The BISTRO Double IPA Festival Returns To Planet Pandemic

We’ll miss the crowds and the old friends, but the home delivery of medal-winning Double IPAs – both West Coast Classic and Hazy – may provide a new level of hop efficacy appreciation [UPDATED: Winners listed below!]

In the “before-times,” early February would bring that glorious week-long beer marathon, SF Beer Week. First, there’s that grand festival known as the Opening Gala. The very next day, many of us would convene in Hayward for a favorite reunion with brewers and friends who admire the stronger expressions of the hop plant. 

This year, The Bistro’s influential Double IPA Festival, one of the cherished predecessor events that inspired SF Beer Week’s February timeslot, is coming back with a twist. California’s top makers of strong, aromatic, hop-forward beer – both brilliantly clear and luminously hazy as a harvest moon – are signing up to compete in the Bistro’s classic blind judged showdown yet again. But this year, while a happy crowd can’t throng in the streets of Hayward, you can try the best beers of the fest at your own pace, in your own place. Sipping from the can, or in any size of glass you prefer. Hey, it’s not nothing. 

Above, a slide show of people being people at Bistro Fests

Vic Kralj, proprietor at The Bistro and founder of the world’s first and longest-running Double IPA celebration, tells us he was not optimistic about its approaching anniversary, even though SF Beer Week is back, reframed as California Craft Beer Week for 2021. 

“I was getting depressed, so I was gonna do nothing,” Kralj says.  “And then a lot of the brewers kept nudging me, ‘Vic, just do judging. The Brewers are interested and they want to win, they want something to do.’  And so after the fourth brewer got ahold of me – Zach over at Slice – I said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’”

2020 has to be a hard act to follow. The exuberant festival took place more than a month before the Bay Area Covid 19 early lockdown. The street, closed to traffic, was full of joyful beer people, live music and, of course, scores of DIPAs and TIPAs to try while waiting to hear which had won the coveted awards.

Before and during the early hours of the festival, a team of experienced beer judges crowded into the Bistro’s tiny basement storeroom. Pitcher samples of fresh-poured draft beer, marked only with numeric codes (which, for extra security, did not correspond to the numbers on the public menu upstairs!), were lugged down the stairs and poured out to be intently sniffed, swirled, savored and scored. Each judging team critically tasted flights of about a dozen beers of the same style, selecting the best two to go on to the finals. The most delightful beers landed on the table for the medal round.

As the scores were tallied there was often agonizing about the final choice of the winners. Differences in quality among the finalists were minuscule.  While the brewers may later learn that their DIPA or TIPA made the final table, the thirsty crowd never knows which ones got so close that it was painful not to give them a medal.

Vic Kralj (in white shirt) and Cynthia Kralj (in green) honoring Altamont Brewing Co.

Up on the street, because there were far too many to try, recommendations and rumors tended to blossom. That sometimes left empty kegs of the very beers everyone wanted to taste once the medals were announced by Vic and his wife Cynthia Kralj.  Although fest goers generally have enjoyed a fine day and a dazzling array of other fine brews, there is that little downer where you can’t try the Silver Medal Hazy DIPA. The one that you almost tried half an hour ago — but somebody came by lobbying for #23. Which was also damn good. 

Picture Yourself at the Finals Table

This year, all entries must be available in cans or bottles so the best can come to you. 

“There are always 10 to 12 beers per style that make the finals,” Vic said. “I’m going to come up with a Double IPA Finals 12 pack. So, instead of going to the fest, you’re going to be able to taste the top 12 beers. Six in the Double category and six in the Hazy Double category.” 

Fans of the Bistro’s legendary festivals can replicate the sensory joys of sitting on that final judging table, with dozens of “normal” excellent entrants screened out and all the aromas and flavors of this year’s masterpiece brews in front of you. A mixed 12-pack will be shipped – or perhaps picked up at the Bistro in Hayward, where you could tarry for a beer outdoors on your errand.

All 12 will be DIPAs. The competition will simplify by not judging Triple IPAs this year because not as many are being brewed. [Historical note: Have you gone to the Bistro DIPA fest largely to try Pliny the Younger in past Februarys? “Younger” had its first festival appearance at the bistro when this first example of the style was created at Russian River Brewing in 2005 and has been poured at the fest annually ever since, but is not available in kegs for 2021. The entire batch was pre-sold in bottles].

One of the nation’s most ardent hopheads, Vic feels that such a mixed case selected by this widely recognized competition offers an extraordinary opportunity for IPA lovers. “This is a win-win, where you’re not just getting 12 beers shipped from a brewery that mixes Pilsners, Browns, Stouts — you’re getting 12 Double IPAs that are the top of their class.” 

Vic is inviting breweries to enter up to two beers in each of the two DIPA categories. Currently, there are about 25 entered in each category. But, he notes, late entries are expected. “ All the local guys do that all the time. They just kind of hold off,” he said, predicting that 50 to 70 will be entered in each category.

And if you are thinking about the safety of the competition itself, the first change for 2021 will be to convene the judging outdoors, with distancing protocol. “The bantering and the talking will be at a minimum.” Vic told us, “And I will be there.” 

UPDATE, Sat Feb 13, 2021: Winners announced at the Bistro!

WEST COAST DIPA: 1st place: Moksa – Sticky Sips; 2nd place: Docent – Rabbit Habit; 3rd place: Moonraker – Honorable Villain

HAZY DIPA: 1st place: Revision – Distance Haze; 2nd place: North Park – Clockwork Intelligence; 3rd place : Humble Sea – Wizard of Fog

The State of the Bistro      

The Bistro is hanging in there by a thread, like so many of our beloved craft beer community institutions, depending on the kindness of a landlord and the overall progress of outwitting a virus. Kralj says he is happy to be talking to people who are coming in since they reopened after the winter shutdown. “We’re outside, we’re all wearing a mask, everybody’s coming by,” he told us. Right now, the Bistro is open on the B Street sidewalk from 2:00 to 9:00 pm on Thursdays and Fridays, from 1:00 to 9:00 pm on Saturday and from 1:00 to 8:00 on Sunday. 

Vic finds silver linings in some of the strange changes the festival is going through. For one thing, it nudged him into finally getting set up for shipping. He notes that all businesses have changed in the face of the pandemic. The legal constraints on selling and delivering alcoholic beverages in California shifted in significant ways that Vic says he had expected to happen “3, 5, 7 years down the line” but were pushed forward by the pandemic.  

This neighborhood classic has long been a community hub on days between festivals. If beer drinkers support the Bistro through these crazy times, may it return to its former role!

“I can’t see them changing the laws back — cannot — because we might not get out of this for another year, and then they’re gonna say “Okay, back to normal?” No! Fuck you, no! I think the laws stay the way they are.”  

Many consumers, too, will be hoping the regulatory changes hold as the health threats eventually fade.  

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To enjoy the Bistro’s Double IPA Festivities 12 pack (and to find other Beer Week offerings), visit the listing on the California Craft Beer Week site. 

Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro. (Pix by Williams)

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