TRAVERSE CITY — Sure, beer festivals are great to attend and specialty releases are exciting, but what about a showdown for the best IPA?

The Traverse City Ale Trail IPA Challenge, held Thursday night at The Little Fleet, brought the first ever showdown of its kind to the area. Done as a blind tasting, the event gave attendees the chance to judge beer without knowing who was behind it. And for someone like myself who prefers a stout, it put my beer tasting skills to the test.

Upon entering, I was given a tasting glass and an official ballot sheet. Going in a logical order, I tore off the “1” on my ballot sheet and handed it to the bartender. Not knowing what I was getting was tough and made me drink my beer a bit slower, taking time to consider the variety of flavors.

There was a place on the ballot to take notes for each IPA. As I worked my way through each tasting, I took note of a large array of flavor profiles: bitter, earthy, floral, hints of pineapple and perhaps a bit of coffee. I like a beer that stands out from the crowd, and knew when I had found the one I would vote for. I placed my vote in the voting jar and awaited the results.

There was also a panel of celebrity judges, which added another dimension to the challenge. Celebrity judges ranged from Brian Tennis, of the Michigan Hop Alliance and Katrina Jenkins, Brew Manager for the Microbrew & Music Festival, to Brad Van Dommelen, President & CEO of Traverse City Tourism.

“I really enjoyed the experience as a judge because it really caused me to carefully consider multiple characteristics for each IPA we were tasting,” explained Van Dommelen.

After votes from attendees and judges were tallied up and the names of the secret brews were released, the winners were revealed. From the top of the bar, it was announced that the unique Brewery Ferment took third place. Then, second place was given to newcomer Rare Bird Brewpub. First place — drumroll please — went to long-standing brewer John Niedermaier from Brewery Terra Firma.

“Being the newest brewery in town and being a female brewer, I felt like I had something to prove,” explained Tina Schuett, co-owner and Head Brewer for Rare Bird. “It was a huge honor to get second place. There’s nobody better to get second to. John Niedermaier is a legend in Northern Michigan brewing.”

Schuett and Niedermaier actually collaborated on the Rare Bird IPA, due to Rare Bird’s licensing restrictions. They crafted the recipe together, which included five hop varieties. Schuett brewed her recipe at Brewery Terra Firma and entered the challenge without being able to taste her final product.

This allowed her to also participate in the challenge with an unbiased perspective. This made taking second place even more exciting. “It gave me a real feeling like I’m doing something right knowing that people picked it blindly,” Schuett stated.

The “unbiased perspective” of the IPA Challenge added an exciting element for all attending the event. Events like this, coupled with the TC Ale Trail, TC Cycle Pub and a general creative approach to beer have created a dynamic atmosphere for beer lovers.

“When you offer specialty beer events like the IPA Challenge, Traverse City Beer Week or others it does attract people with the specific interest to learn about and enjoy our local beers,” stated Van Dommelen.

The IPA Challenge exemplified the booming Traverse City beer scene. While it was a challenge at heart, the event really showcased the great talent we have in the area. And with 17 breweries in the surrounding region, Traverse City’s beer culture will only continue to grow and evolve.

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery