One of the best things about craft brewing is that it tends to reward innovation. New developments are typically welcomed by the consumer and indeed talked about online ad nausea. This is as it should be. While there was certainly a period in Ontario during the last twenty years where brewing dark ale at your brewery was grounds for public incredulity, we are now at a point where the far reaching influence of the US craft market has created room for seemingly endless expansion.
One of the best things about this development is the fact that it periodically happens to be the case that there is something missing from the Ontario market. For a long time one of the things that was missing was a reliable, hoppy, west coast style IPA. The west coast IPA is clearly one of the most popular styles in the world and imitators have now sprung up on every continent, whether they’re merely using the traditional ingredients or attempting wholesale recipe cloning. It’s no surprise that there isn’t really an approximation of this style in Ontario; our brewers have only really been at this for a short space of time and the English influence on the brewing history of the province tends to mean that the brewers favour English style Pale Ales. Until very recently if you talked to just about any brewer in the province, they would have claimed that there’s no demand for that style of beer in Ontario.
Which is complete and utter codswallop of the most obfuscatory kind.
It’s the single most popular craft beer style in the world. If you walk into a craft brewery in the US, you’d be unable to swing a sack of barley without hitting a forklift pallet full of west coast style IPA. The beer nerds and local hop enthusiasts cleared out Black Oak’s last bottling run of Ten Bitter Years within six days, some of them picking up as many as six cases. The thread on the beer review section of Bar Towel for Flying Monkeys new Smashbomb Atomic IPA is about a hundred posts longer than every other thread (partly due to their brewer’s clever realization that he can drum up interest in the product by actually being willing to talk to the public.)
Clearly there’s no market. Just as there’s no market for water in Death Valley; Just as there’s no market for martially trained amphibians amongst seven year old boys; Just as there’s no market for cheetah repellent amongst fat guys facing a death march across the African veldt.
The truth of the matter is that the market will reward whoever manages to create the first reliably available IPA that has some actual hop character and malt balance. For some people though, the financial reward is simply not enough to provoke them into action. For those people, we have the Bar Volo IPA Challenge, the winner of which receives bragging rights for the next year. Now in the middle of its second year of competition, the IPA challenge started as an event designed to give brewers the opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and try to create something brand new. After all, if you’re in charge of brewing thousands of hectoliters of relatively bland lager day in, day out, forever, the concept of getting out there and trying to do something different has to be refreshing.
And halfway through the second year of competition, they’re starting to get there, God bless them. There are missteps, but they mostly have to do with off flavors from overhopping and malt imbalance and also from the fact that the last week in Toronto was more like Rangoon and therefore unsuited to cask beers. You know there’s something wrong when the beer that you’re drinking reminds you of the liquid penicillin you had to take as a child, or when people around the bar compare a sample of beer to bong resin or a cat box. “Oh, but not in a bad way,” they say, as though Glade is currently working on a frisky feline plug-in. There are also beers that are exactly on target. It’s just that I don’t know what any of them are, since the event was a blind tasting, which sort of prevents me from praising any of them outright. I liked beers #4 and #6, and there were only a couple of drain pours out of the nine offerings. Incidentally, it is considered bad form to attempt to guess which beers are which at a blind tasting, but I suspect that it’s entertaining for the staff to laugh at how far off you are.
More than anything, what this event has taught me is that brewers are exceedingly strange people. The first reliable, hoppy west coast IPA to make it to the LCBO is going to clean up. Instead of taking advantage of this obvious market gap in order to make money, Ontario brewers have literally waited for the invitation to try. Let me be clear: “OK, if I have to, I guess” is not a rallying cry. It’s not going to stir hearts or win wars. The IPA challenge is not about creating a one-off. It’s a mechanism to develop a product line which comes with its own in built pedigree as a result of the bragging rights that the winner acquires. If the schlemiel who wins this event doesn’t end up bottling their beer, they’ll deserve whatever opprobrium they get.
In a world where people are now brewing beers simply for the purpose of acquiring bragging rights in order to promote their breweries, it’s hard to understand why Ontario is so far behind in creating one of the most popular styles in the world. It’s not as though we’re asking for an extreme beer. We don’t need a Hop Mess Monster (which has to be measured in theoretical IBUs because science hasn’t charted levels of bitterness between “extremely” and “tastes like burning”) or a Tactical Nuclear Penguin (registering at 32% alcohol, this is essentially the Scottish equivalent of Zoloft). We just need a west coast style IPA. It has been a couple of years since the extraordinarily slow race to create one started. At this point, industrial espionage and even wholesale thievery would not be frowned upon. Hack the servers over at Central City. Take the brewer from Lagunitas hostage. Annex Sierra Nevada.
Do whatever you have to, but get the damned thing into the LCBO. You’ll be rewarded for the innovation. Y’know. With money.
Now with Podcasting, apparently…