The competition was predictably fierce at the third Los Angeles IPA Festival held at Mohawk Bend over the weekend, and the reigning champions were unseated by a local brewery further cementing its place as a darling of the craft beer scene in Los Angeles.
Highland Park Brewery’s Bonkers IPA was awarded the first place prize by a panel of judges who smelled, sipped, and argued their way through the sixty-plus entries in this year’s competition. The third place IPA, Lupulin River, came from Auburn, California’s Knee Deep Brewing. Noble Ale Works, who’d captured the top prize at the first L.A. IPA Festival in 2013 with their Tongue Tickles IPA, and then achieved the unthinkable by repeating the victory during the second competition with I Love It! IPA, earned the second place award on Saturday with That’s Umpossible.
UPDATE 3/15/16: I’ve added some information about the final round and how the beers scored after the jump.
Highland Park Brewery’s co-founder and brewmaster Bob Kunz has developed a reputation with some wonderful hoppy beers that are mostly served over the bar at the Hermosillo on York Blvd. in HIghland park (his 480 square foot brewery is built into the backroom of the popular beer and wine bar). Bonkers IPA is a showcase of the popular Simcoe hop, and the grapefruit pith and earthy tropical character that the variety is prized for dominated the beer’s aroma. The complex aroma is followed by a bright and clean flavor that finishes with a prickly, lingering bitterness. At 7% alcohol Bonkers IPA is not as potent as many of the competitors, and the judges were impressed by the clarity of hop flavor in the brew.
“It’s pretty much the best result I could have hoped for,” said Evan Price, brewmaster at Noble Ale Works. Price and Kunz are close friends, and Price was visibly elated that one of his brewing mentors was honored at the festival. “If we’d won a third time people would really think that this competition was rigged,” he said, adding earnestly: “I’m stoked to get second place.”
The event demonstrates both the collaborative spirit prized by craft brewers, and their deep-seated competitive streaks. The judging happens over five hours and in several different rounds where the assembled brewers are broken into tables of four-to-five judges and presented with unlabeled flights of competitors. Each group is left to select what they believe is the best representation of “a modern Southern California IPA,” and the discussions at the tables can be as heated as it is technical. For this year’s competition organizer Tony Yanow invited a handful of L.A.’s beer media to join the judging, and this writer was honored to be included in the event. Table talk during the first rounds of judging was jovial and irreverent, with plenty of shop-talk among the brewers along with bawdy commentary and inside jokes between the tight-knit community of brewers. As the day wore on, the conversations become more serious and focused (mostly), until the final round where each judged was tasked with selecting their top three brews from the flight of five final contenders.
In addition to the three awards decided by the panel of brewing professionals, guests at IPA Fest can vote on their favorite beers of the evening to decide the People’s Choice award. Previous recipients of the populist honor were Societe Brewing’s The Pupil in 2013 and Alpine Brewing Nelson IPA in 2014. (There was no LA IPA Festival held in 2015 as the event moved from December to March after the second year.) This year, the crowd honored a made-in-L.A. beer with the People’s Choice award: Eagle Rock Brewery’s The Winning Team IPA.
Eagle Rock Brewery founder Jeremy Raub says that the L.A. IPA Festival holds special significance because of not only who is judging the field, but also because there is no set definition for what the IPAs should taste like. “The community is deciding what the benchmark is,” he said. “Instead of picking the beauty queen of the day we are deciding on what defines exemplary IPA brewing.”
Bob Kunz said that taking top prize was “unreal,” and he was thrilled that so many brewers he admired had picked Bonkers as the best in show. Highland Park Brewery self distributed kegs of their beers to a scant few accounts in Los Angeles, making their brews a sought after commodity. They plan to release cans of their Hello L.A. IPA next month; the cans will only be available for purchase at the brewery and the Hermosillo bar.
Highland Park Brewery / The Hermosillo — 5125 York Blvd, Los Angeles — (323) 739-6459
Festival organizer Tony Yanow sent all the judges a detailed breakdown of what beers were at each table during each round, and there were some interesting reveals once this info was correlated with my notes from the tasting.
The Final Table: You know that the top three beers were HPB, Noble, and Knee Deep, but the other two brews to advance to the final table were Wolf Creek’s Single Hop Mosaic Lone Wolf (in 4th place) and Claremont Craft Ales’ Single Dude (in 5th place). The final scoring was tallied by each judge picking their top three beers, with the number one pick scoring 5 points, 3 points going to their second place pick, and a single point given to the third pick. HPB’s Bonkers scored 62 points at the final table, while Noble’s entry score 40 (barely securing second place over Knee Deep’s 39 points).
Bonkers was the clear winner, and every judge except for one picked it in their top three (and nearly a third of the judges picking it as their best in show). The HPB IPA also knocked off beers from Strand Brewing, Sierra Nevada, and Speakeasy Brewing at the first table before getting maybe the toughest second table flight in the competition going against Faction’s Hop Solid and Russian River’s Pliny the Elder. I was actually at that final table, and the conversation over those three beers was lively to say the least; Bonkers barely squeaked by Pliny the Elder to make the finals.