Iowa IPA Challenge

Apparently tonight, in downtown Iowa City, there was a major throwdown of Iowa-made India pale ales. You probably haven’t heard about it, and even if you had, you would be hard pressed to find any information at all. The only reference on the series of tubes seems to be a tweet from Short’s that it is happening either during or as a part of the Top Chef of Iowa City. This event is being put on by the Downtown Association of Iowa City, and features chefs battling it out for culinary champion as well as bartenders showing off their most “creative” cocktails.

Short’s Burger & Shine has been making waves since they switched all of their taps to Iowa-made beers last year. Apparently, with this challenge they were hoping to capitalize on the recent growth of Iowa craft beer and an already-planned foodie event. I would argue that they made three critical errors in calling for this competition.

First, the timing. The tweet mentioning the challenge appeared yesterday on Short’s feed. They even admitted to having a paltry three entries. Three beers is a tasting, not a competition. Eric Sorensen, brewer at Rock Bottom in Des Moines, tweeted simply, “wish we would have had more notice.”

Second, the venue. The Top Chef event is tied in with the Downtown Association’s annual meeting. Surely the focus at that meeting will be on the operations of the association. Where the entertainment comes into play, it is reasonable to assume that the stars of the show will be the chefs and bartenders, since that is the competition that has been advertised.

Finally, the audience. I would expect that the majority of the attendees of this evening’s events are members of the association hosting the meeting. These are businesspeople, not beer aficionados. These are people who purchased their tickets over a week ago to an event that, at the time, had no beer elements. An Iowa IPA Challenge is a grand idea, but it must be held where all beer lovers can take part.

Enough complaining, let’s try some beer. Tonight I will be tasting four Iowa-made India pale ales. My review of Millstream Iowa Pale Ale is almost two years old, so I’ll re-rate it, but I just tasted both of the Peace Tree IPAs a few weeks ago so we can let those reviews stand. This all means that my Iowa IPA Challenge has twice the number of entrants of the “official” one.

First up, the Iowa Grown I.P.A. made by Madhouse Brewing Company in Newton. Since it is made with Iowa-grown hops, I picked up this beer for a post I will be doing soon about local ingredients, but it seems fitting to rate it today. The Iowa Grown IPA pours a burnt orange color, nearly clear, with some creamy white head. The nose is simply not hoppy at all. There is a caramel malt character like raisins that borders on vinous.

There is some hoppiness to the flavor, a deep, earthy grassiness. But the hops contribute minimal perceptible bitterness, and no strong, clean flavors. The caramel malt character carries through, maintaining the raisin and vinous flavor. A residual sweetness would balance the hops if they were there. The carbonation is a bit too intense. The flavor is unsettling, and not just because you expect to taste an IPA. This beer hasn’t really ever heard of the style.

Now I will taste the Iowa Pale Ale from Millstream Brewing Company in Amana. The Iowa Pale Ale is a very hazy pumpkin orange color. The buff-colored head is creamy and generous. The hops make the aroma citric and astringent, like the contribution of orange peel to a Belgian wit. Otherwise the nose is barren, with almost no malt character and no readily identifiable hops.

The flavor is mild and citric, as the aroma would indicate. The astringent citrus character continues to lend a Belgian wit quality to the beer: were it not for the color and body, you might mistake this for a witbier. There is a thickness to the palate and some residual sweetness; however, there is no rich malt flavor to justify it. This beer had a friend once who knew what it was like to be an IPA.

Next up, the double IPA from Millstream, HOP2, which has the dubious honor of having the worst label of the group. Even for Millstream this label is bad. Just look at it. No wait, don’t.

The HOP2 pours a copper-tinted auburn, opalescent, with some creamy off-white head. The nose of this beer, like the regular IPA, is disturbingly citric, in this case more like lemon peel. There is also an unpleasant character that I could name, but won’t here for the reader’s sake. It’s mild, so hopefully you won’t pick it up. There is a bit of a caramel malt character, but hardly any.

The flavor is simply unpleasant. There is a medicinal alcohol flavor, which could be the result of either of two major issues. First, they might be stressing the yeast past its point of comfort, in which case they would simply need to switch to a new strain. My suspicion, however, is that this flavor comes from the use of hop extract, used to try to boost the hop flavor and bitterness cheaply.

If you can get past this off-flavor, the beer is not too bad. There is a decent grassy hop character, as well as some sweet, toasty, caramel malt flavor. But those are hard to detect behind the sharp fusel alcohol bite. This beer probably read the Wikipedia article on India pale ale.

For my last Iowa-made India pale ale I had to step out. I headed over to Devotay to try the Golden Nugget on tap. This IPA is made by one of the newest Iowa breweries, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah.

The Golden Nugget pours a lightly hazy pale straw with some bone-white head. The nose is mild, but pleasantly so. The Nugget hops certainly come through, producing a lightly fruity and earthy nose dominated by grapefruit and pine. There is just the faintest malt aroma.

The taste follows the aroma: the pine and grapefruit from the hops give a rich hoppy foundation. Some bready malt begins to balance, but this beer is very dry, so the bitterness starts to get away again. There is just a bit of a sweetness or richness that is soon overtaken by the lingering bitterness. The Golden Nugget isn’t too hoppy, it could just use a bit more malt to balance it out. Now here is a beer that understands what an IPA really is.

Well, if you add to this discussion my ratings of the two Peace Tree India pale ales, I think you have a pretty good overview of the Iowa craft brewing scene. Take that how you will, but I’m content looking forward to more beers from breweries like Toppling Goliath and Peace Tree.

+Toppling Goliath Golden Nugget

3.7 (2-8-8-3-16)

+/-Madhouse Iowa Grown I.P.A.

2.8 (3-6-5-3-11)

+/-Millstream HOP2

2.8 (4-6-5-3-10)

+/-Millstream Iowa Pale Ale

2.8 (4-5-5-3-11)

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2 Responses to “Iowa IPA Challenge”

  1. Madison says:

    Glad to hear you like the Golden Nugget, Andy. Naughty 90 Oaked IPA will make its Iowa City debut on Wednesday. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think!

    You’re right, the Iowa IPA Challenge could have been advertised better, but we had a blast at the event and can’t wait for next year! We hope that more Iowa breweries will be able to join us in the fun.



  2. couch says:

    I’m looking forward to trying it!

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