Behind the colourful name of India Pale Ale is a colourful history: from the 1820s, the beer was brewed in the English Midlands and shipped in casks down to Brazil, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up to India, where, having aged over the rough journey, it was enthusiastically quaffed by English colonists. Nearly 200 years later, in another former colony, it’s surging in popularity. But why are so many Canadian brewers now making IPAs?
Ironically, given its imperialist history, the style has become a symbol of rebellion. It’s a bold beer, with a copper-to-amber colour, moderate-to-high alcohol content, and, crucially, a hoppy aroma and taste. For craft brewers, it’s a statement against the blandness of mainstream lagers, whose drinkers are slowly catching on—despite their often startled first impressions.
Ralph Morana, owner of Bar Volo in Toronto, recounts his first experience of craft IPAs at a beer festival in 2002. “I went, ‘Oh Christ, how can anybody drink that?’ I was a Coors Light drinker.” Nonetheless, he says, “Once your palate adapts to the bitterness, all you want is more and more and more.” To further his quest for hops, he converted his Italian café into a craft beer bar, where IPAs are his biggest sellers—and not just to stereotypical bearded, pot-bellied craft beer enthusiasts. “If you give it to a girl, they love it: ‘It’s neat; it’s floral.’ ”
India Pale Ale has caught on across Canada, with brewers such as Dieu du Ciel! in Montreal, Half Pints in Winnipeg, and Central City in Surrey, B.C., all gaining accolades for their IPAs. Morana and other local brewers have started crafting their own at Volo, and since 2009, the bar has hosted an annual Cask IPA Challenge, where judges and customers pick the best of a hoppy crop from across Ontario. The competition’s first year featured five or six legitimate entrants (among ambers and other pale ales); this year, there were 26. “Now everybody’s going on that bandwagon,” says Morana.
The IPA does have a history in Canada: in the second half of the 19th century, Molson and Labatt brewed popular IPAs for domestic consumption. But strong-tasting ales fell out of favour after Prohibition, and neither brewing giant now brews hoppy beer. Labatt does, however, own Alexander Keith’s in Halifax, which exported its “India Pale Ale” to Ontario and Western Canada in the late 1990s with great success—its name is a long-standing brand, but craft beer fans have argued it’s not technically an IPA.
Despite the fact that, as Keith’s brewmaster emeritus Graham Kendall notes, it’s a “higher hopped product” than mainstream lagers, the beer doesn’t have what the Beer Judge Certification Program considers the “moderate to assertive hop bitterness” typical of an English IPA (much less the stronger bitterness of an American IPA). Not that Kendall is concerned: “We don’t see a need to hop it more. It would so change the character of the beer that it would drive people away.”
The ubiquity of Keith’s has left some craft brewers bitter. “We’ve had complaints that our IPA was wrong,” says Stefan Buhl, brewmaster at Tree Brewing in Kelowna, B.C. “Some people are confused. But as soon as we talk to them, they are usually pretty receptive. First you have a bit of tingling from the hops, but two or three sips in, you get quite a complex profile.” Originally brewed in 2000, Tree’s Hop Head was the first bottled “American IPA” in Canada—a style that further accentuates the hoppy aroma and taste that made the original English IPAs age well across their long voyage. Like Kendall, Buhl speaks of pleasing his customers, but he wants to prod them as well. Three years ago, Tree started brewing a super-hoppy, eight per cent Double IPA, because it felt loyal customers “might want to have a different challenge.”
With names like Boneshaker and Smashbomb, Canadian craft IPAs aren’t to be trifled with. And yet, at their best, they offset their deluges of citrusy hop flavour with a sturdy malt backbone. Perhaps in the future, this balance will even bring hoppiness back into the mainstream pint. And if craft brewers achieve their bitter revolution, what will they do for an encore? According to Morana, “Sour is the next wave.”