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Bar Volo’s IPA Challenge: 32 cask ales and a whole lot of hops

The 32 beers were matched up in a bracket-style competition (Image: Adam McDowell)

On Saturday and Sunday, Bar Volo hosted the fourth annual IPA Challenge, which gathered hop heads together for a blind-tasting, winner-take-the-glory contest between 32 Southern Ontario examples of India Pale Ale—the bitter, malty, high-alcohol style of beer beloved of craft brewing enthusiasts. The melee kicked off in a packed bar Saturday at noon, but we dropped by for the more sedate fourth and final round on Sunday evening.

We arrived to find 30 or so well-lubricated guests performing blind tastings on quarter-pint servings. Noses hovered over glasses, searching for aromas, while brows furrowed. Once a beer was knocked out of the competition, its name was revealed and guests were free to drink the cask down to the dregs. Compounding the beer nerdgasm: the ales were served out of casks, as opposed to modern kegs that use carbon dioxide pressurization (the old-fashioned delivery method leaves the beer warmer, unpasteurized, less bubbly and hoppier). To varying degrees, all of the ales coated the tongue with that lingering soapiness hop heads adore.

“IPA happens to be fragrant, pungent, fruity [and] everything in between,” said attendee Evan, who works in the beer industry and did not want his last name published. “It’s everything from subtle to an earthquake on the senses. We don’t drink it for shock value. We drink it for sensory impact and enjoyment.” We’d been told that among the still-nameless finalists, Nos. 5 and 27 were the ales to try. No. 5 caught the light with an orange, tea-like cloudiness, balanced with mango and papaya flavours. It was delicious. As for No. 27, well, it was tasty, but puckeringly bitter.

Our scorecard (Image: Adam McDowell)

When the final scores were tallied on Monday, it was No. 27 (a.k.a. Westside 213 IPA, made by Volo’s House Ales label) that took the win. Tomas Morana, scion of the family that owns Volo, said deciding on a victor was almost beside the point: The true purpose of the IPA Challenge was to spread the gospel of bitter ale in Ontario. “We just felt that IPAs were exploding in the U.S. and we were really behind,” he said. “It was kind of a tactical thing for us to entice local breweries to step up their game a bit.”

“I like that hop-forward beers are becoming more and more mainstream,” said beer fan Ryan Mercer. He then praised a decidedly non-mainstream entry called Cock Puncher for tasting “like chocolate-covered leather.” Boasting 100 International Bitterness Units (yes, that’s a thing), the Bad Ass Brewers Collective’s entry was the sharpest beer in the competition. Naturally, the hop heads drank it dry.

We can only imagine what non-hop head Moti Mashiah would have made of Cock Puncher. He and a friend wandered into Volo entirely unprepared for the piney thrust and watery mouthfeel of a heavily hopped cask ale. After a taste, Mashiah handed the glass back to Volo server Jessica Sharpe. “Can I have something good?” he asked. After explaining that all of the beers were quite bitter, Sharpe suggested he try No. 22, a milder ale. Mashiah grimaced again. “Too bitter for me. Oh my God,” he complained. “This is Calvin Klein beer—like perfume. I can’t do it.” He placed the glass on the table, forfeiting the quarter-pint after a single sip. He shrugged at his friend and they walked off in search of “good beer.”

Want to subject your tastebuds to an earthquake? Bar Volo’s usual Monday $5 pint special is in effect tonight, and some of the competition IPAs remain on cask.