Monday, Paste Magazine released the results of its annual blind-tasting and ranking of American India pale ales.
The field of 247 beers from across the country featured heavyweights like Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada, as well as critical darlings like Maine Beer Co. and Grimm Artisanal Ales.
And beating them all to come in at No. 1 was Auburn's own Prison City Pub & Brewery.
Brewer Ben Maeso's Mass Riot IPA, a 6.4-percent ABV New England-style IPA available at the 28 State St. brewpub for about a week and a half earlier this summer, racked up surprised raves from the Paste judges.
"The best IPA of 247 is from … upstate New York? Bet you didn’t see that coming!" they wrote. The judges went on to praise the hazy beer's tropical qualities, writing that they could taste notes of orange and pineapple juice, grapefruit candy and cantaloupe.
Sitting at the Prison City bar Monday afternoon with a celebratory beer in his hand and a grin on his face, Maeso said he was "pretty much in shock." Paste had notified him a few weeks ago that Mass Riot had made the top 25, but after tasting it recently, Maeso worried his IPA wasn't fresh enough to fare well in the contest's second round.
He also considered that this was the first time he'd made Mass Riot on his 400-barrel-a-year system, and it was competing against a murderers' row of IPAs. Nirvana by Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown) and He'Brew Hop Manna by Shmaltz Brewing Co. (Clifton Park) were the only other upstate New York beers under consideration by Paste staff, and neither made the top 50.
But Prison City shot right to the top.
"It's insane going through that list and seeing all the beers we beat," Maeso said.
The Paste judges also noted Prison City owners Dawn and Marc Schulz's plans to open a new brewing facility that'd raise Prison City's production by 1,650 percent: "We can’t wait until Prison City is producing a much larger amount of beer so we can taste it more often."
The search for a site for the facility is under way, Maeso said. Until then, his setup at the brewpub has room to grow. He recently obtained a new glycol chiller, which will allow him to add two tanks to the current three. And Paste's recognition has all but earmarked those extra tanks for IPA production — whether it's Mass Riot, Riot in Vermont or other editions of the series, which sees Maeso rotate ingredients to pay respect to regional IPA styles.
Tuesday, Prison City posted on its Facebook page that Maeso is working to begin another batch or two of Mass Riot this week, which would make it available at the brewpub again in mid-September.
"I'm equally excited as I am freaked out because now, what are we going to do?" he said. "It was hard enough keeping the hoppy beers on as it was, and now it's going to get even worse."
The No. 1 placement is the latest in a spate of honors for the brewpub, which opened in December 2014. Last September, Maeso's Bleek Worden won a silver medal in the Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival. The sour ales Prison City poured at the Denver event also led to praise for them in Playboy and Fortune.
Maeso said the national recognition in such different styles bolsters both his and Prison City's reputations. However, because the IPA is perhaps the most popular style of craft beer in America, Paste naming Maeso's the best could have a much more pronounced effect on the Auburn brewpub's business.
"We already get a bunch of people traveling to Auburn on the weekend for beer, and it's about to get a little heavier," Maeso said. "It's cool to put Auburn on the map again."