Thanks to my nightly ritual of “adult NyQuil,” also known as beer, I rarely have a hard time sleeping. But the eve of the New Mexico IPA Challenge always brings an uncomfortable night of rest. Mixed with humid weather that left my swamp cooler helpless, the looming challenge had me tossing and turning all night. Last year’s judging in Albuquerque was held at Il Vicino Tap Room, and seating was scarce—most people sat on empty kegs. I was afraid if I didn’t get to this year’s competition early enough, I wouldn’t be able to get my fill of the best IPAs our state has to offer.
But I’m a professional. On the morning of Saturday, July 31, I even managed to hit up McDonald’s for “breakfast,” thinking I’d need a full stomach for the day ahead. Next time I think I’ll just sleep past the 10:30 a.m. cutoff for hash browns. After arguing with the cashier about the availability of “just an egg McMuffin,” I ate and headed to the event.
The IPA Challenge takes place at three brewpubs over a six-day period. Every year, the challenge begins in one of New Mexico’s smaller cities, with the second and third events reserved for Santa Fe and Albuquerque. For 2010, the first round was held at High Desert Brewing Co. in Las Cruces, the second at Santa Fe Brewing Company. The real fun is always at the Albuquerque location, so I saved my $20 for that and coasted downhill to Chama River Brewing Company, the final host for this year’s competition. Probably because Chama River is a full-service restaurant as well as a brewery, the tasting time was limited to three hours. I thought I was being smart by getting there at 11:40 a.m., 20 minutes before the scheduled start time of noon.
I was surprised to find the pouring had started and that 15 people were already in line ahead of me. I guess they haven’t seen my “It Isn’t a Party Till ABQ Beer Geek Arrives” T-shirt. With 10 statewide breweries offering up two-ounce samples of their IPAs, I can’t blame the early drinkers. There were originally 11 breweries scheduled to compete, but Hallenbrick Brewery had to pull out. My texts to the owners were not returned, so I can’t give you the reason. I was just thankful a frugal friend of mine did not attend, as he would have demanded a discount since the advertised amount of beer would not be served.
I was able to get my 10 samples within five minutes of waiting in line, thanks to the efficient setup Chama implemented. All the beers were served from behind a table in the actual brewery area, preventing a backup around the taps. In every N.M. IPA Challenge, beers are labeled with numbers, rather than names, to make the judging impartial. The beers are also presented in a random order each day of the challenge. It’s the best way to tell if a beer really measures up. Craft beer lovers often hype a beer because of its reputation and lack of availability, so a blind tasting removes the chance of any preconceived opinions melting into the actual scoring.
Craft beer lovers often hype a beer because of its reputation and lack of availability, so a blind tasting removes the chance of any preconceived opinions.
Those two-ounce pours, along with a souvenir pint glass filled with your favorite at the end, add up to about three beers. I was served the allotted amount and settled in for some tasting. My technique is to take a small taste of beer followed by sips of water. I make notes of my initial reaction, then go back and give a second opinion of the beers. In between tastings, I meandered over to tables with people from previous judgings. As always, I was representing my beer blog with a www.ABQBeerGeek.com shirt. At one point, a guy said he thought my site was “pretty good.” Sigh. Look, everyone; there’s no need to get so excited. I drink my beers one at a time, just like you, unless I’ve had a bad day. Then I pour two beers in a big glass, which still counts as one when I talk to my doctor.
After feeling the love from the fans, I was able to get back to my second tasting. I’ve attended this event since 2005, and each time I’ve picked the eventual winner. With comments like “decent” and “not the worst,” some of my notes may not allude to the sharpness of my palate, but I seem to pick ’em OK. The final results, followed by my comments, look like this.
10) Rio Grande Brewing (Moriarty). I had this last as well. Someone has to finish at the bottom.
8) Two-way tie: High Desert Brewing (Las Cruces), Turtle Mountain Brewing (Rio Rancho). High Desert was second-worst on my list. Turtle’s just tasted a little off to me.
5) Three-way tie: Second Street Brewery (Santa Fe), Blue Corn Brewery (Santa Fe), Three Rivers Brewing (Farmington). I liked all of these but thought Three Rivers was a bit better than the other two.
4) Chama River Brewing (Albuquerque). I usually love Chama’s Jackalope IPA, but when I recently bought a growler, I was disappointed. It was lacking the punch I’m used to from this beer.
3) Santa Fe Brewing (Santa Fe). The reformulated IPA was a hit with the crowd. Way better than the old recipe.
2) Marble Brewery (Albuquerque). The bridesmaid again! After going back and forth, I broke my streak and chose Marble as No. 1. I still don’t know what swayed me, and this was the toughest choice of all the challenges so far. But I can’t argue with the consensus:
1) Il Vicino Brewing (Albuquerque). This marks the second straight year Il Vicino has taken home the trophy, this time with its Exodus IPA. Exodus, as in, “We’re moving our brewery and won’t be brewing again till September at the earliest, but here’s a special IPA to tide you over.” How cruel is that? The IPA judged as the best in New Mexico for 2010 is not available to purchase. A shame, though I’d be happy with a growler of almost any of the IPAs entered this year. It’s amazing how a state that ranks 36th for population could be the home of so many good beers.
Thanks to Chama River for hosting this year’s event, and to all of you who came out and supported your favorite breweries!