Drinking Beer at the Source: West Coast American IPAs

Enjoying an IPA with a view under the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

Enjoying an IPA with a view under the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

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.

Stone IPA

Stone IPA

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.


Ballast Point Sculpin IPA

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.

Stone Enjoy By IPA - freshness in a bottle

Stone Enjoy By IPA – freshness in a bottle

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.

Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto offers some of the finest examples of American IPAs in Ontario.

Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto offers some of the finest examples of American IPAs in Ontario.

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.


Brew What Inspires You

Kitchen Home Brewery

My Kitchen Home Brewery

As an established home brewer or someone who has just started home brewing you often find yourself asking “what should I brew next?”  You could do a clone brew which is a copy of a commercially available brand, or you could come up with something completely new and innovative.

This at its essence why I personally love to brew my own beer.  I can make anything I want and there are no restrictions.  The downside to doing this is I rarely brew within BCJP style guidelines, which are important if you want to enter your home brew into competition.  While I’d really like to be recognized for my brewing abilities, I also want to make beer that I can’t get ANYWHERE else.

So how do you come up with something different?  Generally my travels near and far are the things that inspire me most.  While travelling in Oregon I visited an ice cream place called Salt and Straw that had the most amazing ice cream flavours; Happy Birthday Elvis (peanut butter, bacon, marionberry and banana pudding), Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie, Ojai Olive Oil and Burnt Orange Marmalade, Candy Cap Mushrooms and Port as well as Salted Caramel.  To me ALL of those would make extraordinarily cool beers.


Happy Birthday Elvis! Ice cream flavour by Salt and Straw in Portland Oregon

A unique ice cream flavour by Salt and Straw in Portland Oregon

You don’t need to travel far and wide to find inspiration, it can also come from everyday life too.  Perhaps you pass a bakery and smell carrot cake and wonder how that would taste as stout?  Or maybe you see someone eating a bowl of noodles and suddenly think “I could make a Sriracha and Basil infused brown ale!”  You could be sipping a great cup of coffee and wonder how that specific bean would taste added to a porter.  The inspiration is out there you just need to see, smell and taste your way to it.

All of those flavour ideas sound amazing, but how do you transform them into extraordinary tasting beers?  Well for me that’s the fun part.

To design a recipe I usually do quite bit of research online to see what others have done before me.  Even if the beer I’m attempting to make has never been done before, many aspects of that beer probably have been and others can give insights into what needs to be done.  I like to let the collective memory and experience of others be my guide.  You can still be a pioneer and make something completely new, you just need to put your own spin on it.

To do the actual recipe design I use BeerSmith brewing software, which works pretty well for me.  It helps take much of the guess work out and does the math for you, which is handy if (like me) you don’t like doing math.  The first step in recipe design is establishing the base style, such as a saison or porter or IPA.   Choosing the base style is important because you want something that will work very well with what you are attempting to do.  Base styles can also limit you, so you should really only think of them as a rough guide.

What to brew next?  The answer, pretty much anything you like!

What to brew next? The answer, pretty much anything you like!

From there you add in all the flavours you want to replicate.  Remember if you are doing something really experimental, you can always do a 1 gallon batch just in case it doesn’t work out.   But if you do end up making something that will blow people’s minds, if you documented everything properly, you can replicate it on larger scale in 5 gallon batch.

The point is you really can do it and the only thing stopping you is the limit of your imagination.  So go out and brew something great!

Ontario’s Coming of Age

This is what a Beer Store should look like.

This is what a Beer Store should look like.

Despite all the recent news and revelations about The Beer Store these past couple of months and the Government’s glacial pace on retail reform, Ontario’s craft beer scene has come of age.  With a new brewery seeming to open every month, Ontario went from having 35 or so breweries three years ago to well over 200 (according to the Ontario Craft Beer Network – formerly Mom n’Hops).

Instead of waiting for government reforms to change the beer retail landscape, an odd thing happened, the landscape adapted itself.  It happened because of the passion a growing number of people have for craft beer.  It was a very gradual change at first, but in recent years the growth appears to be explosively exponential.  It happened simply because people began to experience well crafted beers and discovered that they actually had flavour and could be very complex.   Many people began to realize that “beer” didn’t just have to be their father’s light lager.

To illustrate my point my friend Brian used to drink nothing but light lagers and he quite enjoyed doing so.  That all changed when I brought him some craft beer.  I didn’t hit him with an IPA or an Imperial Coffee Stout at first, I started easy and found craft lagers like King Pilsner and Mill Street Organic that I thought he might like.  Not only did he like them, but he realized that there was more to the beer aisle than just his usual Coors Light.  He’s now exploring and loving beers he never imagined he’d ever like.  He regularly texts me pictures of the bottles and cans he’s picked up because he’s so excited about trying them.  He’s even starting to enjoy the IPAs!  He’s now considers himself a craft beer drinker and there is no going back for him.

Everyone is excited about craft beer!

Everyone is excited about craft beer!

