Much has been made lately of L.A.'s beer revolution, from hilarious and awesome drunken rants by Greg of Stone to posts on this very blog and well beyond. However, the true measuring stick must be the beer itself, and what better stick than the West Coast's signature style, the IPA.
The India Pale Ale (IPA) is originally an English style created to take advantage of the preservative quality of hops. It was developed so that beer sent to English soldiers in the Indian colonies could stay drinkable even after the long journey at sea. The West Coast version, like the West Coast version of many styles, takes advantage of the massive hop fields in the Willamette and Yakima valleys and kicks the hops up a whole notch further. The resulting brew is typically powerfully pungent, and primarily features flavors of citrus and tropical fruit, grass, or pine. Malt is used as a backbone, and amounts of the resulting sweetness and darker color vary widely but are always secondary tastes. The finish is almost always bitter, and American IPAs range in alcohol level from about 5% to about 7% by volume.
For our food fight this week, we tested out this flagship West Coast ale at two of the LA area's rising star breweries, Ladyface Ale Companie and Bootlegger's Brewery, to see whose hops are really jumping.
Tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Agoura Hills, at first Ladyface's location is not promising. But nevermind the slog through inevitable traffic on the 101 or the bland businesses around it, on the inside Ladyface is beautiful, with dark wood furniture and warm light. It feels like you could be in Europe, at least until you walk out onto the patio. The brewery's namesake, Ladyface Mountain, looms in the background (though, to be honest, we couldn't quite make out the lady or her face) and the heat lamps guard against the chill.
The chalkboard above the bar lists the day's beers, usually their eight regular beers, about eight guest taps, one limited Ladyface beer and, if you're lucky, one ale on cask (they put one up every Wednesday and it's usually gone over the weekend). Almost all of them are good and a few are excellent, most notably Derailleur, the current limited beer, a Bier de Garde aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels, and Chesebro IPA, an Imperial IPA that our cicerone-certified server told us he no longer drinks due to its mysterious tendency to cause blackouts.
For this challenge, though, we went for their regular IPA, the simply named Ladyface IPA. It pours a dark-ish amber, and the head dissipates quickly. The smell is not especially powerful, and it is a light odor of mostly citrusy hops. The taste is also primarily citrus, with a bit of malt sweetness in underneath. It finishes with a healthy dose of bitterness and drinks much lighter than it might for its 6.7% ABV. It's a good example of the style, and it displays all of the hallmarks of the West Coast IPA. However, it is a little thin, perhaps too drinkable for its own good. The flavor is good, but we wish there were a bit more of it, especially considering the magic we know they can work with hops based on the stellar Chesebro Imperial IPA.
Bootlegger's Brewery is the opposite of Ladyface in a number of ways. Where Ladyface is a beautiful brasserie-influenced restaurant with a patio facing the mountains, Bootlegger's is basically a garage located next to train tracks in Fullerton, the taproom doubles as the brewery and you drink your beer out of repurposed mason jars surrounded by barrels, bourbon and beyond, which, we presume, are full of aging beers. Somehow, though, the rough-around-the-edges environment doesn't detract at all from its charm, it even enhances it. Bootlegger's has a casual and inviting feeling, and every evening there feels like a neighborhood kickback. There is a chalkboard here, too, but it is exclusively full of Bootlegger's beers and at the bottom it threatens patrons with "Death ... Metal" if they linger past closing at 9 p.m.
They make a wide variety of beers, and the last time we went the standouts were the vinegary (in a good way) Lambic #1, the chipotle coffee stout Black Phoenix, and the refreshingly tea-like Spring Ale. We have previously enjoyed several different hop bombs there, including Nose Job and the truly spectacular Knuckle Sandwich, but on offer on our last visit was their Rustic Rye IPA. It pours a cloudy golden orange with minimal head, and a smell that is primarily floral hops with some pine and some malt. The taste is much like the nose, dominated by floral and piney hops, with only a hint of the titular grain and no trace of the 6% ABV. The malt, though, leaves the brew more solid and significant than it might otherwise be, gives it an enjoyable heft that makes it a pleasure to sip, and the dry bitterness keeps us coming back for more.
In the end, neither beer really bowled us over the way that other beers from these breweries have, but both were enjoyable experiences that we would happily repeat. Based on beer alone, Bootlegger's is the slightly superior option. However, when we take into account the atmosphere and beautiful surroundings, and the potential for grabbing a growler to take on a picnic, we have to award this week's belt to Ladyface.