If you’ve never tried an IPA beer, chances are good that you’ve been cryogenically frozen for the last 20 years and you’ve just woken up, lost and confused.
If that’s the case, please don’t waste your time reading this right now. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do and this isn’t the place to begin. Come back after you’ve gotten caught up a bit and you’re sure to be in dire need of a good, strong beer.
If you’re not a time traveler, you’re probably at least a little bit familiar with IPAs.
There’s a lot more to these hoppy brews though, than you may realize.
What is an IPA?
The IPA has been one of the original pioneers of the craft beer evolution.
While this style has been hot and popular in more recent times, the IPA is far from new.
There’s some debate about the precise origins of the IPA, but it’s generally agreed to have been born during the British colonization of India in the 18th century.
Beer being shipped from England to the troops in India had to travel all the way around the way around the cape of Africa in order to reach India.
It was a long, arduous journey.
As a result, the beer was rife with spoilage because of extreme temperatures, and lack of refrigeration.
Through experimentation, brewers found that by adding loads of hops to the batch, they could brew a brew impervious to the intense conditions of the trip to India. They then began brewing India Pale Ales, a hopped up brew that could withstand the journey and the warm climate in India.
It’s widely believed that George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery in London was the first to brew and widely distribute the IPA.
It was a bitter and strong beer that was designed more for its ability to withstand the journey from London to India than for its palatability. Nevertheless, the popularity of the India pale ale grew.
More breweries began brewing the IPA and continued doing so long after refrigeration was invented. Though the hops were no longer necessary as method of preservation, people had realized that they still just really enjoyed the taste of it.
The IPA stuck around and developed as a pungent, hoppy beer with a generally middle-of-the road ABV.
Flavor profiles of IPAs
India Pale Ales are generally characterized by the flavor derived from the hops.
This often measured in IBUs or International Bitterness Units.
This is a 1-100 scale that is actually determined by measuring the parts per million of Isohumolone, the acid found in hops that gives it it’s bitter bite.
While the bitterness in an IPA is derived from it’s hops, brewers are getting very good at drawing the true flavors out of the hops that give it a distinct “hoppy flavor” that can be discerned separately from the overall bitterness.
When talking about “hoppiness” in an IPA, you’re going to be discussing the true flavor that is imparted by the hops themselves.
The IBUs of a beer don’t necessarily directly correlate with the hoppy flavor.
A beer with high IBUs will always be bitter, but it won’t always be really hoppy.
Conversely, a beer can have lower IBUs and a distinct hoppy flavor.
This has a lot to do with the types of hops used and at what point in the brewing process the hops are added.
A Wet Hop IPA, for an example, can be a lot more hop-forward by using fresh hops. Session IPAs also tend to be lower in IBUs, yet higher in hop flavor due to how they are brewed.
Generally, hoppiness is used to describe the earthy, sometimes even grassy or piney aromas and flavors that come from the actual hop.
Bitterness is the element of the flavor profile of a beer that is accurately measured on the IBU scale.
A beer with lots of IBUs will be exceedingly bitter.
IPAs are generally above 50 IBUs, with milder sessions hitting around 50 and your bolder doubles and triples often range 65-100 IBUs.
Together, the hoppy and bitter combination works beautifully and creates the lovely taste profile that we love so much about an IPA.
The evolution of the IPA- 15 sub-styles and counting
Today, the India Pale Ale has been fully let out of its box.
Craft brewers have been having fun and learning to brew the style in new and creative ways.
While IPAs can still be characterized mostly by their use of an abundance of hops, the flavors have become more complex and varied.
1) The English IPA
We begin with the one started it all, the old India Pale Ale from England.
Less common in America today, the English IPA uses exclusively English varieties of hops and is usually grassy and earthy with a hint of citrus.
It will usually be a golden brown in color and have a very dry finish with ABV between 6-7%.
Examples: Three Floyds Blackheart, Sixpoint Bengali IPA
2) West Coast IPA
The West Coast IPA stays closer and truer to the English IPA than many other styles, but it uses American varieties of hops and often infuses some bolder flavors.
Often using Citra, Chinook, or Cascade hops, these are notoriously bitter and citrusy beers with fantastic earthiness and piney aromas.
If you consider yourself a real “hophead”, you will probably love a good West Coast IPA.
These beers will often be labelled simply as IPAs, as this is basically the truest original American IPA.
Examples: Green Flash Palate Wrecker, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
3) Imperial IPA
In true American style, the evolution of the IPA continues to go bolder and more aggressive with the development of the Imperial IPA.
