India Pale Ales (IPAs) are stereotypically the preferred style of beer amongst craft beer geeks, especially the American versions with massive amounts of hops. The reasons behind this are obvious – IPAs can vary immensely in flavours (from fruity to intensely bitter, floral to pine, often all in the same brew), they are perfect in all seasons (refreshing in the summer, but can also have enough alcohol and malt to sustain drinkers through the colder months) and go well with a wide variety of foods. But Ontario has always been sorely lacking in well made IPAs, a point of contention with beer drinkers in the province. Breweries always argued that there wasn’t enough of a base for the style to be popular, while discerning drinkers claimed that people would drink IPAs once exposed to their deliciousness. It was a chicken vs egg scenario – would the market be created or form spontaneously?
While the debate over that question will have to wait for another day, it is obvious that IPAs are starting to gain in popularity in Ontario. Few true IPAs were made in the province as of a couple of years ago. The Scotch-Irish Sgt Major IPA was the only one available continuously in the LCBO. Options in the better beer bars were usually made by Durham in the form of Hop Head/Addict, but the Granite IPA was also around (though an English version of the style, as is the brewpub-only Mill Street IPA). Pale ales dominated the hops market with a number of similar beers, but none really provided a hop fix. Mill Street Tankhouse, Duggan’s #9 and the revamped Great Lakes Devil’s Pale Ale created a sub-genre that was appropriately called the Ontario pale ale, which tempered the hops with a lot of caramel malts. Black Oak, Flying Monkeys, Wellington, Railway City, Barley Days – all breweries that had some form of pale ale, but did not risk going all out with an IPA.
But the fear of hops that has dominated the province for decades is finally coming to an end. An increasing number of breweries are making IPAs now and getting them into the hands of a wide range of beer drinkers. The watershed moment was the Black Oak 10 Bitter Years, which quickly sold out of the first bottling run at the brewery and was the must-have beer for a time. Originally intended to be a one-off, Black Oak made multiple bottle runs of the beer and the desire for more remains strong. This year, Beau’s IP’Eh? was introduced in the LCBO during in March, then came the controversy over the Flying Monkeys Smashbomb IPA. (If you somehow missed that, read this Torontoist article and see what the LCBO had to say). Amsterdam has been continuously tweaking their Boneshaker (getting better with each tweak and becoming their best beer) and the beer is increasingly showing up on tap lists throughout Toronto. And last week, Muskoka announced that they would have a new beer out in six-packs, the Mad Tom IPA. A number of one-off IPAs are coming out of the Great Lakes brewery at an alarming rate. The Burger Bar held a Spring IPA Fest a couple of weekends back and this past weekend Bar Volo successfully held the 3rd Annual IPA Cask Challenge. All of this adds up to an exciting development for Ontario craft beer drinkers – the mighty IPA is finally taking hold in the province.
Breweries are finally realizing that this is a style in demand, but not just with beer geeks. Smashbomb became such a big deal when it was denied by Social Responsibility because it had reached a level of popularity with beer drinkers that extended beyond the beer geeks Bar Towel, Ratebeer or Beer Advocate. It was full-flavoured and hoppy, but also accessible to most beer drinkers. As the LCBO continues to bring in IPAs through their seasonal releases (Tree Hop Head Double IPA and Southern Tier 2xIPA being two recent examples), more breweries will likely jump onto the bandwagon as these products fly off the shelves. What we’re seeing is the continual evolution of the Ontario beer scene, both in terms of drinkers and breweries. Just another reason why it’s great time to be a beer lover in Ontario.