FAT HEAD’S HEAD HUNTER: THE BEST IPA IN AMERICA?

As you may know, I hail from Pittsburgh… a wonderful, livable city but hardly the craft beer capital of America. Like everywhere else in the country there are several excellent local breweries producing high-quality suds, and a thriving community of enthusiasts currently planning the city’s first Craft Beer Week, but in terms of national acclaim we just don’t match up to destinations like Portland, San Diego, Denver, or Asheville. Yet, we’ve got a beer on tap in the Steel City you can’t find in those craft meccas that keeps winning awards in the most competitive category of any beer festival- the Fat Head’s Head Hunter IPA.

The results speak for themselves: Great American Beer Festival Silver (‘10) and Bronze (‘11) for American-Style India Pale Ale, West Coast IPA Festival Gold (‘09), and Draft Magazine’s Top 25 Beer in the World (‘09). There are more awards- lots more. The Head Hunter just won the Brewing News National IPA Championship, reclaiming a crown it first secured in 2010. There’s no question it’s a delicious beer. Though they brew Head Hunter at a production facility outside of Cleveland, the first Fat Head’s was a beer-centric gastropub on Carson St in Pittsburgh’s vibrant South Side Flats- and that is one of the few places you can sample this highly-decorated IPA on a consistent basis.

Classification, awards, and top ten lists are something irrevocably weaved into the American psyche, and we Aleheads have glommed onto this fact (mostly subconciously) in order to get more people to read our stuff. In short, it is human nature to want to know what is “Best” in the world of beer, and a quick glance at our most popular posts reveals this:

#1 Most Offensive Beer Labels
#2 The Best Beer Labels
#3 Labelmania! (i.e. more best beer labels)
#4 Best IPA in America
#5 The Best Beer Names

In our round up of IPA’s there is no Head Hunter to be found- although I submit it for consideration, it’s limited range and draft-only status means that our national membership can’t get their hands on it. The winner of our humble little survey two years running has been Ballast Point Sculpin IPA.

The Head Hunter and Sculpin represent very different points on the IPA flavor continuum- while Sculpin is perfectly balanced with citrus notes and bursting floral characters, the Head Hunter possesses a quality some describe as “Piney Resin” but I can only suitably sum up in one word- “Dank”.

The subject of dankness is of much debate in the world of beer blogging- some claim it doesn’t exist. To those that acknowledge and celebrate dankness in beer, it can most closely be described as an oily, musky, umami-esque aroma and flavor whose closest equivalent is found in California’s medicinal marijuana dispensaries. Once you’ve tasted it in a beer, to my mind, there is no going back. I’m not surprised that that exquisite dankness of the Fat Head’s Head Hunter overwhelms her delicate floral competitors such as Sculpin and Ithaca’s Flower Power in blind head-to-head tastings. In fact, I’ve not encountered another beer that could match Head Hunter in the Dank Department, until this past weekend… but it arrived via aluminum tallboy in the form of Oskar Blues’ Deviant Dale’s Pale Ale.

The Deviant bears little relation to it’s namesake- the amped-up malt bill and dry-hopping have turned good ‘ol dependable Dale’s into one of the best IPA’s I’ve ever had… almost ruby red and with that ineffable dank quality I just can’t get enough of. A look at the two IPAs Head Hunter finished behind in the latest GAFB is revealing- Deviant Dale’s took home silver and Gold was won by the small New Mexico ale factory La Cumbre with their Elevated IPA.

So what is the secret to brewing IPAs that bring home silverware in competitions?

I think it can be summed up in four words: Simcoe Columbus Dry-Hop. In an interview with the excellent beer podcast The Brewing Network, La Cumbre brewmaster Jeff Erway offered up the following useful nugget in regards to their GABF win: “You need to have Simcoe in your dry-hop or you ain’t gonna win shit.” The brewery description from Oskar Blues for Deviant Dale’s notes the brew is made using: “An excessive wallop of Columbus dry-hopping.” I’ve never seen a recipe for the Fat Head’s Head Hunter, but I’m willing to bet it contains a good amount of dank, delicious Columbus and Simcoe late in the boil and in the dry hop.

I reached out to the good folks at Fat Head’s and they indicated brewermaster Matt Cole would be in touch to be a guest on our podcast to talk about Head Hunter and other brews. He is no doubt very busy with their new 25-barrel system recently purchase from Troeg’s that gives them the ability to get their beer into the hands of many more Aleheads going forward, but hopefully I will get a chance to talk to him.

So is Head Hunter “better” than citric beauties like Bell’s Two-Hearted and Founders Centennial or balanced floral works like Flower Power and Sculpin? When it comes to IPA’s beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. But for me, the Fat Head’s Head Hunter is as good as it gets. If you get a chance, grab a pint and take a ride on the dank side. You won’t be disappointed.

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8 comments

  1. I would love to try this beer. And the Deviant Dales. It seems like everyone can get Oskar Blues but me.

  2. Glad to hear that you found some great IPAs. My first craft beer experience was with IPA and I haven’t gotten over it yet! Dry hops is — “the secret”. Thanks for the tip. Go hops – go!

    David Ivey
    Black Bucket Brew Inbox Magazine Editor

  3. Marshall · ·

    Head Hunter is awesome. I had some at the GABF. It probably is the best IPA I’ve had.

  4. Columbus hops always jump out at me. It’s like someone dropped a dimebag up in there…er, from what I hear. Avery Hog Heaven is one that really showcases that Columbus dankness.

    And the Simcoe/Columbus combo move is deadly. One of my new favorites, Pako’s IPA from Snake River, also employs it. So tasty.

  5. Herr Hordeum · ·

    Don’t worry Carboy, I can’t get Oscar Blues either, and we share a state line. I suppose I could go on an 8 hour beer run for it. I wonder what their grudge against the Midwest is all about?

  6. Nice article about the Head Hunter IPA! I couldn’t agree more. But the “production facility” that you mentioned is actually a full fledged brew pub called Fat Head’s Brewery and Saloon located in North Olmsted, Ohio. The Brewmaster, Matt Cole, will have up to 12 of his own Fat Head’s Brews on tap at any given time. He selects these from his own menu of several dozen beers that he brings on line depending on the season or demand. He augments them with around 22 guest beers brought in from all over the USA and Europe. The food menu is similar to the original Fat Head’s in Pittsburgh but has the addition of pizzas and a line of smokehouse items! It is MUCH more than a production facility! Come and visit and see for yourself! By the way, they are nearly finished with a true production facility in Middleburgh Hts., Ohio that will allow them to distribute beer to all of Ohio, Western New York and, yes, Pennsylvania!!!

    1. Thanks for the info, Danny. Sounds fantastic.

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