Does any other state have a contest where all the breweries submit their most flavorful IPAs to see who has the best? New Mexico does.
So it begins: 200 beer geeks descend upon the Duel Brewery taproom in downtown Albuquerque to taste 42 IPAs in the elimination round of the 2018 New Mexico IPA Challenge. Twelve of these beers advance to join the three host breweries (this year it’s Taos Mesa Brewery, Second Street Brewery from Santa Fe, and Albuquerque’s Bosque Brewing).
The beers are presented blind on trays containing sixteen samples, so to taste all 42 you have to make two friends. Luckily, there’s no shortage of beer geeks willing to share their trays in order to taste all 42.
The elimination round votes determine the fifteen beers (this year sixteen due to a tie) to be presented to the rest of the state. Elimination round tasters tend to be serious, and many brewers attend because even though these votes don’t count toward the winner, they determine which IPAs go forward.
The elimination round votes determine the fifteen beers (this year sixteen due to a tie) to be presented to the rest of the state.
Some of the brewers like to say ‘the only rule in the IPA Challenge is there are no rules.’ They deride it as a beauty contest. To their point, it’s true are no guidelines or scoresheets; the voting public’s favorite beer wins.
Non-IPA fans might need a recovery period after tasting 42 IPAs, so after a week’s rest the second round takes place in the recently-opened Taos Mesa Brewing taproom. The taproom is just across the Paseo from the Taos plaza (the Taos Mesa Brewery Mothership is seven miles north of town, near the Taos Gorge). The multi-level floorplan with patios on the Paseo easily accommodates the 84-plus hearty souls taking part in the challenge.
Red River Brewing wins the Taos round on the strength of strong local attendance. (We won’t criticize tactics, but suffice it to say Red River’s mayor bussed in quite a few attendees from the nearby ski town. Remember the only rule of the Challenge?) Last year’s winner Boxing Bear, and this year’s eventual champion Blue Corn Restaurant and Brewery from Santa Fe tie for second place.
With only three day’s rest and 58 IPAs under our belts, the third round takes place in Santa Fe at Second Street Brewing’s Ruffina taproom. Ruffina is a large and inviting space, decorated with a mix of modern artwork and antique hand-made ceramic lampshades from the old courthouse, an eclectic mix of historical, functional, and modern – truly worthy of the City Different. Standout IPAs and top vote-getters include Blue Corn’s Gate Keeper IPA, Marble’s Safeword IPA, La Cumbre’s Project Dank, and Quarter Celtic’s Gondola Party Starter (although the brewery identities are still unknown until after the final round).
In Challenges past there are usually four or five beers that are so well made and similar in flavor that it’s really hard to choose just one, and this year was no different.
With more than twice the votes of the Taos session, the Santa Fe Challenge totals are more in line with the quality of the IPAs offered and the final Challenge standings. The New Mexico Brewers Guild tries to spread the ability to host an IPA Challenge session across the state, but 2018 is the first year in memory that a brewery in the southern part of the state doesn’t host. Votes from the first two locations are usually dwarfed by the Albuquerque round, because 90% of New Mexico’s population lives in the Albuquerque metro area. This year 84 and 199 votes are cast in Taos and Santa Fe, respectively, while 367 thirsty Burquenos vote for their favorite IPA.
The Albuquerque round of the IPA Challenge is held at the new Bosque Brewing North in nearby Bernalillo. It’s a massive structure: a production facility with 6,000 square feet of tasting space on two levels and a full kitchen, and modern shaded patios that face the nearby Rio Grande with excellent views of the Sandia Mountains (which somehow always look more impressive from across the river). Most impressive, though, is Bosque’s new production space that takes up the majority of the building – roomy enough to accommodate a new 30-barrel brewhouse, a canning line, plenty of 120-barrel fermenters, and room to expand.
The fourth and final round begins with the reigning IPA Challenge champion brewer, Justin Hamilton of Boxing Bear, entering the standing-room-only crowd in a bear costume on the shoulders of co-owner Dave Kim. In true boxing style spectacle, Great American Beer Festival 2016 Mid-Size Brewer of the Year Hamilton exhorts the throng with raised claws, fist bumps and high-fives as he threads his way to the brewery space filled with fans awaiting the close of voting.
In Challenges past there are usually four or five beers that are so well made and similar in flavor that it’s really hard to choose just one, and this year was no different. But of the top five vote getters, Boxing Bear, which finished second, was the only hazy entry (though four other breweries entered New England-style IPAs). Their Alba-Murkey was true to its name, with strong tropical notes and a slightly bitter finish. Challenge veteran Marble Brewing took third place with Safeword, an almost-double IPA. Safeword was malty and strong, with hints of a dank juiciness, but it finished clean.
The Brewers Guild has nurtured the IPA Challenge to become the jewel of their festivals, the most anticipated of the year for New Mexico beer fans.
Finally, a scant 30 minutes after the close of voting at 4:00 p.m., guild president John Gozigian announced that Blue Corn Café and Brewery’s Gatekeeper IPA was the winner. Gatekeeper is delightfully aromatic and nicely balanced – easily the best balanced of all the beers. Recently-installed head brewer and Seibel graduate Paul Mallory couldn’t have been happier to win his first Challenge (but local beer geeks know that Blue Corn was the inaugural IPA Challenge champion in 2002, and won again in 2013).
Other notable entries were Taos Mesa’s Girthy IPA with its strong malt backbone and grapefruit notes, and Rio Bravo’s malty and fruity Level 3 Double IPA. Quarter Celtic’s Gondola Party Starter was bright and strong, but very clean and bitter, and La Cumbre’s resinous Project Dank is always worthy of mention, with its grapefruity middle and astringent finish.
So it ends. What began 16 years ago with a few brewers lugging some kegs around the state — the first keg to float wins! — has evolved into a complex and professional set of mini-festivals delighting 650 IPA lovers, with the concomitant requirements of souvenir glassware, tee-shirts, logistics, and volunteers. The Brewers Guild has nurtured the IPA Challenge to become the jewel of their festivals, the most anticipated of the year for New Mexico beer fans. IPA lovers are already marking their calendars for July 2019 and girding their tastebuds for the 18th annual New Mexico IPA Challenge.