Barreling down Highway 5 in a 10-passenger van wrapped with an inescapable image of hops, the team from Golden Road Brewing and Mohawk Bend are on a mission for one thing – beer kegs. The destination is San Diego, often called Beer City, U.S.A., and home to the country's most well-respected beer community.
It's also the home of the West Coast IPA, a bitter, piney, hoppy style of beer that has come to define modern craft brewing culture. On Saturday, the West Coast IPA will get a day-long spotlight at the second annual Los Angeles IPA Festival, which will take over 61 taps at Mohawk Bend in Echo Park with the top versions in the state, and invite 25 brewers to judge them and determine the best.
On Monday, Mohawk Bend's beer director Lauren O'Neill and Golden Road Brewing's head of special operations Trevor Faris led a mission to pick up some of the rarest kegs of West Coast IPAs, from venerable San Diego breweries that never distribute in L.A.
“It's exciting to be able to bring these beers back to L.A.,” says O'Neill as the hops-wrapped van rolls through Camp Pendleton. “Hop heads and beer fans look forward to the festival because they know they're going to be able to drink beers they can't usually get in L.A. Some of the best IPAs in the country are made in San Diego, so it only makes sense we make sure we have them on draft.”
At other long-running local IPA festivals that happen in L.A. at bars like Naja's Place and Lucky Baldwins, the term “IPA” is loosely applied. Beers on draft can include any number of IPA variants, from Belgian-style IPAs, to British IPAs, to black IPAs and even sour IPAs.
For the purposes of the Los Angeles IPA Festival, however, organizers stick to a more strict American IPA definition, which is nearly the same one that the Brewers Association defines for its own competitions. All the beers (with a few given some friendly wiggle room) are between 6% ABV and 8% ABV, prominently feature American hops in the aroma and flavor and are commonly described with adjectives like “citrusy,” “floral,” and “resinous.”
“We're trying to find the best representation of the West Coast IPA style,” says O'Neill.
With these guidelines in mind, the van stops first at Monkey Paw, a brewpub owned by the same proprietors of popular San Diego beer bars Hamilton's and Small Bar, where the brewer helps load a keg into the back of the van. Then the team moves onto Societe Brewing in Kearney Mesa, where some of the best IPAs are being made, to pick up a keg of The Pupil, a very tropical, yet gently bittered beer.
As the day winds down, a final and crucial San Diego stop occurs at Bagby Beer, the recently opened Oceanside brewpub and restaurant complex from Jeff Bagby, one of the most decorated IPA brewers in the country. His skills with making hop-forward beers is so revered that the presence of Dork Squad, the first batch of his first IPA made in his new facility, has many guessing it will be the first to tap out at the festival, if not be named the overall winner.
Because in addition to making these beers available to purchase in half-pint sizes for fans, the day also includes a friendly competition, in which the top three beers of the festival are determined by a judging panel comprised of many participating brewers. Over three rounds, the 61 beers are narrowed down to the ones that best represent California's native beer style. Glory (and a plaque) goes to the winner.
With the van making its way back to Golden Road headquarters – the all-California restaurant and bar Mohawk Bend shares its owner with the brewery – it loads up one last keg at Tustin Brewing Company, last year's second-place winner, Old Town IPA. The beer will again go head-to-head with the best from breweries both veteran (Russian River, Stone, Hangar 24, Eagle Rock) and fresh-faced (Three Weavers, Bottle Logic, Wicks) in a palate-wrecking battle royale.
“You go to Europe and there are cities where they've only been drinking one style of beer for centuries,” says O'Neill. “Really hoppy West Coast IPAs are our thing in California. It's just what we do.”
The Los Angeles IPA Festival starts Saturday, December 6 at 9:30 a.m. at Mohawk Bend, 2141 W Sunset Blvd, Echo Park. This is a non-ticketed event and reservations are not required, but you may make them for parties of 6 or more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full draft list and more information, visit the event's Facebook page.