The 2023 Offering from the ASBA is Sorta Like "Flashpoint" for Beer
By Jason van Rassel | October 12, 2023
If you’re into pop culture, chances are you’ve come across retroactive continuity (retcon) in one of your favourite TV series or comic books: a new plotline that reinterprets or outright contradicts the established narrative.
But retcon in beer? Yes, it’s possible — and now it’s been done, thanks to the imagination of the people behind the 2023 Unity Brew made by members of the Alberta Small Brewers Association (ASBA).
This year’s edition of the ASBA’s annual fundraising beer is a West Coast-style IPA, which is straightforward enough. But it was made with a retcon premise: that the West Coast style was invented after New England-style IPAs, rather than the other way around.
“It’s a fun beer. We thought, ‘What’s something different?’ and we wanted to show off the creativity of Alberta breweries,” says Cole Boyd, who co-owns Edmonton’s Bent Stick Brewing and chaired an ASBA committee that created the recipe for this year’s Unity Brew. More than 80 brewers from across the province gathered here in Edmonton on Sept. 1 to watch the beer get made and toast the occasion at Alley Kat Brewing.
The established beer history goes like this: West Coast IPAs are assertively bitter, with pine and grapefruit traits derived from hop varieties that originated in the American northwest, like Cascade, Centennial and Columbus. Hops are added early in the boil, which brings out more bitterness. Typically, brewers balance the bitterness of West Coast IPAs using caramel malt, which delivers some sweetness and toffee- and caramel-like flavours. Yeast is filtered from the beer before packaging, giving it a clear appearance.
As craft beer became increasingly popular in the early 2000s, West Coast IPAs became the go-to for people craving something different. However, the style’s runaway popularity created a hop-driven arms race among brewers to create even more bitter IPAs. Perhaps inevitably, a lot of people got tired of palate-stripping bitterness (and it likely deterred a lot of people from trying craft beer in the first place).
At around this time, some brewers on the opposite coast, in the northeast United States, started using hop varieties known for creating bright and tropical traits. These New England IPAs, as they came to be known, were bursting with hop flavour and aroma — but they weren’t aggressively bitter, because the hops were being added later in the boil or into cooled beer as it matured. New England IPAs are also unfiltered, with suspended yeast giving them their characteristic hazy appearance — and spawning the “hazy” moniker now applied to New England-style IPAs and pale ales.
In envisioning a retcon universe where the West Coast IPA came later, the makers of Unity Brew chose hop varieties typically found in New England IPAs, but amped up the bitterness to a more assertive level you’d expect in a West Coast IPA.
Sampling a few cans myself, I thought Unity Brew delivers enough bitterness to earn its “West Coast” label. (There’s even a bit of that “just bit down on an aspirin” sensation on the palate that may sound unpleasant to the uninitiated, but veteran West Coast IPA drinkers will likely know how satisfying it is.) What’s fun and interesting about this beer is that the bitterness is accompanied by flavours I wouldn’t expect in a traditional West Coast IPA: instead of piney and resiny (which have their charms), I got lemon, mandarin and tangerine. As a thought experiment and a flavour experiment, Unity Brew is a tasty success.
Unity Brew 2023 will be available at ASBA member breweries throughout the province, starting Oct. 13. Proceeds from sales will go toward ASBA’s efforts to promote and grow the industry in Alberta.
There are now about 130 independently-owned breweries that provide employment to hundreds of Albertans and support growers and businesses in their communities. If you like to support local, Unity Brew is a tasty way to do it.
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