Tony Yanow knows how to throw a party.
If you didn’t make it to the 7th Annual Los Angeles IPA Fest at Mohawk Bend on Leap Day, you missed out on a hoptimistic time full of beer lovers that was so jam-packed, you could barely hear your friends — yet you could somehow saddle up to the bar and get a beer pretty easily. (Insert shrug arms emoji here.)
In-between sampling the wares from the 60-plus California breweries repping at the largest LA IPA Fest yet, the Hopped LA team was chowing down on pretzels, pizza, and vegan cauliflower wings. Our eight-ounce pours were all pretty great, which includes the fest’s winner, North Park’s Sorta Mostly Dead (which I would just like to brag about being the very first one I tried and my absolute favorite of the day before it was declared the winner, so I think I can now say I have beer ESP, thankyouverymuch).
“It was nice when I came in here today at like 10:15 a.m, and it was already packed and feeling good,” Yanow, the Golden Road co-founder who now heads up the Artisanal Brewers Collective, told Hopped LA after the judging got underway.
Hours later, the fest was a rousing success and everything Yanow could have hoped for when he first dreamt up the idea almost a decade ago while running Echo Park’s Mohawk Bend and Burbank’s Tony’s Darts Away. While sipping on Broxton’s All Love IPA, Yanow mused about the fest’s origins, which started at Dart’s Away back when IPA was only well-known amongst a small circle of beer nerds and very few bars in LA were selling them.
At the time, craft beer wasn’t as coveted in Los Angeles, but the bartenders and “beer pickers” at Dart’s Away were excited about the new brews they were receiving (considering the menu was split into IPA/Not IPA from the start, beer was always a love that ran deep). Bar patrons were constantly discussing and comparing which beers they liked best at a time when two of the most popular IPAs were Racer 5 and Union Jack, and the holy grail was still Pliny the Younger. “Put yourself 10 years ago — those were like avant-garde, really out there IPAs. We were open probably six months when we got our first keg of Pliny. It was really hard to get at the time,” he says. “I was certainly not part of the first wave of [craft beer in Los Angeles], but as someone who was a part of the second wave, as we moved from total obscurity into the mainstream, I was honored to be a part of that crowd. It was a super fun moment.”
Showcasing quality IPAs was so important to Yanow and his crew that they would drive down to San Diego County just to pick up Pizza Port kegs, and the conversations that would flow around these hard-to-find beers led the Canada native and his then-assistant, Trevor Faris, to dream up a full-on IPA festival.
“It was from those early conversations that we decided to do it,” he continues, noting that Paige Reilly, who is now President of the Artisanal Brewers Collective and has been with Yanow’s teams for years, was also a part of discussing how to bring IPAs to a larger audience.
While Tony’s Darts Away was too small to hold a full fest due to its 18-tap capacity, Mohawk Bend has 70, making it a fitting locale to showcase dozens of beers from around the state. The 2020 beers, some of which were brewed just for the event, took up nearly every tap at Mohawk. That is especially impressive when Yanow looks back at his first year putting the festival together, when he was making cold calls just to get it off the ground.
“I basically just sheepishly called all these brewers that I either knew personally or were my friends… At that time, the beer scene hadn’t fully galvanized yet in L.A., so when there was a beer event, the beer scene really came together to be a part of it,” he says. “The first year or two were really like that and we put on a really fun event, and then the beer scene really kind of exploded.”
From the beginning, Yanow crowdsourced judging in order to make the all-day event a true festival as much as an IPA competition. He made sure to specifically ask friends who were beer judges at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) about what works. “I wanted this to be not so much about crowning a winner but inciting a conversation about what people like and the differences within that,” he explains. “I was really appreciative that these guys came from not just here in L.A. but also Northern California, from San Diego, from all over. When they got here, I wanted them to have so much fun that they would want to come back and be a part of it again next year. We have 29 judges this year, and I’d bet 15 of them have been here every year, and I bet 20 of them have been here at least five times. We try to keep it fresh and make sure that newer brewers who are doing interesting things are included — it’s not just an old boys club. Overall, it’s become a fun thing.”
The festival is also a place for Yanow to reconnect with old friends. “I’ve moved up to Ventura County, but it’s the one time a year I get to see all these people, and it’s just fun for me,” he says. “I don’t do the beer judging, but I wait for the final table and I test my own palette. I keep it secret, and then I look to see how I did against other people, and you know, I kind of suck. Usually, by the end, I’m so drunk I don’t know how anybody can judge the final round.”
Unlike at most festivals, attendees don’t get two- to four-ounce pours but five half-pints, which ensures thorough tastings. “I made that decision early on that everything should be 8 ounces, and the reason why is because I fucking hate drinking at GABF and those places,” Yanow says. “GABF is cool — no disrespect to them because what they do is amazing — but I want my line to be shorter than my beer and I want a beer in my hand the whole time. I don’t want to spend my whole time in a line.”
“Nobody’s going to try everything. The point is to enjoy,” he adds. “I have been involved in many conversations where I get, ‘This is my favorite one today’ and somebody’s like, ‘This is my favorite one today,’ and we literally trade glasses with each other and it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, I like yours better.’ We could sit here and try 10 different beers and have totally different opinions, but if you want to know what the brewers of California think of as the best IPA, you’ll find out, because these guys are the top guys and gals.”
A very unique aspect of the festival is its focus on just one type of beer: the West Coast IPA. “It’s the one festival that I know of where it’s a single thing that people are focused on,” Yanow laments. “The participants and the judges are all part of it together. The respect among the brewers is very high which makes the respect amongst the judges very high, and the people who come and enjoy it get to really be a part of it because they get to try the same beers the judges are trying and all be in the same room.”
The beers that came in tops for both judges and attendees in 2020 were the aforementioned North Park in first, Golden Road Brewery’s Heal the Bay in second, and Fieldwork Brewings’ Boss of the Plains in third, while Tarantula Hill Brewing Co.’s Thousand Oaks took home the People’s Choice vote. Many of the folks at Mohawk were as excited to taste these amazing beers as they were to be around the people making them, and that’s what makes the entire IPA Fest so much fun.
“Some of these brewers are a cross between awkward and rock stars in their own right, and it’s always cute and funny to me for people to be like, ‘Is that?!’ and ask if I know them and can introduce them. I’m like, ‘I don’t know, you look way too excited for me to make an introduction!’” Yanow muses.
“It’s a true community event, and the community is the brewers and beer fans,” he adds. “Because it’s a focused, small number of people and small amount of time, the intimacy of that is what makes it fun and special. That’s why the brewers keep coming back, that’s why we have brewers that want to be participants and judges all the time, and I think that’s why there are so many people downstairs.”