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For the second year in a row, Wisconsin IPA Fest appeared to go off without a hitch, and throngs of beer lovers got to try some of the best IPAs in the state.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to judge IPA Fest for the second time this year, and on Saturday, August 4, I joined dozens of Wisconsin brewers and skilled beer scribes like Milwaukee Magazine editor Chris Drosner and Kathy Flanigan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, on a tasting panel. The sampling in the Third Space warehouse lasted for roughly three hours. When it was done, the winners were crowned:

  • First place: Third Space Upward Spiral, a well-crafted West Coast IPA
  • Second place: Central Waters Unsettled 
  • Third place: The Fermentorium Juice Packets
  • People’s choice award: Demon Haze, a tasty hazy IPA from Eagle Park
Andy Gehl and Kevin Wright

Third Space founders Andy Gehl and Kevin Wright discuss where to display their IPA fest trophy.

“We were really happy with the growth [this year],” said Third Space co-owner and brewer Kevin Wright. “Going from 36 to 48 breweries is a big jump, and we were really excited to get that kind of participation in year two. It was very cool winning. One of the best parts of this competition is that it is your fellow brewers that are doing the blind judging. Being recognized by your peers is always very rewarding and humbling.”

Wisconsin IPA Fest is becoming one of my favorite yearly beer fests. This year it provided a few takeaways regarding the local craft beer scene:

1) The haze craze is alive and well.

Last year, Neenah’s Lion’s Tail Brewing Company brought Juice Cloud, a hazy IPA that was one of my favorites. It was the only New England style IPA that I tasted during judging. This year, the hazy brews were decidedly more abundant and even came from the likes of Central Waters. The beer-drinking public got to vote on their favorite IPA, and the masses chose Eagle Park’s Demon Haze as their favorite. The people have spoken.

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2) Listening to brewers discuss their problems can be entertaining and enlightening.

Honestly, the task of tasting small pours of several IPAs wasn’t the highlight. The coolest part for me was being able to see brewers from all over the state interact with each other. The range of topics discussed around the tasting table was entertaining, to say the least — how hard it can be to staff a brewpub, the rising cost of vanilla, how the day-to-day life of a brewer is decidedly not glamorous, why Pixar needs to make more movies (not kidding).

3) There’s a youth movement afoot.

I was a fly on the wall as Central Waters brewer Anello Mollica discussed the brewing state of affairs with 3 Sheeps owner Grant Pauly, and the realization that they were two of the elder statesmen in the group of young brewers. There certainly appeared to be a younger demographic in the tasting room, led by the twenty-something founders of Eagle Park Brewing, Jake Schinker and Max and Jack Borgardt.

4) The local beer community is a strong one.

Being able to draw representatives from 48 breweries from across the state is a pretty impressive feat, but they weren’t the only ones in the craft beer community to participate. Others like John Graham, founder of The Crafter Space brewery incubator, helped run the event and Nick Marking, who owns The Brass Tap, brought his family to the fest.

5) Beer drinkers love their IPAs.

Roughly 1,000 people showed up on a hot day at Third Space to sample IPAs. At times the main bar at the brewery was lined up 8- to 10-deep with thirsty patrons — solid evidence that the style resonates with the beer drinking community.

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