The India Pale Ale beer style is quite possibly the most popular craft beer style in America today. The many IPA varieties and sub-varieties exploded onto the craft beer scene just a few years ago with wide distribution of the American-style IPA, especially beers from the West Coast. And just as this style saved beer starved Englishmen in India at the turn of the 1800s, it also helped revive a stagnant craft beer industry in America at the outset of the 21st Century.
Beginnings of the IPA Style
Englishmen in the British India colonies had little or no access to beer in the 1700s and 1800s. It was a serious problem for British ex-pats who liked their ales but it offered a burgeoning market for brewers in Britain. These brewers understood the preservative qualities found in hops as well as in alcohol and realized these qualities would allow their beers to last the sea voyage around the Horn of Africa and on to India. According to legend, George Hodson of Bow Brewery created the IPA-style around 1800 by increasing the hops and alcohol content in his Pale Ale beers. Recorded history states that Samuel Allsopp of Burton Brewers was commissioned to brew an India Ale by the East India Trading Company.
IPA and Craft Beer 2.0
The modern Craft Beer scene started in California in 1971 with Anchor Brewing’s Steam Beer. It finally stretched across America by the 1990s, thanks to brewers such as Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada as well as several regional craft breweries. Ales were the majority of beers marketed, specifically Pale Ales, Browns, Red, and Stouts and these styles had legions of fans but their limited tasted profile also caused some beer drinkers to seek more robust character in their beers. They found bigger, bolder flavors in the English-Style IPA and by the mid-2000s American craft brewers began pumping varieties and sub-varieties of IPA and the general craft beer enthusiasts began to appreciate what hop heads already understood – the hop is a not just a preservative but a beer seasoning that enhances beer with an entirely new level of flavor and character.
India Pale Ales can be broken into three basic categories – but there are many sub-categories as well. The English-style is the mother of IPA styles. They are brewed for balance of hop flavor and character though English-style IPAs do to tend to be sweeter than American-Style and a lot has to do with sweeter malts they are brewed with, and these do balance well with the earthy notes and flavors of the hops often used. The indomitable Double IPA, often known as Imperial IPA, is a monster beer. These intensely hopped beers are brewed with considerably more malt than used in traditional beer recipes, so they are bigger in flavor and considerably higher in alcohol. Yet, these beers tend to be more balanced between the sweet malt flavors and big hop concentration than even a typical American-style IPA.
It is the American-style IPA that can really be broken into sub-categories. From east coast to west coast and various regions around the county, brewers have tweaked the IPA style or downright blown it up.
West Coast IPA
The style that brought the IPA to the head of the craft beer lineup. These beers bring big hop character and flavor such a pine, resin and grapefruit and chart high on IBUs. They also tend to be lighter in malt character and color and are filtered, so their appearance is clear. Brewers known for producing this style include California breweries: Stone, Green Flash, and Lagunitas. Yet, several northwest brewers have shied away from the bitterness of their California brewers-in-arms, opting for highlighting the hops more grassy, piney and citrus notes. A notable northwest-style would be Deschuttes Fresh Hopped IPA.
East Coast IPA
This style bridges between English-style and West Coast-style IPAs. The East Coast IPAs tend to be more malt forward than IPAs brewed on the West Coast-style , they are still not as balanced as the typical English version. One interesting development over the past few years is the advent of the Vermont-style IPA – a beer that is brewed to highlight hop flavors not bitterness an attribute enhanced because this style remains unfiltered. Rather than achieving high IBU, this style seeks to highlight the hops used, bringing out the hops fruity and tropical flavors. Alchemist Brewery in Vermont is a great brewer of this style as is Odd13 Brewery in Colorado.
Like session beers of other styles, this IPA style is brewed to be enjoyed for balance of flavor, not for high bitterness quality. As with the East Coast-style, these beers do not overwhelm the drinker’s palate. Their lower alcohol content also allows people to enjoy more beers.
Which IPA is for you?
There are many kinds of IPAs, styles and sub-styles. Which one is the IPA for you? To start, you should understand what types of food and drinks you like and also, simply put – are you a beer drinker, dabbler or connoisseur? If you really know beer and drink a lot of style of beer, the best way is to compare the beer to another that you have enjoyed – or not enjoyed. If you are not a big beer drinker, one easy question to ask is: do I like food and drink that tastes either bitter or that taste citrusy and piney. These are big flavor qualities in most American-style IPAs and a good place to start your search. Then, ask beer drinking friends what they like; ask your beer-tender for his take as well as a sample; then head on down to your local liquor store and ask the folks working in the beer department what they have in stock. By the way, Molly’s Spirits own Grant and Tony have excellent beer knowledge, experience and taste.