The concept was straightforward – how has West Coast-style IPA changed in the past decade?
The measure was even more straightforward – compare the inaugural Malthouse West Coast IPA Challenge winner with the 2019 winner, IPA On A Stick .
Even more straightforward was the fact the two beers came from the same brewery – Epic.
In 2008, Epic took out the first Malthouse WCIPA Challenge with Armageddon which, over the next seven or eight years, became the benchmark WCIPA in New Zealand. The beer had imitators galore but still managed to win all the top prizes – claiming trophies left, right and centre.
But we all know IPA has gone through something of a revolution in the past three or four years. The rise of Hazy IPA, the debut of Brut IPA, new hops, hop shortages, hop oils, lupulin powder, a better understanding of dry-hopping and its effect on bitterness, changing consumer tastes, and so on and so forth…
So, when Epic’s IPA On A Stick won the 2019 Malthouse challenge, I figured a head-to-head blind-tasting was the way to go – to see if I could identify how WCIPA had changed. Or not.
I got my wife to pour two samples sourced fresh from Steam Brewing, where Epic beer is produced.
They came in identical glasses labelled A and B but I didn’t know which was which. Here are the notes:
Colour: Beer B was a darker colour than Beer A – more of a dark copper versus the light gold of Beer A. At first glance I was sure the darker beer was Armageddon – it was just a gut feeling based on the fact that the IPA evolution has seen lighter malt bases come into vogue. I tried to put that visual cue aside and see what the nose and taste profile offered.
Nose: Beer A had a sharp, hoppy nose – lots of fruit and, more precisely, concentrated juice from fruit salad. Beer B had a citrus, salty, mineral aroma.
Flavour: Beer A had a sharp, direct and top note bitterness that popped out distinctively – there was a slight wine-like acidity to the bitterness that I associate with Nelson Sauvin hops, but because I figured the hop profile was all-American, I dismissed that thought. Beer A had an underlying sweet base from which the bitterness popped out. Beer B had a broad, even bitterness, it was well-rounded and dense with grapefruit and pine and the saline minerality on the nose carried through to the taste. Beer B had a malt sweetness that was perfectly counter-balanced by the bitterness.
Mouthfeel: Beer A was oily and rich and felt like it needed a tad more carbonation. Beer B had a generous, broad mouthfeel and was nicely prickly on the tongue.
Overall: Two extremely enjoyable beers that were different enough but oddly – by the time I finished sampling both – had more in common than different. They achieved the bitter-sweet balance in different ways, Beer A offering that hop oily sweetness and a perceived sweetness through the hop choices. Beer B was a classic malt sweet versus broadly bitter hoppiness. For me Beer A had a distracting top-note bitterness – like a trumpet solo piercing through the rhythm section – whereas Beer B was more harmonious.
Result: I preferred Beer B because I felt it was better balanced and more rewarding. on any given night I’d happily drink two or three pints of Beer B but reckon I could only handle one of Beer A – albeit that it would be a delicious pint.
By now you might have figured which was which – Beer A was IPA On A Stick and Beer B was Armageddon. I can see why Beer A was would win a competition – it hit all the right notes to stand out in a sea of similar IPAs. It’s modern, rich with lots of bright, fruity hops – including that “trumpet solo” that helped make it distinctive. The Armageddon was definitely “old school” in its structure and so well-refined and balanced that it might not stand out in the modern competition crowd – but it nonetheless remains superbly drinkable.
So there you go, for me Epic Armageddon – to steal a line from great poet TS Eliot – remains “the stillpoint of the turning world” of IPA.
Postscript: So it turns out IPA On A Stick does have Nelson Sauvin in it!