If cooking is science for hungry people, brewing is applied chemistry for thirsty people. The Gedrinken Experiment will explore the brews and spirits inspired by science. The first entry is Great Basin Brewing Company bringing a Triassic beast back from extinction as the Ichthyosaur IPA.

Top image base image credit: Ryan Somma; mashup: Mika McKinnon

The Brew: Ichthyosaur India Pale Ale (Icky IPA) from the Great Basin Brewing Company in Nevada


How could I pass by a beer advertised with a fossil? Image credit: Great Basin Brewing Company

Packaging notes: I freely admit the only reason I picked up this beer to taste in the first place was because of the awesome fossil-friendly packaging. Not only does the front of the carrier feature an iconic ichthyosaur fossil, but the accompanying text instructs you, "Better hold on tight, this is one tough species." Considering these marine monsters dominated the seas around the world, "tough" is if anything an understatement to describe their likely behaviours.


Flipped upside-down, the box continues its love affair with the extinct species, informing imbibers that ichthyosaurs predate us by some 217 million years. It continues with a bit more subversive education, finishing off with recommending a visit to the state park to bask in the creature's enormous fossils. Respecting the marine animal's watery environment, the last corner of cardboard is occupied with a map to the brewery and an invitation starting, "All land animals welcome."

Tasting notes: As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, I'm accustomed to IPAs so hoppy that they attempt to kick your teeth out on the first sip, and keep on fighting for the rest of the drink. In contrast, the Icky IPA is refreshingly crisp with a sly nudge of hops underlain with a tongue-twist of citrus. This is a pale ale to sip and savour, not a masochistic endurance contest with barely-concealed whimpering winces. Apparently I'm not the only one who appreciates the relative gentleness of this IPA: the Icky is their best-selling beer.


Brewmaster Tom Young explains that the gentle hoppiness of the Icky IPA is a time-capsule into the tasting style popular when they opened the brewing company in 1993:

At the time we released the beer, it was certainly one of the most aggressively hopped beers available. As times have progressed, the IBU level pales in comparison to many, including other Great Basin IPAs, but we decided to keep the hopping level at it's original and concentrate of flavor and aromatic matters of the IPA.

This is still an IPA: the Beer Judge Certification Program classifies American IPAs as somewhere between 40 to 70 bittering units (IBUs). The Ichthyosaur weighs in at 47 IBUs: mild for an aggressive west coast IPA, but well within the standard. (Young is quick to point out that some of their other offerings have substantially more kick: the Tectonic Event Imperial pale ale released in April has a earth-shattering 100 IBUs.)


The ingredients are pleasingly simple: malt, hops, yeast, and water. With no additional additives, any flavour in the beer is going to come from the particular grains used to extract the malt, and the proportion and variety of the hops.

Brewing notes: When brewing beer, hops are typically divided into two categories: the boiling hops added for the full boil of the wort, extracting alpha acids that dictate the bitterness of the brew, and the finishing hops added to the last few minutes of the brew, which dictate flavours and aromas. Even late addition hops boil off some of the delicate aromatic oils, so sometimes a third stage of hops come into play for emphasizing aroma: dry hopping after the wort is boiled, cooled, and decanted by soaking hops in the fermenting beer.


Cascade hops. Image credit: Michael Styne

For the Ichthyosaur India Pale Ale, Brewmaster Young is light with the boiling hops, but adds copious quantities of Cascade and Columbus-Tomahawk-Zeus hops as finishing hops, and again for dry hopping at near the end of active fermentation. The flowery grapefruit flavour of Cascade hops are characteristic of American pale ales, although they're usually used during the boil where their moderate-to-high alpha acids provide an effective bitterness. The Columbus-Tomahawk-Zeus variety is also a dual-purpose hop commonly used to layer in bitterness, and more rarely used for its pungent, earthy aroma.