Just like Brian, the rest of the Ontario drinking public has discovered that flavour matters.  The proof of this comes in many forms.  There are more craft beer bars popping up all over the province than ever before.  Festivals like Cask Days sell out within days of tickets being released and people will brave subzero temperatures in January to enjoy craft beer at the Roundhouse Winter Beer Festival.

People are also hungry (or should I say thirsty) for more knowledge about beer.  Education programs like Prud’homme Beer Certification have had thousands of people take their classes and many more are signing up every week.  Beer seminars and tutored tastings at local bars are becoming common place and have become very popular.

People every where want to learn more about beer.

Homebrewing for beginners seminar at the Gladstone Hotel.

A few years ago there were only a handful of Brew Pubs in Toronto like Mill Street and the Granite.  Now it appears they are opening all over the city.  In addition to Bellwoods on Ossington and Indie Ale House in the Junction, the west end will have two new brew pubs in Liberty Village (Big Rock & Trois Brasseurs)  and a couple more in Parkdale (Duggan’s & The Landsdowne).  There is also the Amsterdam Brew House on Queen’s Quay and countless others in the planning stages.  People want to taste fresh craft beer and the market is responding.  Many of them have bottle shops or growler filling options that make having a neighbourhood brew pub one of the best things ever.  Who needs beer in the corner store when breweries appear to be occupying so many corners in the city?

Ruination IPA

Stone Ruination IPA

Further evidence of our coming age is that long established craft brands from around the world (like Stone, Sierra NevadaBrew Dog and Delirium Tremens) are starting to sell their beer here despite very restrictive retailing rules and regulations.  The beer is coming to the people, because the people want to it and will seek out the places selling it to get it.  The number of great beer brands available will only increase as time goes on.

So whatever retail reform ends up coming down in the next few months it doesn’t really matter because Ontario’s craft beer scene has come of age and it only gets better from here.


Cloning a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’


So you’ve started home brewing and you’ve got a few successful brews under your belt now?  The question of what to brew next always comes up.  If you like a particular style and only want to drink that, more power to you, brew on!  But if you are like me, you are always looking for new and exciting things to brew.  It’s why home brewing is so great, you can brew pretty much anything.  One of the things that I really enjoy doing is clone brewing.  Clone brewing is taking a specific beer you particularly enjoy drinking and making it yourself at home.  While a clone brew can come pretty close to the original, it obviously can never be a true clone because ingredients and brewing conditions may vary.  But it is pretty great to have your own version that you can drink anytime.

One of the best beers ever brewed, also one of the hardest to obtain.

One of the best beers ever brewed, also one of the hardest to obtain.

So what difficult to find brew would you attempt to brew first?  While a Westvleteren 12 (a good example of a beer that is very hard to get) may be a good choice, it might also be a little ambitious, especially if you are relatively new at this.  And although it has been done, I would this save this recipe for later and attempt a few easier brews first.

I was recently in California and had a unique IPA called a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ from Lagunitas Brewing.  It was an IPA made with 50% wheat, so it was smooth, refreshing and had a really nice grapefruity cascade hop kick. This is also a beer you can not find easily in Ontario, plus it’s an IPA which is best served fresh as close to where it is brewed possible.

Beautiful California paired with a Little Sumpin' Sumpin'

Beautiful California paired with a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’

So how do you go about brewing that Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’?  It’s probably best that you try it first so you know exactly what it is you are aiming for.  If you are skilled enough you can probably deconstruct the recipe and figure out what they’ve put in it.  But if your sensory skills aren’t quite at that level yet, check with the brewery, you’d be surprise what they will tell you.  Some brewers like Sam Corbeil at Sawdust City have posted all of their recipes online, which I think is a stroke of PR genius and also very cool.  (Thanks for doing that by the way Sam!)

Rob Engram and Sam Corbeil toast the new home of Sawdust City Brewing Co. in Gravenhurst. Photograph: Corey Wilkinson

Rob Engram and Sam Corbeil toast the new home of Sawdust City Brewing Co. in Gravenhurst. Photograph: Corey Wilkinson

Some breweries are a little more secretive about their brews and Lagunitas unfortunately is one of those breweries.  But chances are very good some intrepid home brewer has attempted to make a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and has had some success.

A simple google search reveals that there is indeed a recipe out there (several actually). Next step is to pick the recipe you like best, get your ingredients and give it a go. If it is at all possible it’s ideal to have a bottle of the beer you are attempting to clone so you can do a comparison of the finished product once it’s ready.

Whatever beer you decide to clone enjoy the entire process from recipe research to brewing to finally trying the finished beer.  I’m pretty sure all of your friends will thank you for it too.

An Irish Revolution with a difference


Some 8 years ago, I boarded a plane from Dublin to Pearson Airport to start a life in Canada with my new wife.  What I left behind was an economy and nation on the verge of a precipice that it subsequently fell off.  And a non-existent craft beer industry.  Not just a craft beer issue either, the absence of imported brands (aside from bland lagers from the world’s biggest breweries) was in retrospect staggering for a country which has carved out such a reputation for it’s love of “the drink”.  It was only when I started to learn more about beer that I realized it’s a myth that we are great drinkers, and in fact we are just great drunks!  I’m happy to say that the times they are a changin’.

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