooler

Starr Hill Hops Cooler/Cavern

Starr Hill Brew Deck

Starr Hill Brew Deck

 

Starr Hill Bottling Line

Starr Hill Bottling Line – Yeah, You Like That

 

The tour was great and the brewmaster, Robbie, and QA Manager, Jason, were energetic and happy to answer any questions that the group had. Starr Hill has gone through lot of changes in the last few years and as the previous brewmaster left, they’ve spent a lot of time reformulating old recipes and upping their quality control game. The hard work shows, and the multiple beers I had during that afternoon were crisp and without flaws. These guys care and they are doing right by themselves and their consumers.

Starr Hill Tasting Room

Starr Hill Tasting Room

In the end, I was not one of the top 3 brewers for the competition, but I knew that would be the result as the beer I brewed had been an experiment with Idaho 7 (now “The Golden Hop”?) hops and the London III yeast strain. That one came out mysteriously mild, but I’ve run through the process and recipe in the subsequent Hoppy McHopface blog post.

 

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Cutting to the chase, I was on the fence about attending the IPA Jambeeree, but it was definitely worth my time. Since it was, metaphorically, in my backyard, I knew a lot of the people and brewers there, and it was fun to talk shop and shit (mostly shit) with those friends. The weather was perfect, and there was a far amount of variety in beer from the participating breweries.

Starr Hill's IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree

The only disappointment for the day was the number of breweries that kicked their kegs very early in the event. I showed up late at 3pm (2 hours after it started, 3 after the VIPs got in), and three or four major players in Virginia brewing were already out of all of their beers and many of the other breweries had already pulled tap handles. Perhaps they misjudged the demand, or maybe they were truly slammed with drinkers, but it would have been nice to see everyone get a chance to try those beers.

I think my ability to enjoy the event was due to the meaninglessness of the term IPA. Taking a deep dive with a style is helpful if you are trying to wrap your head around the parameters of the category and improve your evaluation skills. That could have been done to a degree here, but the diversity of IPA types was impressive. There were double and triple IPAs, but also the Belgian and Black IPAs that you’d traditionally expect, beside fruit and rye IPAs, that many breweries are adding to their quivers.

In a strained parallel, the assumption is that Belgian brewers don’t set out to brew a double, or a tripel, or a quad. They just make beer. Some are pale, and some are dark. Some are dry and phenolic, while others gravitate towards malt and dark fruits. There’s a huge variability on the ABV side, as well. I think styles are important to guide some expectations, and they equip us with a language to evaluate and enjoy beer, but I don’t think a brewer needs to have a style in mind. Just a vision of what he or she wants to create. 

Given the diversity of the IPA category and the fact that its tie to India is more than debatable,”IPA” doesn’t mean anything anymore. And, to me, that feels good. Isn’t there some freedom in that? If a brewer wants to use “IPA” as a placeholder to brew whatever beer he or she wants, then they are serving their creativity and I’ll always respect that drive as long as they have the technical ability to construct that vision. Let’s embrace the ingenuity of American breweries and concentrate on taste rather than extremity that only, in the end, creates similarity. 

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May 27 2011

Dark Lord Day 2011 – But the Waitin’ Feel is Fine

This is my very belated post about this year’s Dark Lord Day.

I had tickets for Dark Lord Day in 2010, but a family commitment kept me from going. So I was prepared to go this year and, although I struck out in getting a ticket, a friend had me covered.

This was my first time attending and I was excited to take in the Dark Lord experience. For those who have never heard of Dark Lord Day, it is big event put on by Three Floyds which is filled with beer lovers and an orgy of all things beer. People come from hundreds of miles around to get their allotted Dark Lord bottles, and to trade unusual and rare beers with others. That is what sold me on the event.

But it is easy to forget that the bulk of the day is spent waiting in lines.

Lines.

It is a day of lines. Lines to get in. Lines to get your Dark Lord bottles. Lines to get your Three Floyds swag. Lines to try the guest taps. Lines to get into the 3F Brewpub (I didn’t even try). Lines to get food. Lines to……well, you get the idea.

No lines for the porta-johns, though. Seriously, that was well played, guys.

Three Floyds has gotten a lot of flack in the beer world for Dark Lord Day and how it is has been run the last couple of years. The process of selling the tickets is still a mess and, as someone who has been in the hunt to acquire tickets the last two years, the scrutiny they’ve gotten for that is well-deserved.

So how was Dark Lord Day 2011? I know you are on the edge of your seat and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I thought it went smoothly. As smooth as you can expect considering the nature of the event.

The photo is full of a bunch of shifty motherfuckers, isn’t it?

Inside the gates was a mass of humanity, but not an insane one. People were polite, but it was like being in a giant, vibrating ant heap. It is always clear in events like this that beer people are good people.

The tickets were sold in “A”, “B”, and “C” versions, so Group A could pick up their bottles between 10am and noon, Group B was 1pm to 3pm, and C was between 5pm and 7pm. Fortunately a few of us had “A” tickets which allowed us to get directly in line for Dark Lord bottles once we arrived. The line was long, but it moved steadily.

This year, the Golden Tickets also had a scratch-off area that let you know whether you would have the ability, nay honor, of purchasing a bottle of the limited run barrel-aged Dark Lords for $50 each. Lots of us got lucky and, when all was said and done, our group got one of each bottle variant: a DL aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, a DL aged in brandy barrels, a DL aged in brandy barrels with vanilla beans, and a DL, aka. Dark Lord de Muerte, aged in bourbon barrels with ancho and guajillo peppers.)

One of the cooler surprises was getting to meet Randy Mosher at Dark Lord Day. Randy is the author of the books Radical Brewing and Tasting Beer. Both are really great, and I find myself returning to Radical Brewing whenever I get in a homebrew rut. His understanding and explanation of unusual ingredients in brewing (i.e. atypical sugars, exotic spices, fruit, etc.) in that book are inspiring, and it has pushed me, personally, in new and exciting brewing directions. Highly recommended. At his table he had several types of coriander, plus cassia buds and I bunch of other spices I had never heard of. And he was very patient with might-have-had-a-couple-of-beers me, too. Thanks, Randy.

The only thing I had to say negatively about the day was that the Guest Tap line was absurd and badly run.

That line could be measured in hours, rather than minutes, and once you got up the front it all became clear. Lots of people standing around *wanting* to pour beers, but they were bottle-necked by some expediter/joker who brought things to a crawl. I grabbed two beers in the line, the Stone Double Bastard with chipotle peppers and Cigar City’s Big Sound scotch ale. The Stone was solid and very balanced. The Big Sound was amazing.

Isn’t there always 5 or 6 of these tragedies during each DLD?

All and all, it is was a great day and the weather even cooperated for a few minutes and let the sun shine through. And it didn’t hurt that there was jockey box next to us that was pouring Zombie Dust and Gumballhead. All. Day. Long.

Takeaways:

The Good:
• The Dark Lord bottle and the bathroom lines moved quickly.
• All of the Dark Lord attendees were cool and unobnoxious
• All of the police and 3F event workers were cool and, I dare say, downright friendly
• It bears repeating: Beer people are good people

The Not So Good:
• The Merchandise, Guest Tap and 3F Brewpub lines we absurd and not worth getting in.
• This is the wrong location for this kind of event. No space, spent most of the day in an ant farm.

In the end, this event is about coming to the Three Floyds Brewery and getting in line to get your Dark Lord bottles. The rest is cake. I had a great time, and Three Floyds and the town of Munster, Indiana were great hosts.

Will I go to Dark Lord Day again? Maybe, but likely not anytime soon since getting to the Chicago area in April is never a great time for a trip.

But you never know.

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