In a world of ever-changing beer trends, sometimes it's good to remember our evolutionary ancestors.
At Great Basin Brewing in Reno, Nevada, Ichthyosaur IPA—a.k.a “Icky”—has been on tap since the doors opened in 1993, and little about it has changed.
Prior to serving up his first beer, Great Basin founder Tom Young spent a lot of time at Rubicon Brewing Co. in California, which was brewing up IPAs in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“It was this real hoppy beer when just a little bit of amber color would make people do cartwheels,” says Young, a former geologist who won national homebrewing competitions prior to turning pro. “They were doing hoppy beers. Incredibly hoppy was the new way to go and that influenced us greatly.”
Like many breweries in the early days of craft beer, Great Basin was turned down by every bank in Reno. Yet one banker took to the pair of founders, Young and the late Eric McClary, and warned them they lived in a Bud Light town and not to brew anything too aggressive.
As a brewpub, the founders knew they needed a spectrum of light to dark beers and as their first “Brewmaster’s Special” rotating tap was Ichthyosaur IPA, or as the paleontologically challenged call it, Icky IPA.
“It was a big, strong beer named after a big, strong beast,” Young says. “A 14-barrel batch lasted one or two days. Icky was incredibly popular—they all wanted something aggressive. Even if they didn’t love it, they appreciated it.”
At 6.4 % ABV, the beer was a relatively boozy treat at the time, hopped aggressively with Cascade hops. In 25 years, the lone change to Icky’s formula has been a few alterations in the dry-hopping schedule, but it’s still a Cascade-dominated beer.
What hasn’t changed is its complex malt bill.
“Most IPAs today are trying to get simple malt bills to accentuate the hops,” Young says. “But I think there’s room for malt-balanced beers and I think Icky epitomizes that.”
Nevada law has favored the brewpub model, so you have to have a range of beers and we’re always doing new styles, but Icky has staying power.”
In 1993, it wasn’t obvious that Ichthyosaur IPA would become Great Basin’s flagship beer, making up more than 50 percent of its nearly 15,000-barrel annual volume. Since then, Great Basin has increased its IPA styles on tap, ranging from its Tectonic Event Double IPA to Summer of Haze to Hop-a-Saur Fresh Hop IPA.
“Hops are kind of all the rage,” Young says with a laugh. “People said hops were a fad in 1993 and yet they still seem quite popular.”
Despite Icky IPA’s dominance at Great Basin, its two Reno-area brewpubs are awash with an eclectic tap list of beers. This month, Great Basin brewed a gruit, a beer with no hops. Young calls it the anthesis to an IPA.
In Great Basin’s two and a half decades, it’s won 23 Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals for various beers. While Icky’s well-medaled at smaller competitions, however, it has eluded the big stages.
Despite a general lack of attention from the rest of the nation, Nevada breweries continue to brew award-winning beers, from old-schoolers like Great Basin and Big Dog’s Brewery to newer upstarts like Revision Brewing and IMBIB Custom Brews.
“Nevada breweries have had great diversity in styles,” Young says. “Nevada law has favored the brewpub model, so you have to have a range of beers and we’re always doing new styles, but Icky has staying power.”
It may be 25 years old, but Icky hardly qualifies as a fossil yet. Nevertheless, in 2011 a group of German paleontologists took a break from excavating real ichthyosaur fossils—the state fossil of Nevada—and discovered Great Basin’s IPA on store shelves in a nearby town. They knew only a former geologist like Young could have brewed a beer named after a prehistoric creature and sought out the brewery.
Since then, Young has taken great interest in current ichthyosaur digs, including donating Great Basin truck to transport fossils and sponsoring a dig for a specimen that may turn out to be the first large animal to evolve. The Reno brewery has also hosted the paleontologists to discuss the their finds—and drink beer—with the local community.
“Beer is a vehicle to enhance understanding,” Young says. “Community is a key to a brewery’s success.”