Having spent more than a decade writing about music, I’m well aware of the degree to which Internet-based hype can affect public opinion. In the first half of the 00’s, this story played out time and time again: a young band would catch the ear of a small handful of influential bloggers, who would then turn around and share their discovery with their ever-growing readership, and because technology allowed word to spread so quickly, consensus would loudly state that said band was the Next Big Thing—oftentimes before they’d even written enough material to play a full set. It was the beginning of an era where we came to value newness and obscurity (or being able to say we rescued someone from obscurity) as much as, if not more than, we valued the quality of the music itself. We wanted a story, not just another brilliant Wilco record, basically.
Nowhere is this particular narrative more prominent right now than in the world of craft beer, where message board buzz looms large, and small breweries wind up struggling to meet demand for their product. The most obvious example is Heady Topper from Vermont’s The Alchemist brewery. It’s an extremely delicious IPA that’s climbed to #1 on the Beer Advocate Top 250, despite the fact that it’s not regularly distributed outside of Vermont—and there are parts of that state where you can’t even get it!
I bring up Heady Topper because while, yes, it’s really, really great, it’s also… well, it’s just an IPA. It has the same general flavor profile as countless others; it doesn’t transcend the style so much as it is simply a really well executed take on it—which is why it’s hard to believe its ascent to “Best Beer in the World” status was based purely on how it tastes. When you spend years wanting to taste a beer, and then you finally suck it up and take a 6-hour road trip, or you finally meet (or hire) somebody who has family members visiting from Vermont, and you manage to score a single 16oz can you’ve been reading such glowing things about for so long, of course you’re going to give it a perfect rating—would you want to believe you’d spent all that time and energy lusting after something that turned out to be… just another IPA?
Over the past year or so, I’ve started thinking a lot about how hype has affected the beer scene here in New York, and especially with our locally made IPAs. It’s not exactly the whole thrill of the hunt thing that takes hold on national and international levels, but I’ve definitely gotten the sense that we’re quicker to reach consensus, which then snowballs even further—as it picks up momentum, it’s easier to climb on board than it is to stop it.
When Other Half Brewing launched earlier this year, the verdict came back fast that they’re making some of the best beers in the state. And I think they probably are—I’ve sampled most of their IPAs at this point, and they’re all fantastic. But then over the course of a few weeks, I tasted super fresh IPAs from other local breweries like Barrier, Great South Bay, and Singlecut, and I was struck by how good all of them were—good enough that there was simply no justifying the seemingly huge discrepancy in how the public views them. Why do some breweries get all the attention while others are essentially ignored? Is it just the taste? Or is it groupthink? Do we like one brewery’s logo better than another? Do we have a friend who works for one of them? Are we influenced by something we read on the internet by a writer we respect?
In hopes of answering some of these questions (hooboy, how’s this for a buried lede!), I decided to set up a blind taste test of 10 locally made IPAs. The idea, of course, was that we’d taste the beers and rank them in order of preference based only on the appearance, aroma, and taste of what was in the glass in front of us. I assembled a panel of judges to join me: Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course and Brewed Awakening; Niko Krommydas, editor of the Craft Beer NY app and columnist for Long Island Pulse and Yankee Brew News; Meredith Heil, writer at Beerded Ladies, and Zach Mack, owner of Alphabet City Beer Co.
The parameters were fairly simple: IPAs ranging from 6% to 8.0% ABV were eligible if they were from breweries based in New York City proper, Long Island, or Westchester County—all close enough that they can consistently get product into our bars, restaurants and bottle shops, but also close enough that we can go visit them without too much trouble. Some of the beers we tasted were canned or bottled, while others were on tap or in growlers—the idea was that we were judging them in the vessel New Yorkers were most likely to encounter them. All of them were extremely fresh—a few had been kegged that week, and one was even kegged that day. Here, an alphabetized list of the beers we sampled:
Barrier Brewing, Money IPA
Brooklyn Brewery, East India Pale Ale
Great South Bay, Field 5 IPA
Greenport Harbor Brewing Co, Other Side IPA
Kelso, Kelso IPA
Other Half Brewing Co, Hop Showers
Peekskill Brewing, Eastern Standard IPA
Port Jeff Brewing Company, Party Boat IPA
Singlecut Brewery, Half Stack IPA
Sixpoint Brewery, Bengali Tiger
The results were a mixed bag of what I think a lot of us expected and what I’m pretty sure none of us expected. Peekskill’s Eastern Standard came out on top, with four out of five first-place votes, while Other Side’s Hop Showers came in a close second. After that came the surprises: Port Jeff Brewing Company’s Party Boat IPA took the third spot, while Singlecut’s Half Stack and Great South Bay’s Field 5 rounded out the top five—three breweries and three beers that tend to get left out of conversations about the best beer being produced in the area. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that Barrier’s much loved (and still really amazing!) Money IPA fell outside the top five, in sixth place.
As I mention in the video below, it’s very much worth noting that these are all very good beers—none of them would last very long at all in my refrigerator. Together, they illustrate what we’ve known all along: there’s an astounding amount of high-quality beer being made in this region, far more so than at any other point in recent memory. Get out there and taste as much of it as possible, and remember to keep an open mind—your favorite beer might not be the one you thought it was.
Click here to cast your own vote!
The full results:
1) Peekskill Brewing, Eastern Standard IPA
2) Other Half Brewing Co, Hop Showers
3) Port Jeff Brewing Company, Party Boat IPA
4) Singlecut Brewery, Half Stack IPA
5) Great South Bay, Field 5 IPA
6) Barrier Brewing Co, Money IPA
7) Sixpoint Brewery, Bengali Tiger
8) Greenport Harbor Brewing Co, Other Side IPA
9) Brooklyn Brewery, East India Pale Ale
10) KelSo, KelSo IPA
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter @MikeConklin.
Video by Tron Lennon, photos by Robert Caputo.