The Great American Beer Festival is a huge, three-day beer extravaganza hosted by the Brewers Association in Denver, Colorado, in September each year. Accompanying the festival, which boasts over 3,000 attendees, is a massive beer competition. To compete for medals, brewers nationwide put their beers head-to-head to see who is best, decided by panels of expert judges. Win a medal and your brewery has some serious bragging rights to bring home.
The downside to beer competitions, however, is that they can sometimes be tied to “old school” style guidelines. The beer is judged against an imaginary perfect beer of the style. That means that requirements for color, taste and aroma are set. The hybrids, experiments and beers that have undergone other treatments – or the new styles that emerge after brewer experimentation – are sometimes lumped into catch-all “other” categories. That can mean that the brewers that are sticking to the script may win more accolades than those that are pushing the boundaries of a style.
For a few years, there has a bit of a conflict brewing in the IPA category. The American-style India Pale Ale category has always had the highest numbers of entries, but the guidelines for flavor and taste have been behind the times. The American-style IPA is described as “gold to copper” in color with “floral, fruity, citrusy or piney” flavors from the hops. A slight haze from hops is “allowable,” but in general, these beers are copper and mostly see-through. Essentially this perfectly describes what some would refer to as a West Coast-style IPA and can be compared to Sierra Nevada IPA as an archetype. They tend to taste a tad sticky, with pine flavors that come from the American hops grown in Oregon and Washington.
But use those descriptors to describe an IPA to someone in New England and you may be met with an eye roll. The most popular IPAs are now usually lighter in color, definitely significantly hazy and, in some cases, opaque. Guava, pineapple and mango have replaced the grassy, weed-like aromas. The flavors are dominated by tropical fruits and sometimes sweetness rather than bitterness, and the taste is softer than it is sharp.
You don’t have to cast a very wide net to find these styles in many Portland-area breweries, like Lone Pine, Mast Landing and Bissell Brothers, which have made a name for themselves on these styles. Peruse a room full of glasses at local tasting rooms, and you’ll see more haze than clarity.
In my experience, freshness matters a lot in their overall quality. In the best examples, the beer is juicy, and its soft mouthfeel makes you want another sip. As much as we love these beers, especially regionally, they are living in a no man’s land of styles. Judged to the standards of the Great American Beer Festival awards, these delicious brews would be judged as flawed or determined not to live up to the prescribed style.
Earlier this year, the Brewers Association announced that there would be three new styles added to the beer competition. The 2018 Great American Beer Festival will be the first time that a juicy or hazy pale ale, juicy or hazy IPA, and juicy or hazy imperial or double IPA will be awarded medals. In the appearance section, the haziness is celebrated, with a “low to very high degree of cloudiness” described as being typical for the styles.
It is the response from competition entrants that says it all, though. The American IPA has been unseated as the most competitive field, with 414 beers entered under the new juicy or hazy IPA category. This marks the first time in over 15 years that the American-style IPA, with 331 entries in 2018, is no longer the top beer style.
Even more impressive, if you combine the three new juicy or hazy categories, the number skyrockets to 706. The challenge for the judges, though, will be freshness. These beers taste their best straight off the canning or kegging line. Due to the logistics of the competition, the beers have to be received in Denver this week, but are not judged until the festival in late September. Taking packaging and transit times into account, that means that the judges will be starting with month-old beer as a best-case scenario. The good news for us, though, is that even if Maine brewers don’t end up taking home the gold, we have the privilege of being able to enjoy the haze when its at its freshest – straight from the source.