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Serious Beer: California IPA
The West Coast is a big place—especially when it comes to beer.
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People from elsewhere often talk about the West Coast as if it's one entity—as if there's a coherent "West Coast culture" and "West Coast attitude" and, without question, "west coast-style beer." And what could be more "West Coast" than IPA?
Over the coming weeks, I'm dedicating my fridge space (and liver capacity) to prove that the west coast is a big place—especially when it comes to beer—and when you actually compare most of the IPAs of, say, California, to the IPAs of Washington state or Oregon, prominent stylistic differences emerge. American craft brewers across the country have put their stamp on IPA—we hope to discover how it varies geographically.
There are outliers, of course, but as we tasted 30 IPAs for this week's article, it became clear that California IPA tends to be bright and brisk, with more lemon and dry herbal bitterness than grapefruit or tangerine. At their best, California IPAs clean and crisp—totally refreshing. (At their worst, they get a wee bit metallic.) Some have malt profiles that lean toward a traditional English style. Moving into the double- and imperial- range, the maltiness and earthiness of these beers get heavier. For the most part, California IPAs aren't fruit bombs—the hops tend to be more toward the bittering end.
How do they differ from the beers of other states? Stay tuned. For now, check out the best and brightest of California's IPAs.
Serious Beer Ratings
***** Our new favorite
**** Awesome, worth remembering
*** We'd consider buying this again
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.
Ratings are subject to personal taste.
Cream of the California Crop
Russian River Pliny the Elder Santa Rosa, 8% ABV
This highly ranked beer may have reached mythic status because of its limited distribution, but it's still faultless, clean, and well-balanced. There's a hint of kaffir lime leaf and lemon rind in this super-dry beer. It's pretty light-bodied for a Double IPA; understated and smooth, with mineral/hard water notes balancing the bright, dry lemon flavors. Totally drinkable for 8%; we'd love to have this in our fridge all the time. Non-IPA drinkers might like this understated, polished example of the California IPA style, but it's not an extreme experience.
Anderson Valley Anniversary Imperial IPA Boonville, 8.7% ABV
Candied orange peel and rich malt flavors dominate this surprisingly delicate and drinkable Imperial IPA. There's a hint of ginger, as well as buttered toast with honey and marmalade. It's clean tasting and well balanced. Limited release—track it down!
Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA San Francisco 6.5% ABV
This creamy, well-balanced IPA has lovely buttery malt and fresh hoppy flavors: we tasted lemon, green peppers, grass and hay. There's sweet creamsicle on the nose but there's enough bright bitterness to balance it. Less heavy and less harsh than many other examples of California IPA. We're thrilled that this beer is distributed near us—some tasters liked it every bit as much as the Pliny.
Firestone Walker Union Jack Paso Robles, 7.5% ABV
One of our tasters swore this beer smelled like wet stones on the beach. It's mellow and drinkable; beautifully balanced between rich brown sugar/caramel malt flavors and bitter orange marmalade. There's a touch of pine and Ricola honey-herb cough drops. A solid beer for sipping regularly (if you can get it.)
Green Flash West Coast India Pale Ale 7.3% ABV
This "West Coast" IPA is a bit closer to what I think of as the Pacific Northwest style: resiny pine, orange peel oil, and a crazy burst of grapefruit flavor. Floral and ginger notes and thick malt step up to the plate to balance: this is one flavorful beer. Hopheads should put this on their must-try list.
Port Brewing Wipeout IPA San Diego, 7% ABV
Very dry and a little floral, this lovely beer has white pepper on the nose and plenty of spicy, herbal flavors. We tasted rosemary, bay leaf, starfruit, and dry lemons. It has very fine, delicate carbonation and is highly drinkable.
Coronado Island IPA Coronado, 7.5% ABV
The nose on this is lemon-scented Pinesol, but this beer was a favorite of several of our tasters. Sweet malt is balanced by resinous lemon oil, pine, and candied grapefruit flavors. There's a lingering bitterness that hopheads will appreciate.
Drake's IPA San Leandro, 7% ABV
This well-made IPA is clean and dry, with a bit of an English feeling to it—nutty pretzel-like malt and a bright bitterness up front, with a caramel finish. It's wonderfully drinkable. We tasted just a hint of cilantro and dried orange flavors, but it's not resinous or fruity.
Stone Ruination IPA San Diego, 7.7%
This crisp beer isn't as malty as some of the others—it's light and austere, with dry pine, grass, and floral notes, coriander, pepper, and wood. It's beautifully drinkable as long as you can handle a bitter beer.
Lagunitas IPA Petaluma, 5.7% ABV
A solid malt base supports the dry hoppiness of this beer—there are notes of carrot, papaya, tart orange, and caramel popcorn. It's rich, flavorful, and drinkable, with lively carbonation and a crisp finish. Fan of amber ale who are open to a little bitterness might like this beer as an introduction to California IPA.
Marin Brewing White Knuckle Larkspur, 8% ABV
This earthy double IPA is very even and rich, with orange peel and eucalyptus flavors. The malt gives it some body, and the finish is clean and dry. Well balanced and worth seeking out, especially for fans of amber or copper ales.
Moylander Double IPA Novato, 8.5% ABV
This Double IPA is a bit drier than big brother Hopsickle, with graham cracker and clove flavors. It's a little dusty, with some bitter pine and lemon peel flavors. Our favorite of Moylan's offerings.
Ballast Point Sculpin San Diego, 7% ABV
We smelled juniper berries and rosemary in this beer. It's pretty aggressive, with notes of kumquat, green grass, cilantro, and a punch of lime. The finish is a little floral. While it's not the most complex beer we tried, many IPA fans love it for its fresh flavor.
