“I don’t order IPAs anymore because I never know what I’m going to get.” This sentiment from one newcomer to the craft beer scene is becoming an issue for others in a similar position. Fueled by the American public’s thirst for hoppiness, the classic English style known as India Pale Ale has spawned dozens of variations but very little consistency. Just within the American IPA subcategory, a vast multitude of flavor profiles can be found. To make things even more complicated, dozens of new subdivisions have sprouted up. English, American, Belgian, red, white, black; modern takes on this historical beer have thrown plenty of adjectives before its name. By pushing the boundaries, craft brewers have sent the true historical IPA into extinction. Here’s how it happened.
Pale malt, sugar, hops, and cask-aging. These were the four key components of the original IPAs brewed in 18th century England. These beers were pale; about as pale as brewers could make them. Sugar was added to boost the ABV (think 6-8%) and make the beer intensely dry. There were hops, and lots of them. The hopping rates for these beers were certainly up there with the stereotypical American hop-monster IPAs, albeit with less intense English hop varieties. But bitterness and hop flavor weren’t really the point of these original IPAs; the English had another motive.
The original IPA was designed to age. It typically would have spent anywhere from a few months to over a year in a wooden cask before it was consumed. This extended aging, either in a cellar or on a boat to one of the many far-off English colonies (i.e. India), would have necessitated over-hopping the beer on brew-day, as hop characteristics diminish quickly with age. Hop oils also have mild antibacterial properties, so heavy hopping may have helped preserve the beer during the aging period or while it was sailing halfway around the world. Aging also would have allowed Brettanomyces to work its way into the beer and contribute the tart, funky flavors we usually associate with sour ales from Belgium, a desirable and almost universal component of beer at the time.
These are not exactly small changes. The beer should have never been called an IPA in the first place.
Let’s jump ahead to the budding American craft beer scene of the late 20th century. As craft beer began to catch on, so did hop cultivation in the Pacific Northwest. With its pale, simple backbone and tradition of over-hopping, the IPA style was the perfect platform to showcase the intense pine, citrus, and tropical fruit complexities of these American-grown hops. Of course, aging was not an option here, as freshness is vital in capturing the full bouquet and flavor profile of the hop flower. As a result, this permutation of the English style unfortunately became labeled as the American IPA.
No aging and drastically different American hops are not exactly small changes. The beer should have never been called an IPA in the first place. Cascadian Ale, West Coast Ale, even American ale would have worked, but we’re stuck with IPA and the name surely isn’t going anywhere. Ever since the style really caught on in the mid-1990s, it has seen consistent year-over-year growth with no signs of slowing down. Last year the IPA style crushed its competition, growing more than any other beer style with a 39% increase in restaurant and bar transactions over 2011’s numbers.
In the early days, this popularity brought along with it plenty of little tweaks and changes to the original American IPA formula. Regional variations on the style began to appear with confusing and arbitrary geographical designations like “West-Coast IPA” and “East-Coast IPA”. The very American, super-sized version of the IPA known as the Double or Imperial IPA was created. Even a bastardized version of the original English beer, brewed with more malt character and English hop varieties popped up with the label “English IPA.” But at least these innovations still bore a threadbare resemblance to the colonial classic, the only major difference being the emphasis on freshness over cask-conditioning. But of course, things didn’t stop here.
Add tons of hops to a light-bodied stout? Black IPA. Ferment it with a Belgian yeast strain? Belgian IPA. Cut the pale malt with wheat? White IPA. The list goes on and on. Craft brewers love to experiment and bend styles every possible direction. Some have been massively successful, plenty have failed. Brewers have a hard choice when they decide to label these new creations. They could come up with a new original name for the style, but that’s risky. For the most part, people gravitate towards familiarity. Maybe one day some of these styles will be popular enough to land their own catchy title, but for now there’s nothing more familiar and omnipresent than the letters I P A.
Here is a breakdown of some of the more common IPA permutations out there. Remember, if you’re buying bottles, always check the freshness dates. Modern IPAs should be consumed as soon as possible.
Ordering a standard American IPA is more or less a crapshoot these days. They are defined very loosely as intensely hoppy pale ales with very little malt presence and an ABV anywhere from 5.5% to 7.5%. You may hear them broken up into “East Coast” and “West Coast” categories but that should be ignored. The only thing you can count on is that the predominant flavor is going to be hops, be it pine, mango, flowers, lemon zest, pineapple, or any of the other hundreds of flavors hops can provide. The only real way to figure out what an American IPA is going to taste like is, well, to drink it.
