I Tried It: American Pale Ale and IPA Blind Tasting

After taking the Advanced Cicerone exam, one skill I knew I wanted to develop was being able to identify specific brands of beer from a blind sample. Although I'm still honing my abilities to identify a specific style from a blind sample, I've decided to introduce this even more nuanced skill into my sensory training.

I'm a glutton for punishment, what can I say?

As I've said before, I'm not always confident in my sensory evaluations of beer samples. I get in my head. I over-complicate it. The logical side of my brain pats the emotional part of my brain on the head (is that a thing?), gives it a patronizing smile, and tells it to STFU because the logical part of my brain can reason its way through the evaluation. The biggest hurdle in my sensory training is giving the emotional part of my brain - my gut, my sense memories, etc. - enough of a backbone to tell the logical part of my brain to STFU for once because the emotional part has got the evaluation under control.

Rote memorization I can do for days - having confidence in my own tasting abilities? Not so much.

All of this dirty laundry-airing to say I recognize that sensory evaluations of beer are my biggest roadblock and the one that pushes me to get uncomfortable and challenge myself. 

As it turns out, trying to identify specific beer styles when all the samples are similar is harder than it looks. For this tasting, I gathered commercial examples of two American Pale Ales, one Blonde Ale, and five American IPAs, based off the commercial examples listed in the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Guidelines:

  1.  Kona Big Wave Golden Ale (Blonde Ale)
  2. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (American Pale Ale)
  3. 3 Floyds Zombie Dust (American Pale Ale)
  4. Bell's Two-Hearted (American IPA)
  5. Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA (American IPA)
  6. Fat Heads Head Hunter (American IPA)
  7. Lagunitas IPA (American IPA)
  8. Stone IPA (American IPA)

Based on the availability of beers in a given style, I will sometimes - like here - supplement my tastings with commercial examples from the 2008 Guidelines. Although once I lined up all the beers, I realized there were eight samples in front of me, which is too much for a tasting panel, particularly a panel of hoppy to very hoppy beers. When I do this again in the future, I will probably cut the amount of samples in half. Not only does your palate get fatigued from tasting so many samples, but the alcohol in each one - even with 4 ounce samples - catches up to you about halfway through and you're not in the mood to critique anymore. 

Me halfway through an eight beer flight

Me halfway through an eight beer flight

One key thing I did differently with this tasting than I hadn't done before was evaluate each beer using a BJCP beer scoresheet. If you haven't seen a beer scoresheet before, it is what beer judges use during competitions to score beers as well as provide feedback to the brewers. The scoresheet breaks the evaluation of the beer into five categories: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Each section has a maximum amount of points available. For example, appearance is allotted a maximum of three points while flavor has a maximum of twenty points - after all, it's what's inside that counts, right? 

The reasoning behind using scoresheets this time was twofold. First, I was doing a blind tasting of beers and, because I had never tried to identify specific beer brands in a flight before, I wanted to do a full evaluation of each beer. If I picked up wood notes in one sample, I wanted to be able to go back later and identify Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as being the beer in which I picked up woody notes (it was). That way, the next time I'm sampling a beer, I can not only identify it as an American Pale Ale, but I can also further identify it as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale because I'll pick up the same wood notes. Second, I am retaking my BJCP tasting exam in a couple months in an effort to score higher so that I can sit for the BJCP written exam. (You can read more about this here.) A major part of scoring well on the BJCP tasting exam is being able to fill out a scoresheet thoroughly. I need to score at least five points higher on my tasting exam to be eligible for the written exam, so practicing my evaluation and feedback on the BJCP scoresheets is a must.

Much like my blind tasting of Strong Belgian Ales, I found this tasting to be extremely challenging. While it was my first time trying to identify specific beers rather than beer styles, I still expected to be better at it than I was. The Kona Big Wave was pretty easy to pick out since it was the only Blonde Ale in the panel, although anyone who has had Big Wave can attest that it's pretty hoppy for a Blonde Ale. The same is true with Zombie Dust: it's classified as an American Pale Ale, but it can go up against any American IPA.

While I only correctly identified the Blonde Ale in my line-up, it was an extremely educational exercise. Not knowing which beer was which was beneficial in performing a sensory analysis without any preconceived notions about the beer I was tasting. For instance, I found one IPA to be incredibly bitter compared to the other samples and not terribly balanced. I wish I could tell you what I thought about all the beers, but another danger of drinking eight different samples is that by the end, you don't pay attention to where you put your scoresheets and now fear they may be lost forever.

Oh well - onward! My upcoming beer brand identification panels include American Brown Ales and Porters as well as Double IPAs. If you're interested in developing your palate as well as your brand identification, I highly recommend pulling a few commercial examples from the BJCP Guidelines (just download them already!!!) and evaluating them using the BJCP scoresheets.