This somewhat secret beer contest crowns the country’s hoppiest IPA

Winning a medal at the Great American Beer Festival is a big deal. At best, it can put a small brewery on the map or change the fortunes of an individual brewer. At a minimum, it brings accolades to a brewery’s staff as they take the stage during the awards ceremony in front of hundreds of colleagues and friends.

But there’s another competition that takes place during the GABF every year, away from the bright lights of the Colorado Convention Center and the eyes (and taste buds) of the public.

The Alpha King Challenge is a 23-year-old, industry-only inside battle that pits the talents (and egos) of the nation’s best IPA brewers against one another for bragging rights as well as a 3D-printed crown of hops. (Yes, an actual gold and green crown in the shape of hops.) Judging takes place each year in Denver during the same week as the Great American Beer Festival, which means that this year’s Alpha King will be crowned on Friday, Oct. 7.

The criteria for victory: Brew the “best-tasting, hoppiest beer in America.”

“Oh yeah, it’s a big deal,” said Brian Hutchinson, the co-founder and brewer at Golden’s Cannonball Creek Brewery, with a twinkle in his eye.

Hutchinson won the crown back in 2009 for Hop Vivant Double IPA when he was still the head brewer at Boulder’s Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery. He’s competed every year since, and finished in the top 20 a few times, but hasn’t won the crown again.

Other winners through the years have included some of the best and best-known brewers and breweries in the country, including former Pizza Port brewer Jeff Bagby (who has three crowns); Lost Abbey’s Tomme Arthur; Russian River Brewing’s Vinnie Cilurzo for Pliny the Elder; Melvin Brewing’s Kirk McHale (two years in a row); Joe Mohrfeld of Pinthouse Pizza; and JC Hill of Alvarado Street Brewing. Brewing legend Larry Bell won the very first year for Two Hearted Ale.

“That’s a very hard list to get on,” said Phil Pesheck, head brewer at Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Brewing, which won in 2020 for Hopotheosis Double IPA. “Alpha King is like an all-out street fight to see who can make the best IPA in the world that year. Even making it into the top 20 every year is a formidable challenge. Few breweries make the top 20 year after year.”

In 2020 and 2021, the public portion of GABF had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic (although the GABF competition continued). Those years, Yakima Chief still held the Alpha King Challenge (judging took place elsewhere and winners were announced via Zoom).

That moment was big for Pesheck. “What did it feel like winning AK? Absolutely unbelievable, like a miracle … I think I was in a euphoric state of shock for about three months,” he said.

“We started seeing a lot more brewers from across the country coming by the taproom, which is always as good of a compliment as one can get as a brewer,” he added.

Founded in 1999 and named for one of Indiana-based 3 Floyds Brewing’s then-hoppiest beers, the Alpha King Challenge is run and sponsored by Yakima Chief, a major grower-owned hops wholesaler in Washington state. The judges come from “all walks of life,” said Joe Catron, who manages the competition with Yakima Chief colleague Ralph Woodall.

The beers themselves can be bitter or not, hazy or clear, and of almost any alcohol content. But it’s the balanced ones that typically win, Catron said. “Something you want more than one of.”

The very first challenge only had 10 submissions, but the numbers have grown and Alpha King has now maxed out at 150. Over the last two years, it was great to see the “joy and excitement” on the faces of the winners over Zoom, Catron said. “It will be much better this year to have it back in person.”

Judging takes place at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, 1001 16th Street Mall — as it has for a few years now — and although it’s not a public event, a few beer fans usually trickle in to keep tabs on its progress. A winner (as well as the top 20 finalists) should be announced around 4 p.m. on Friday on the Alpha King website, which means the public can try the beers at GABF — if those beers are on tap there and if you have tickets to a session on Friday or Saturday.

“This isn’t a huge deal like GABF but it is a really good opportunity for healthy competition,” Catron added. “The brewers take it serious. They want to win this thing.”

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