Flower Power IPA, Ithaca Beer Company
Ithaca, NY. 7.5% alcohol by volume, $12 for a six-pack
A quintessential American hop-bomb, Flower power showcases massive pine, grapefruit, and floral notes with a hint of biscuit-like malt for balance. The aromas and flavors come from an intense hopping schedule that melds six different American hop varieties.
What gets labeled as an English IPA these days is far from the classic English IPAs that were actually shipped to India. They generally utilize caramel malts in conjunction with pale malt and English hop varietals, making them much maltier and more subtle than their American counterparts. Caramel malts or any other specialty grain would never have found its way into the original English IPAs, a style which is all but extinct. The example listed below is one of the few that still exist.
Empire IPA, Burton Bridge Brewery
Burton-on-Trent, United Kingdom. 7.5% ABV, $7 for a 16.9oz bottle
Made with 100% pale malt, sugar, and hops, this historically accurate IPA is cask-aged for six months before being bottled. Brettanomyces has provided a funky earthiness and tart lemon characteristic that blends perfectly with the intensely floral and peppery English hop varietals loaded into this beer.
This style is older than you may think. First brewed in 1994 at the Vermont Pub & Brewery under the guidance of legendary brew master Greg Noonan, it is characterized by a pitch black color and a malt bill more similar to a porter than a pale ale. The key is the contrast between earthy, roasted malts and fresh, juicy hops. It goes by many names: India Black Ale, American Black Ale, Cascadian Dark Ale, and most popularly Black IPA. Hopefully someday American Black Ale catches on, because Black India Pale Ale is about as contradictory and confusing as a name could get.
Nyx, White Birch Brewing
Hooksett, NH. 7% ABV, $9 for a 22oz bottle
Ominously black, this hoppy ale from White Birch greets you with pine and citrus aromas and flavors that fade into deep bitter chocolate, burnt caramel, and peat notes. Deceptive and mysterious, Nyx showcases the American hop that started the IPA craze, Cascade.
The hop craze isn’t limited to American brewers. Belgian craft and traditional breweries have become hop-obsessed as well, creating hoppy versions of traditional Belgian ales. Things labeled as Belgian IPAs are usually hoppy versions of Belgian Golden ales or Tripels. A related new style is the White IPA, basically a hoppy Belgian witbier. The white IPA style hasn’t yet proven whether it’s here to stay or just a passing fad. I’d put my money on the latter.
Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, Brasserie d’Achouffe
Belgium. 9% ABV, $12 for a 750mL bottle
A complex name for a complex beer, this traditional Belgian brewery stepped into the IPA game with this big, hoppy take on a Trappist Tripel. American notes of lemon and pine give way to classic Belgian banana and sourdough bread, finishing off with an astringent green tea flavor in perfect balance.
India Pale Lager
A new lager revival trend has hit the craft-beer world and brought along with it the Frankenstein India Pale Lager (IPL) category. Basically an IPA that’s fermented with lager yeast and cold-conditioned, these beers provide a crisper, cleaner body than a traditional American IPA and slightly better hop preservation thanks to the cold temperatures required by lager yeast. Relatively young, these beers are catching on fast with big names like Samuel Adams, Great Lakes, and Sierra Nevada having produced examples.
Hoponius Union, Jack’s Abby Brewing
Framingham, MA. 6.7% ABV, $12 for a four-pack
Leaders of the lager revival Jack’s Abby brew their immensely popular Hoponius Union with local Massachusetts malts and fruity Pacific Northwest hops. The result is an elegantly clean and crisp beer with loads of cantaloupe, apricot, and mango notes balanced with a healthy dose of bitterness.
American Double/Imperial IPA
One of the most beloved and hyped styles in all of beer geekdom, they’re generally an American IPA with a higher alcohol percentage and twice as much hop intensity. These beers push the boundaries of how much bitterness our taste buds can handle. Don’t be fooled if you see one labeled as an Imperial IPA; the word “Imperial” is just a synonym for “Double” in the craft beer world. Also, don’t be surprised to see double versions of any of the other IPA variants listed above.
Dirtwolf, Victory Brewing Company
Downingtown, PA. 8.7% ABV, $11 for a four-pack
Brewed with four hop varietals including the up-and-coming superstar Mosaic varietal, Dirtwolf is intensely tropical, with loads of grapefruit and pineapple, but balanced enough to be dangerously drinkable. It’s also widely available and relatively inexpensive, a nice change of pace for the quality double IPA market.