New Mexicans, it can be safely stated, are culinary innovators. The Frito pie*. The sopapilla. The green chile cheeseburger. Borne of hunger and New Mexican ingenuity, with local New Mexican chiles chopped by precise New Mexican hands, the green chile cheeseburger is the most famous example of the edible imagination of the people of the 47th state. Take a thing that is good and make it our own – bigger, bolder, spicier.
The Spanish brought chiles to the Native Pueblo tribes in what would become northern New Mexico in the 1580s. Being ancestors to future New Mexicans who will want to amplify every last flavor they encounter, the Puebloans gravitated to a particular style of pepper, and modified it to the long, fiery chile pod generations of New Mexicans would masochistically devour, setting fire to our mouths while sweating through our insanely delicious meals. We’re a little loco like this.
The New Mexico-style IPA follows in this tradition. We were drawn toward classic hop-forward profiles like Bear Republic’s Racer 5 and Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. While we thought the style was great, just like the chiles our forebears fell for in the 1500s, we needed MORE. The west coast IPA is cleaner and lighter by comparison. The Colorado-style (whatever the hell that is) seems something of a hybrid of west coast and New England styles. To drink an IPA in New Mexico, though, is not to drink a crisp or light beer, no. To drink an IPA in New Mexico is to submit your palate to an aggressive, punch-you-in-the-mouth, full-on assault by hops. See? We’re kinda loco.
That brings us to the New Mexico IPA Challenge, the Royal Rumble of IPA elimination tournaments. Preliminary rounds in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos led up to the championship, which was held on Saturday at the gorgeous new Bosque Brewing Co. location in Bernalillo, New Mexico.
The premise of the competition is simple. For 20 bucks, you are handed a tray with a dozen or so clear, plastic cups, each filled with 3-ish ounces of beer. You are also given an (empty) souvenir pint glass. You don’t know what the beers are. Under each cup is a number. Drink the cups of beer. On a piece of paper, write down the number of the beer that was your favorite and give that piece of paper to the bar-keep. They will pour you a pint of beer that corresponds with the number you chose and record your written vote. Drink that pint in your now full souvenir glass. Be happy, because beer. At the end of the day, the votes are tallied and the names of the beers are revealed, and you find out which you voted for, and which you roundly mocked like an arrogant jerk.
We attended the Albuquerque prelim and final rounds in 2017 (won for the second year in a row by the excellent Boxing Bear Brewing Company and their Bear Knuckle IPA). We went to the first elimination round in Albuquerque this year, where 44 breweries submitted entries for the best IPA in New Mexico. There were, to me, a surprisingly high amount of hazies as the state has been a relatively slow adopter of this trend. Would our hop-heavy palates allow for this softer, fruity invasion?
The previous 3 rounds whittled the 44 breweries down to a tidy field of 15 deserving finalists. At approximately 3 ounces per cup times 15 entries, plus an additional 16 ounces from the souvenir pint glass, each of us would be “tasting” the equivalent of a Super Big Gulp of boozy suds that day. Pretzels would reset our taste buds between sips. Lyft would cart our drunk arses home.
Aside from straight-up guzzling, there’s really no wrong way to do the blind taste test. I started sequentially, would jot down a few observations, work my way through all 15, and then start again at #1, noting the changes in each as both the temperature outside and the beer got warmer under the hot New Mexico sun.
Like a Joco Pastorius bassline, a few of Albuquerque’s premier beer makers have unmistakable hop profiles. In the elimination round, I knew La Cumbre the second that danky IPA hit my tongue (and also realized I spend way too much time and money drinking La Cumbre). It was the same in the finals with my #6 beer (which I guessed correctly to be Bosque’s bitter Just Bearly IPA) and #10 (AlbuMurky, the New England-style entry by the aforementioned Boxing Bear). I also guessed the Red River Bad Medicine Honey DIPA, but only because of the reddish color and caramelly finish. (We met the brewer later at the event and he described his recipe as the same hops used in Pliny the Elder, plus a ton of local honey. It’s not Pliny at all, but it tasted… unique.)
I liked the hazy #10 on my tray, but leaned more heavily toward the classic, hoppier offerings, deciding ultimately on #5, which was in this reviewer’s humble know-nothing opinion, the most well-balanced IPA on my tray. My brother went #5, too, and my girlfriend went on her own with #11. The votes were tallied and we walked through to the back of the brewery to await the results.
The announcer, shooting for some dramatic flair, slowly and agonizingly announced the third place winner as AlbuMurky, the hazy brewed by two-time defending champ, Boxing Bear. Another Albuquerque heavy-hitter, Marble Brewery, was announced as the second place finisher (my beloved #5 beer, which would turn out to be the Safeword IPA). Steve Harvey actually got the order wrong as it was Boxing Bear second, Marble third, but that was a small detail. He had one more chance with the winner yet to be announced.
So which storied Albuquerque brewery won the championship? None! It was Blue Corn Brewery out of Santa Fe (#4 on our trays, but apparently #1 in our hearts), the first non-Albuquerque brewery to win the competition since none other than Blue Corn back in 2013.
My girlfriend, to her credit, described the eventual champ as “not bad/top contender/got malty.” I described #4 as “bitter/too skunky,” proving definitively that I know jack shit about this beer-tasting thing. We did make the trip to Santa Fe on Sunday and stopped in Blue Corn to try a pint of the champ (named Gatekeeper IPA), but they didn’t have it on yet. Presumably, it’s a special or one-off recipe, so we’ll have to wait til they make a bigger batch before we can get reacquainted with it.
As for the hop versus hazy debate, Boxing Bear did comment in a classy concession post on Instagram that their hazy was a “risky” move. I can’t disagree too much with that and credit them for trying something different with a three-peat on the line.
The votes at the end of the day did lean heavily toward sledgehammer heavy hops, but like chile peppers, west coast IPAs, and tourists’ stolen cars, maybe the New England-style beer will be the next thing that New Mexico takes and makes her own.
* the late, great Anthony Bourdain disagrees with the greatness of the Frito Pie
PS – Come visit us in New Mexico and drink our awesome beers! New Mexico Ale Trail