Commendable California IPAs
Moylan's Hopsickle Novato, 9.2% ABV
A few tasters called this imperial IPA their favorite of the bunch—it has an almost sticky sweetness, with buttery vanilla notes, then a potent hoppy blush (and a bit of alcohol burn) with pine, sage, and slate/chalk notes. We liked this better a little cooler, as it warms the malt tends to overwhelm.
Russian River Blind Pig Santa Rosa, 6.1% ABV
Fresh and clean, with a bit of apricot and pineapple on the nose, this IPA has mineral notes and a hint of lemon rind. It's bright, dry, and crisp, with straw and hay flavors. Not as perfect as the Pliny, but then, few things are.
Port Brewing Hop 15 San Diego, 10% ABV
This double IPA pours much darker than Port's Wipeout, and it follows through with a rich caramel malt backbone, a hint of mango and pear, allspice and nutmeg. It's not quite as drinkable as the wipeout due to the sweetness and high ABV.
Bear Republic Racer 5 Healdsburg, 7% ABV
This sippable beer is a bit lighter-bodied than some, quite sweet with a bitter backbone. We tasted marzipan and biscuity malt, orange pekoe tea and lime.
Stone IPA San Diego, 6.9% ABV
This beer isn't as complex or aromatic as Stone's other offerings, but it's refreshing. Quite crisp and clean, it has an aggressive hop bitterness with notes of sage and chamomile. The pine and lemon notes are dry, and the finish has a mineral edge.
Karl Strauss Tower 10 IPA San Diego, 6.5% ABV
Lovers of copper and amber ales will like this creamy, malty beer, but hop-heads may be disappointed. Though there's sweet pine air freshener on the nose, this IPA is more malty than hoppy, with flavors that reminded us of carrots and parsnips. It's crisp and rich and could be food-friendly, given its lack of bitterness.
Karl Strauss Big Barrel Double IPA San Diego, 9% ABV
Creamsicle and butterscotch malt flavors overwhelmed any fruity notes in this beer. It's a smooth and rich beer, though some tasters felt it wasn't quite balanced.
Lagunitas Maximus Petaluma, 7.5% ABV
This copper-colored beer smells like strawberry Starburst candy and tastes a bit like strawberry-banana flavored yogurt. It's fruity and rich with lively carbonation but those who prefer dry lemony hop flavors might not love this.
Speakeasy Double Daddy San Francisco, 9.5% ABV
This one moves into barleywine territory; it's a boozy sipper, with cream soda notes. The scent is a little peaty, but the flavor is like liquid golden raisins, honey, and clove, with not quite enough bitterness to stand up to the sweet yeasty vanilla and marzipan flavors. We could imagine pouring this with dessert.
Ballast Point Big Eye IPA San Diego, 6% ABV
This one starts out very malty and then bursts into lemon, freshly cut grass, and a hint of grapefruit. There's a dry bitterness that lingers, and some tasters felt that the hop flavors weren't quite integrated into the caramel/malt base.
Marin Brewing IPA Larkspur, 6.8% ABV
This thick, gentle beer might not be what we traditionally think of as IPA, but some tasters liked its full body and butterscotch notes. Others wanted more citrus and brightness. Not our favorite of Marin's offerings.
Anderson Valley Hop Ottin' IPA Mendocino, 7% ABV
More like an English-style IPA, this beer isn't piney or fruity. It's more malty and quite dry, with mostly earthy bittering hops. Be sure to let it warm up slightly. Or seek out Anderson Valley's excellent Anniversary Imperial IPA.
Left Coast Hop Juice San Clemente, 9.4% ABV
This double IPA's aroma reminded us of pina coladas and pineapple upside-down cake. There's a hint of pomelo and dry grapefruit, but this is mostly a heavyweight malty, creamy beer, with more bittering hops than fruitiness.
Nectar Ales Nectar IPA Paso Robles 6.8% ABV
Nectar Ales is part of the Firestone Walker Brewery, but East Coasters may have easier access to the Nectar beers than the FW ones. It's too bad--this IPA didn't impress us as much as the Firestone Union Jack. It has some nice caramelly flavors that come through as it warms, but some tasters found the hop flavor a little metallic and harsh. This beer has a lemon-pith and piney bite and very little sweetness. It's pretty refreshing, but some might find it unpleasantly bitter.
Left Coast India Pale Ale San Clemente, 6.9% ABV
The nose on this is a little vegetal, and some tasters noticed a hint of asparagus flavor in addition to soil, grass, and pine. Our resident homebrewer noted that this one had some estery, fruity yeast flavors that were a little bit off.
Sierra Nevada Torpedo Chico, 7.2% ABV
This Extra IPA was just a little too harsh some of our tasters. It's a super-dry, peppery beer with a hint of bagel-like malt that comes out as it warms, but not very much creaminess. This beer is dry-hopped with Citra hops, which have a hint of apricot-like flavor, but we wished for a hint more sweetness and fruit. We'll stick with Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale.
Moylan's IPA Novato, 6.5% ABV
This malty beer tasted a bit like toasted rye bread, and some tasters wished for more fresh hop flavor. There's a bitter edge but not much of the brightness we had elsewhere.
Disclosure: Russian River, Anderson Valley, Firestone Walker, Port Brewing, Coronado, Drake's, Stone, Marin Brewing, Moylan's, Ballast Point, Port, Karl Strauss, and Left Coast provided review samples for this article.
About the author: Maggie Hoffman also writes about cooking for Pithy and Cleaver.