Last week, we talked robust porters with longtime San Diego brewer Marty Mendiola, who has medaled six times for his porters at the Great American Beer Festival. This week, we’re spotlighting a local brewer who has had similarly consistent and impressive success in a competition called the Alpha King Challenge. Held annually amid GABF festivities, this contest pits beers from across the nation against each other to determine the best, most expertly crafted and, above all, hoppiest beer in the country. Thomas Peters, head brewer at Belching Beaver Brewery’s old-town Vista brewpub, has placed an astounding five times, taking top honors in 2014 and 2017. A track record like that merited a sit-down to get the low-down on vying for—and donning—the Alpha King hop crown.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is the Alpha King Challenge?
The Alpha King Challenge was started 20 years ago by Three Floyds Brewing and Yakima Chief Hops as a parallel competition to the Great American Beer Festival. It is held every year before the Friday session of GABF. The competition was created to find the most excellent example of balanced, hoppy beer in the world. It differs from GABF in that it isn’t stylistically driven. The only requirements are that the beer is hop-forward and not a barley wine. Alpha King is definitely the competition I look forward to most every year. It has given me great opportunities to meet and collaborate with other amazing brewers. San Diego has an amazing history of domination in the competition. Brewers who are currently brewing in San Diego or started their careers in San Diego have won the competition 10 out of the 20 years it has been held. The past winners of the competition include some of the greats in hoppy beermaking like Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River Brewing), Tomme Arthur (Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey / The Hop Concept), Jeff Bagby (Bagby Beer Co.) and Kirk McHale (formerly Melvin Brewing).
Which of your beers have placed in the competition?
Pound Town triple IPA was named champion in 2014 and second runner-up in 2015, Business Hippie double IPA was a finalist in 2018, and Thizz Is What It Is double IPA was the champion beer in 2017 and a runner-up in this year’s competition.
Why do you believe your beers have fared so well at Alpha King?
The beers I make for the Alpha King Challenge are specifically engineered to have as much hop flavor as possible. I believe the competition is won on the margins. There are so many amazing beers on display that you need to put real focus on every aspect of the beer and also evolve your recipe depending on the ingredients you have to work with.
How have you gone about developing your Alpha King beer recipes?
Largely through experimentation and combining results to fit a certain profile. Also, drinking a lot of good beer is key to learning how to become a better brewer. I think working as a beer buyer for a while definitely helped in that respect.
Are there any technical brewing steps you can share without giving away any secrets?
I’d say, first, know your hops. Year-to-year and lot-to-lot, you can see a great deal of variation. If you are able to select your hops, you have a huge advantage. Outside of that, evaluate the hops you have and decide which varietals are strongest in your repertoire. If you have hops that exhibit significant negative traits—excessive onion or garlic character, overly grassy, etc.—consider altering your recipe to marginalize or eliminate those hops, or simply create a new beer that showcases the higher-quality varietals you have. I’d also recommend you know your water profile. Get it tested and use a TDS (total dissolved solids) meter to check consistency. In Southern California, water can come from a variety of different places and fluctuate a great deal depending on rainfall. Also, pay attention to your ion makeup. Calcium, sulfate, and chloride get most of the attention, but ions like sodium and magnesium have a significant impact on beer flavor and mouthfeel. Because these beers are unusually high gravity, it is also very important to be sure you have healthy yeast at the right pitch rates going into the beer.
What are some past Alpha King Challenge-winning beers you’ve really enjoyed?
We’re lucky to have many past winners in San Diego, and others are available in the county. Pizza Port Carlsbad commonly has the two-time winner Poor Man’s IPA, Port Brewing makes two-time winner Hop 15 every year, Russian River Pliny the Elder can be found from time to time and Melvin’s two-time inner 2×4 is fairly common around town. I also have a good relationship with Pint House Pizza out of Austin and love everything they do, including the 2018 winner, Fully Adrift. Alvarado Street Brewery makes incredible beer and I look forward to trying Double Cone, which took home the crown this year.