India Pale Ales, better known as IPAs, are probably the most popular style in American craft brewing. Seemingly every brewery around is producing a couple different versions of this light-in-color but big-in-flavor ale. Let’s take a look at what makes an IPA unique and at some of the best examples of the style.
The prevailing myth of the origin of the IPA is that the traditional ales of the 18th century did not survive the 5-months of sea travel from England to the colonies in India, and that a new beer was developed with more alcohol and more hops to preserve the brew on the long journey. However, it turns out that most of these notations of the development of the India pale ales are apocryphal at best and fabrications at worst. Beer historian and expert Pete Brown thoroughly busts many of the myths about IPAs in his article for All About Beer Magazine. Pete concludes, after a lengthy journey around the world in search of the origins of the IPA, that we can never really know how the style was born or what it tasted like when first brewed, but that is okay because “the mystery only adds to the allure.”
Even though the beers origins are lost to time, the style is well recognized and defined in today’s world. Several types of IPAs are defined by the associations that write the literal books on beer styles, but they all break down to being pale in color with assertive bitterness, strong hop character, and above average alcohol content. IPAs can be further separated into two main categories: English and American, and further divided into a myriad of sub-styles. The original English IPAs were big and bitter, probably closer to the Imperial IPAs or Double IPAs that can be found today. They traditionally use English or European hops which have a more herbal and earth character than the American varieties.
American brewers have taken the IPA as their own; adding the distinctive flavors of new world hop varieties to the character of the classic English ale. It has also become de rigueur for American brewers to add even more hops to their IPAs after the beer is fermented in a process called “dry-hopping”. This doesn’t increase the bitterness of the brew, but it will lend an even larger hop-aroma to the finished beer.
Color and balance are an important aspect to an IPA; all those hops need to be supported by a strong and sweet malt backbone. This balance in body, sweetness, and hoppy bitterness is the real test of a great IPA, and English IPAs tend towards more maltiness while the American versions are more hop-focused. Regardless of origin, you should be able to taste the malt through all those hops when drinking an IPA.
What to Drink
It can be tough to find a great imported English IPA these days as the American versions seem to get all the shelf-space, but many American breweries are producing an English-style IPA:
- Samuel Smith: India Ale (import)
- Fullers: India Pale Ale (import)
- Brooklyn Brewery: “East India Pale Ale” (New York)
- Full Sail Brewing: Full Sail IPA (Oregon)
When it comes to American-style IPAs you could drink a different brew every day and probably never sample them all. Some personal favorites are:
- Stone Brewing: IPA
- Anchor Brewing: Liberty Ale
- Ballast Point: Sculpin IPA
- Green Flash: West Coast IPA
Imperials and Doubles
When you really want a big beer with lots of bitterness and the alcohol punch to back it up, try one of these imperial/double IPAs:
- Stone Brewing: Ruination
- Dogfish Head: 90 Minute IPA
- Russian River: Pliny the Elder (if you can find it)
- Port Brewing: Hop 15
The IPA is such a popular style that many brewers have pushed the boundaries of the style to create interesting hybrids or entirely new styles based on the traditional India Pale Ale:
- Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye is an IPA made with a high percentage of malted rye giving it a unique aromatic and spicy flavor.
- Stone Brewing’s Cali-Belgique is the same recipe as their standard IPA, but the beer has been fermented with a Belgian-style yeast that gives the IPA a totally different flavor filled with spices and fruity esters. Try it side-by-side with the standard IPA to get a sense for how much of an effect different yeasts have on a beer.
- The Deschutes Brewing Hop in the Dark is one of the first examples of a new style that combines the hop-forward qualities of an IPA with the dark, roasted malts of a porter. The result is called a “black IPA” by some and a “Cascadian dark ale” by others, but either way it brings a whole new dimension to the IPA style.
Are you a devoted fan of IPAs, or have you not yet acquired the taste for the most hoppy of beers? Let’s hear what your favorite (or most hated) IPAs are in the comments.