Words & Deeds

Boise beer fans prefer big breweries, not local, in blind tasting

Things got packed quickly at Beer Wars on Sept. 3 in Downtown Boise.
Things got packed quickly at Beer Wars on Sept. 3 in Downtown Boise. 10 Barrel Brewing Co.

Beer Wars, the annual IPA battle hosted by 10 Barrel Brewing Co. in Downtown Boise, was an entertaining, eye-opening party last weekend.

It also was frustrating and humbling. Which turns out to be a healthy thing.

About 2,000 craft-beer enthusiasts crowded into a parking lot and sampled up to 30 IPAs from five Western states. Then they voted for their favorite.

It was a candy store for IPA fans. But it also was torture not knowing what you were drinking. All a person could do was walk up, hand over a beer token and request an anonymous liquid. “I’ll take a No. 7, please!”

Seriously, it was like being waterboarded with beer. Yet loving it.

This festival — also held at 10 Barrel brewpubs in Portland and Bend, Ore. — takes no prisoners. As a blind tasting, there’s no sugarcoating the fact that when all was said and done, Boise had the most large-scale-production-beer taste of all three cities.

Oskar Blues Brewery’s OB IPA won first place. (Oskar Blues has breweries in three states; its group of companies produced 261,000 barrels in 2015.) Seattle-based Georgetown Brewing Co. (maker of Manny’s Pale Ale) took second with Bodhizafa IPA. And, we’re not worthy, but Stone Brewing IPA took third. (Stone, the biggest craft brewery in Southern California, cranked out 325,645 barrels in 2015.)

All of those breweries deliver outstanding beers. But from an artisan, drink-local level, Stone and Oskar Blues might make a craft-beer elitist wince. Did our tongues have to shut out the Idaho breweries? Sorry, Sockeye, Payette, Edge, Boise Brewing, Woodland Empire, Sawtooth and Grand Teton. Not to mention modest-sized Oregon standouts such as Boneyard, Breakside and Barley Brown’s. Oregon, by the way, was the winner among the five states represented.

Shawn Kelso, brewmaster at 10 Barrel in Boise, feels our pain.

“It’s kind of weird,” he admits good-naturedly. “I did well in Oregon but not here.”

Kelso created the recipe for an extra-dry-hopped version of Joe IPA, called Locals Only, which won in Bend. (Second in Bend went to Breakside Brewery’s Wanderlust, third to Georgetown’s Bodhizafa.) Another Kelso creation, Category 56, took third place in Portland. (First went to New Belgium Brewing’s Citradelic, second to Breakside Wanderlust.)

Let’s face it. Blind tastings were made to humiliate us.

Kelso admits that he wasn’t 100-percent sure he could identify his own beer at Beer Wars.

“I’ll defend myself a little bit,” he adds, before explaining: “After you try a few different IPAs ...”

Yes. Palate fatigue. It is brutal.

Kelso claims beer even tastes different to him depending on where he’s sipping it.

“If I have a beer here (at the brewery) and drink it, it kind of tastes not night and day, but different than in a venue like my house. I don’t know why. The smell in the air what it is? The venue?”

I believe him. Being delusional even without added alcohol, I was certain I’d pegged Stone IPA at Beer Wars after a fellow beer drinker suggested it.

Wrong. Hours later, a master list forced me to admit that I’d misdiagnosed everything in my path. I’d even decided that I hated a beer that I’ve enjoyed for years. (Sorry, Lagunitas IPA. I even threatened to pour you out. Must have been palate fatigue, right?)

The blind tasting at Beer Wars made me wish that they’d just identify all the brews from the start and let us seek out what we wanted. There was no way to try all 30 beers, anyway, unless you were superhuman. Or insane.

But afterward, Kelso made me rethink my frustration.

“The blind tasting, as much as I find it somewhat annoying like you’re talking about, it’s also kind of cool,” he explained. “Because I talked to a lot more people than I normally would have talked to.”

He’s right. Everywhere at Beer Wars, people quizzed each other. “Which number is that? How is it? Should I skip that one? Check out the nose on this one!”

From a social-interaction perspective, Beer Wars was the bomb. (That said, it needs to be moved to a larger parking lot. I left before the event was even half over, and it already was crazy crowded.)

Whatever the case, when it comes to taming the beer ego, nothing slaps you in the face like a blind tasting.

I’m proud to have Boise taste in beer. Anybody spare a can of Natty Light?

Michael Deeds: 208-377-6407, @michaeldeeds