Stronger and more bitter, with loads more hoppy flavor, doubles, triples and imperials are basically amped up versions of the West Coast IPA.
Usually the alcohol content is higher as well, often in the 9% to 13% range.
These beers will continue with the trend of heavy punches of dank, earthy, flavor from the “big C” hops and subtle piney and citrusy finishes.
Examples: Three Floyds Deadnaught IPA, Stone Ruination IPA
4) Brut IPA
This is the real champagne of beers.
In the world of wine, Brut means very dry.
This extremely dry, very crisp, almost wine-like IPA is created by using a unique enzyme called amyloglucosidase that used to be used only in stouts.
Brut IPAs tend to be very light in color and have an appearance that is similar to a glass of chardonnay or champagne.
This isn’t a favorite style of mine, and certainly one of the less common styles of IPA, but it could make a good intro beer for the wine lover.
Examples: Sierra Nevada Brut IPA, New Belgium Brut IPA
5) East Coast/New England IPA
On the East Coast, the hops tend to be a little more subdued than in West Coast IPAs.
Using more complex varieties of yeast, brewers are able to coax out hints of tasty flavors such as banana, tropical fruit, and citrus.
The NEIPA or New England IPA tends to be very juicy, hazy and smooth with a lower hop profile.
You’ll love to enjoy a nice and cloudy New England IPA on a hot summer day by the pool or at the beach.
Examples: Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing, Blue Point Hazy Bastard IPA
6) Milkshake IPA
A popular spinoff from the New England IPA that deserves some note is the Milkshake IPA.
These are gaining popularity, much to the chagrin of some hop-purists but to the delight of lovers of light, creamy and flavorful beers.
These are very full-bodied beers that pour opaque in the glass.
Infused with lactose, unfermentable sugars, and flavors such as pineapple or vanilla, these can be very exciting and tasty.
Examples: Edmond’s Oast Pineapple Milkshake IPA, Westbrook Peach Milkshake IPA
7) Rye IPA
Unsurprisingly, the Rye IPA is characterized by its use of one ingredient.
Adding rye to the malt gives a unique tangy or spicy flavor profile and helps to enhance some of the natural pine and citrus in the hops.
Much like a good rye whiskey, these beers are bold in flavor and are for a very select beer drinker.
Examples: Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye, Magic Hat Ticket to Rye IPA
8) Session IPA
The session IPA is a milder brew, characterized by an ABV of less than 5%.
This beer is often considered to be a brewer’s beer, as they could sip on this flavorful beer while brewing all day without getting drunk.
In addition to be lower in ABV, sessions are usually lighter in body.
Sessions are still heavy on hop flavor with a stronger malt character.
Examples: Founder’s All Day IPA, Sierra Nevada Nooner IPA
9) Black IPA
The black IPA is a less common variety of IPA.
It appears to be an attempt by brewers to create an IPA that resembles a stout.
It rarely really accomplishes this but tends to land somewhere in between West Coast IPA and a porter, with a toasty malt character and a medium-to-high level of hops.
The black IPA can also be referred to as a Cascadian dark ale because of the cascade hops that are used.
Examples: Frostbite Black IPA by Foothills, Black Perle by RJ Rockers Brewing
10) Sour IPA
Sour IPA is not a clearly defined style of IPA, but is starting to come into it’s own as the popularity of sour beers skyrockets.
The sour flavor is mostly imparted by the addition of lactobacillus, a microorganism that causes the beer to go sour in just the most pleasing way.
Often, barrel-aging or the addition of lactose, vanilla, or fruit adds some additional flavor to these tangier IPAs.
Examples: Almanac Sour IPA, Eight State Forever Sour IPA
11) Belgian IPA
Belgian beers are popular in their own right, and the Belgian IPA is no exception.
These ales apply some of the usual hoppiness of an American IPA, but also impart some flavors that are more distinct in Belgians.
These are often bottle-conditioned beers brewed with Belgian yeast varieties that give a pronounced crisp, dry finish and hints of clove. Belgian IPAs tend to be cloudy, with a very billowy head, and higher in ABV.
Examples: Stone Cali-Belgique IPA, 3 Floyds Live a Rich Life
12) White IPA
The white IPA is basically a mashup of an American IPA and a Belgian Whit.
It was born of a collaboration between Boulevard Brewing and Deschutes.
Out of this, a whole style has developed as other brewers have followed suit by brewing White IPAs.
These tend to have mid to high carbonation, high bitterness with a lower hop profile, and often feature grapefruit, orange, apricot or banana flavors.
You’ll get pleasant aromas of coriander as well as fruit or citrus.