The Great Basin of Nevada. Image credit: Ken Lund

The Beginning of the Brew: Young had spent decades as a geologist working on mining and mineral exploration in Nevada when, as the last field employee of Tenneco Minerals Company, he was downsized and left looking for work. Considering the strong (and sometimes complicated) relationship between geologists and beer, he gathered up his partners in homebrewing and tried to get a loan to launch the Great Basin Brewing Company. The banks rebuffed them, offering at most a warning to keep their beer diluted and flavourless to avoid offending local palette with a preference for Bud.

Undeterred, Young and his homebrewing colleague Eric McClary brewed up batches of Icky IPA, an altbier (Wild Horse Ale and former 1st place beer in the American Homebrewers Association National Championship), a kolsch (Nevada Gold), and a porter (Jackpot Porter). They let their beer advocate for them: Young explains "We [raised] the necessary capital by popping a homebrew and asking for $10,000 investments." During their persuasive fundraising campaign, Icky was so popular they ran out within just two days, proving that while the residents of Reno may drink Bud, it's only because they lacked a viable alternative.


Amusingly, this origin-story of geologist-turned-brewmaster is not unique. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper worked as an oil fields geologist until founding Wynkoop Brewing Company, the first brewpub in Colorado.

It would take a lot of kicking to knock out all the teeth on this icthyosaur. Image credit: Kevin Walsh


On the Origins of Icky: The ichthyosaur is Nevada's official state fossil, discovered near the Berlin gold mine camp in 1928. The camp has since been transformed into the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, where kraken most certainly did not create self-portraits out of ichthyosaur bones. Young clearly has a soft-spot for the beast, writing:

Ichthyosaurs swam in the seas from the Triassic to the Cretaceous and left the earth (until we brewed the beer) at about the same time the dinosaurs left. They were not actually dinosaurs, but reptiles. The name translates in Latin to "fish-lizard". Different species are found all over the world, but the Nevada varieties are remarkable because of their size, growing to over 50 feet long. Most other species didn't reach 10 feet.

Quickly we realized that imbibers had difficulty pronouncing the name so we affectionately call the beer "Icky" for those who are paleontologically challenged.


We've previously marvelled over ichthyosaurs before as downright terrifying massive marine predators, and for giving us fossil evidence of the early evolution of head-first birth postures in large reptiles.

The icthyosaur is so cool, it even made the journey to Burning Man 2013 as a skeleton-marionette. Image credit: Mack Reed


First discovered by Mary Anning, their fossils are found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite being extremely widespread, they went extinct abruptly with no apparent link to any other reptiles or decedents.

The Ichthyosaur IPA isn't the only brew in their lineup that embraces geology for inspiration. The company itself is named for a dominant geomorphic feature of the state: a massive drainage basin stretching from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Wasatch Front. This was also the inspiration for a special-event beer, the Great Basin Preservation Pale Ale, brewed as part of a fundraiser for the Nevada Land Conservancy. The Tectonic Event Imperial IPA braces for the Big One along the active margin along the west coast, while the Nevada Gold honours the state's gold production boom.


The Icky IPA is the first of the company's brews to transition from bottles to cans. Image credit: Great Basin Brewing Company

Where to taste: Despite being Nevada's oldest and largest brewery, the Great Basin Brewing Company is finding it tricky to meet the demand for their brews. If you can't make it to one of their pub in Reno or Sparks, Nevada, you can pick up cans or bottles of Icky IPA throughout Nevada and northeastern California. They've recently expanded, now running a 30 barrel brewhouse with 120 barrel fermentation tanks.

For those wishing to raise a toast to the great beast from long ago without imbibing alcohol, the brewpub has developed a variety of bread recipes using spent grains. If beer is liquid bread you can drink, bread is just beer in a solid, chewable format.


This ichthyosaur bares a toothy grin, or is that a grimace? Image credit: Peter Eimon

Advice to Homebrewers: Brewmaster Young offers a final piece of advice to all of you brewing at home:

Brew with a story behind each beer. Try to make the beer come alive with some tie to something that is as real as the beer that you produce.


Have a suggestion for the next iteration of the Gedrinken Experiment to explore the brews and spirits inspired by science? Let me know!