The “hot” beer of the summer has to be White IPA. It went from nowhere a couple of years ago to everywhere this year. It’s growth in popularity really is something else. It shouldn’t be too surprising. It has a fantastic combination of sharp, citrusy witbier characteristics with a unique hop bite.
As I think I have mentioned before, I have quickly become enamoured with this style. So much so this summer on my homebrewery I brewed up a batch, which I called Wigan White in honour of my recent trip to the home of my much bedraggled Latics (read here for backstory). As I was sipping a glass of my version a while back, I started to wonder how it compared with commercial styles. It didn’t take me long to move from that thought to setting up a White IPA Three-Way. I decided to compare the two commerical White IPAs available at the time – Alley Kat’s Avenue Whyte and Deschutes Chainbreaker – with my interpretation. Wild Rose has just put out their own White IPA – White Shadow – but it wasn’t yet available when I came up with the idea. So three it was.
The cool thing about side-by-side comparisons is that subtle differences between interpretations become more pronounced. All three beer are in the same style, and so will share many qualities. By sampling them at the same time, the subtle differences come to the surface, offering greater insight into the slight tweaks each brewery makes to a style.
Since my purpose was comparison, rather than evaluation, I didn’t sweat making the tasting blind. I did, though, make sure all three beer were in similar condition – same temperature, poured into identical glasses, etc. I poured all three and proceeded to move through my standard order for judging – aroma first, then appearance, then two sips to assess flavour. (I wanted to photograph the event, but my daughter had my camera that day, so no visual evidence exists).
All three offered a witbier-like yellowy white haziness, although I did find small gradations in colour. Deschutes was the lights, mine the darkest (I suspect that is due to my smaller volume leading to greater boil kettle darkening). Alley Kat’s formed the thickest, most impressive head – a rocky white mountainous. Deschutes and mine were looser and very similar to each other.
In the aroma, I found Deschutes to be brighter, with more accent on lemon and citrus. Alley Kat’s was earthier with a more rounded hop character. Mine was in the middle, providing a grassier grain quality but with earthy accents.
It was in the flavour, however, where real differences appeared, more than I had anticipated. Deschutes was lightest in body with a summery grain and balanced citrus hop which builds slowly through the aftertaste. Alley Kat’s was the most hop assertive, with a sharp, catty character. It also had a more rounded body and a sweeter note at the end. Mine was sweeter upfront (in my opinion a pleasant wheat and pilsner malt sweetness). The bitterness in mine was sneakier. It started less noticeable but kept building until spilling over into a pleasant cascade linger.
These were three very different beer. Deschutes presents more summery and seems to retain its witbier essence the best. Alley Kat’s leans more IPA, while still keeping a soft wheat character. Mine falls a bit in the middle. While I was happy with the malt character I drew out, I would have liked a bit more witbier citrus and coriander.
I recognize readers can only sample two of the beer (although you can now do your own three-way with the Wild Rose version), but the addition of my homebrewed version added a dimension to the test by allowing for some triangulation.
It was a good lesson in understanding the commonality and diversity that make up a “style”. All three beer are clearly and unquestioningly White IPAs. Yet between them they show the range of movement a brewer has while still staying with the boundaries of the so-called style. Which is the better interpretation falls entirely to one’s personal tastes. Allowance for such diversity is easier in a newer style such as White IPA (if we can even yet call it a style), as the boundaries are still in flux and there is no “classic” to which others get compared (although, possibly, Chainbreaker could classify as that, being the first and all).
But even for more established styles, we can take the lesson that some diversity within a style is not only acceptable, it is desirable. If every brewer aimed to match one single interpretation, craft beer would be a lot more boring.
I may, if time permits, attempt to get even more adventurous and try a White IPA four-way in the near future. I might need to act fast, though, because the stock of my version is dwindling rapidly. Such is the sweet sorrow of homebrewing – your favourite batches tend to disappear the quickest.