Examples: Anchorage Galaxy White IPA, Lagunitas a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale
13) Fruited IPA
As the name implies, the fruited IPA is describing hoppy beers with the addition of fruit. This is more of a category than a specific style of IPA.
The bitterness of the hops in an IPA is balanced wonderfully by the flavors of fruits such as grapefruit, lemon, apricots, peaches, or virtually any fruit.
Often, the hops themselves impart hints of pleasant citrus flavors which complement the other fruit additions nicely.
Examples: Dogfish Head Aprihop, Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin
14) Wet-Hop IPA
Wet Hop IPAs are seasonal by definition, because they must use fresh, unprocessed hops, right off the vine.
Usually, hops are harvested in August or September and immediately dried and pelletized to be saved for use in brewing year-round.
The use of fresh, wet hops is a great seasonal treat.
The hops are able to retain a little more of their true flavor when used fresh.
These beers tend to be less bitter, but more hoppy.
Examples: Sierra Nevada Harvest Wet Hop IPA, Lagunitas Wet Hop IPA
15) Dry-Hop IPA
Most IPAs use dry hops. The hops impart different complex flavors to the beer depending on what stage in the brewing process they are added.
In a Dry Hop IPA, the hops are added after the boil stage, which allows them to retain a lot of their hop character.
This process has developed some nice IPAs that exert some lovely hoppy flavors and aromas, while not blasting the palate with bitterness.
Examples: Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
How different hop varieties affect the flavor of an IPA
All IPAs feature loads of hops, but not all hops are the same.
Different varieties bring different qualities to the beer.
Most IPAs are brewed using a variety of hops to bring a mixture of the different flavors while some “single-hop” brews are being made to shine a spotlight on the flavors of a single variety of hops.
If you know what qualities to look for, you can distinguish the different varieties in your next IPA.
English hop varieties:
The original IPAs, as well as today’s English IPAs, use varieties of hops such as Fuggle, Golding, or Challenger.
Fuggles are floral and earthy.
Challengers have flavors resembling tea and lemon marmalade.
Goldings have a lemony, peppery, and earthy flavor.
The American “Big Cs”:
Cascade is one of the original varieties of hops used in hoppy craft beers.
This variety will have a strong floral aroma and flavors of grapefruit.
Centennial is very similar to Cascade, but is more intensely floral.
If you’ve tasted an IPA that has a lot of piney flavor in the hops, you’ve probably been picking up the Chinook hops.
You’ll get a strong piney aroma from this and flavors of mellow citrus.
Columbus hops are very dank, herby and piney.
You’ll get notes of pine and even flavors similar to marijuana.
Citra, as the name may imply, is packed with citrus!
You’re likely to get orange, passionfruit, pineapple or peach flavors from Citra hopped beers.
Other American hops:
Simcoe is a commonly used hop variety with great aromas of grapefruit, tropical fruit and sweet onion.
This is the American descendent of the English Fuggle, and carries a mellow earthy spiciness.
It’s more citrusy than the Fuggle.
Mosaic hops have been very popular for their pungent pine aromas and fruity notes such as blueberry, tangerine, and peach.
Amarillo has long been a favorite hop in American craft beer.
It brings a lovely and distinct aromas of orange blossoms.
Galaxy is a juicy Australian variety that delivers flavors of passionfruit, orange and peach.
Motueka comes from New Zealand, with some Czech heritage.
This has some Czech spiciness combined with some Kiwi notes of tropical fruit and lime.
Which glassware is best for an IPA?
Selecting the correct glassware for a beer is important, as different glassware will enhance different qualities.
The best glassware to use for an IPA is a tulip glass because it will enhance frothy, foamy heads and capture volatile flavors.
Great food pairings for IPAs
Different types of beers will pair better with different types of food.
IPAs are very versatile and pair well with most types of food.
Hoppy IPAs, such as Session IPAs or Wet-Hopped IPAs tend to go well with spicier foods, as their earthy, hoppy notes tend to mellow with the heat.
Very bitter IPAs can be tougher to pair, but I find they go well with salty foods.
A brighter, fruity IPA, such as a White IPA or a New England IPA will go excellently with seafood.
The IPA is a wide-ranging category of beer styles that encompasses everything from a thick, hazy, sweet Milkshake IPA, to a dank, earthy, hop-walloping Triple IPA.
No matter what kind of beer drinker you are, you’re sure to be able to find some India Pale Ales that you could drink all day long.
The IPA has come a long way from its history as a utilitarian method of preservation to endure long trips on the high seas to the eclectic varieties that we see today.