While doing a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway in both Oregon and California I realized that you need to go to the source to truly understand what makes a great American IPA (India Pale Ale). I thought I knew what an American IPA was supposed to taste like; after all I’d had many versions both here in Ontario and from different places all over the world. I’d even had IPAs from breweries on the West Coast itself like Stone and Sierra Nevada, but bought them closer to home.
So what does this mean? Going to the place where a style of beer first originated will allow you truly understand how it was intended to taste. For example you want to know how a great Pilsner should taste? You should try the original Pilsner Urquell in the city of Plzen, in the Czech Republic. Oktoberfest Lager? Pull up a bench in a tent at the Theresienwiese in Munich in late September. An Irish Stout? Pretty much any pub in the city of Dublin, but preferably the one that sits atop the St James Gate Guinness Brewery. For West Coast American IPAs I chose The Stone World Bistro in Escondido California.
But why is going to the source so important when you can get all of these particular beers at home? Three very important reasons: history, geography and freshness.
Historically most beer styles evolved at time when the availability of local ingredients dictated what could be brewed. There was no way to alter the mineral content of the water the way brewers can today, so brewers picked styles that worked best with the water they had. And until Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast was creating alcohol when it consumed sugars, there was very little control over yeast strains. Generally wild yeasts of the area were a “gift from god” and transformed the sweet liquid wort into beer. Because of these environmental factors early beer styles were at the mercy of their geographic location.
With beers brewed today history and geography are treated a little differently. With the exception of a handful of styles you can pretty much brew any kind of beer anywhere in the world. Regardless of style, freshness does play a major role. With exception of some higher alcohol and barrel-aged beers, many beer styles are supposed to be consumed fresh.
This was my first experience going to source for IPAs; immediately I noticed that the major difference was the freshness. An American IPA must be consumed soon after it is released. This was demonstrated to me very clearly when I had it on draft at the brewery itself. Whether you agree or not, Stone Brewing claims to be the originator of today’s modern style hop bomb IPAs. They have demonstrated a commitment to freshness by releasing their “Enjoy By IPAs“. The date of when it should be consumed by is printed right on the label and is part of the name!
Addition to freshness, American IPAs are also very good on the west coast because of the brewing history behind them. The style originated here and many of these breweries have been at for a while now (Sierra Nevada 1984, Rogue 1988, Deschutes 1988, Lagunitas 1993, Ballast Point 1996, Russian River 1997, Green Flash 2002). All of them have perfected the style and are all brewing their own excellent examples of it. Also their proximity to Yakima Valley in Washington, where the bulk of American hops are produced, are why they all have that trademark grapefruit and pine aroma characteristic. So in this case geography did play a vital role in the origination of this style.
The experience of tasting the original gave me a true benchmark of the style and so I now feel I’m better equipped to compare it to other breweries’ versions.
Based on my exhaustive research (and many IPAs later) I am happy to say that there are many Ontario brewers doing excellent American IPAs here. And while I really like many of them, I’d have to say that Great Lakes Brewery is my favourite. In my opinion they are brewing the best examples of a true west coast style American IPAs. Thrust An IPA, Karma Citra and My Bitter Wife placed 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively at the Canadian Brewing Awards, so clearly I’m not the only one who thinks so. Now that’s not to say there aren’t other Ontario breweries making great examples as well, Great Lakes is just happens to be my personal favourite.
So regardless of whether it’s an IPA, a pilsner or whatever style of beer you enjoy drinking, try to go to the source and taste the original. You’ll be glad you did.