Let’s Talk Beer Styles: IPA

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Let’s Talk Beer Styles: IPA

“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, and the next few subsequently tackled everything from Black IPA to classical pilsner. The latest covers American IPA, of which we just blind-tasted and ranked an insane 247 samples.

When you think about it, there’s significance in the fact that I can title this piece “Let’s Talk Beer Styles: IPA” and not actually spell out “India pale ale.” It speaks to IPA’s monolithic prominence in the craft beer market and how it dominates the release calendars of so many breweries and brewpubs. It speaks to the way the shorthand slang for the style has completely become standard parlance, the kind of thing you expect almost anyone drinking at the bar to be familiar with. And it speaks to a still-rampant popularity that has seen the term “IPA” parlayed into so many other marketing-friendly subcategories: Black IPA, white IPA, red IPA, rye IPA, session IPA, nitro IPA, etc, etc, etc.

Because if there’s one thing that IPA represents to the craft beer industry in 2016, it’s money. It has officially been the most popular style of American craft beer since 2011, which was the year that IPA sales officially surpassed pale ale to make it our #1 craft beer style. In the time since, it’s been the “magic word” of beer marketing—ask any brewery or package store owner and they’ll tell you that the same beer with “IPA” somewhere on the label sells better than it would otherwise. We live in a craft beer marketplace where people don’t want “light-bodied, very hoppy pale ales” … but they want session IPAs. They don’t want “hoppy American stouts” … but they want black IPAs. Those three letters are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down for many drinkers. You can call it silly, but it’s reality.

How ironic, then, that this most popular style of craft beer was once so synonymous with being big, intimidating, bitter and difficult to approach. And indeed, there was a time in American craft brewing when “IPA” was a hell of a lot less friendly. But things change. More than any other American beer style, India pale ale grows and morphs with the times, and changing taste in IPA reflects the ultra-quick, seemingly overnight evolution of how new tastes come into vogue in craft beer. What’s hot in IPA one year can be all but passe, 365 days later.

As such, I honestly had no idea what to expect when we sent out a call for IPAs to our ever-growing brewery PR list. When we first conducted a blind IPA tasting, it was April of 2015, and it was the first time we were experimenting with our current blind-tasting format. That piece was, to put it lightly, a huge success. 116 IPAs arrived, far more than we ever imagined, and the subsequent tasting and ranking has to date been viewed more than 1.3 million times online. That’s a lot of people interested in IPA, and I hope we managed to steer them toward some good beers.

Of course, this year we’re going to steer them toward an even more elite group, because we just finished blind-tasting a whopping 247 freaking IPAs. You can read that massive blind-tasting and ranking here, but please stay with me on this page as we dive deep into the TRUE history and modern role of IPA in American craft beer.

Note: You can also see a full gallery of all 247 IPAs we blind-tasted here.

The Origin of IPA

There is no beer style on Earth with as much misinformation about its origins as IPA, and the funny thing is, despite the truth being readily available, almost no one—even famous beer writers and beer industry figures—seems to give a shit. It’s no wonder that this attitude of willful ignorance has driven legitimate beer historians such as Martyn Cornell to their breaking points, as it represents an almost industry-wide desire to simply ignore the historical record because the more commonly accepted story is more entertaining.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The “IPA origin story,” as you’ve likely read it on the placemat of your local brewpub, goes something like this:

India-style pale ale was created by British brewers who wanted to ship barrels of beer to English troops stationed in India, who were tired of stale porter unsuitable to the East and West Indies climate. However, pale ales shipped to India would inevitably go bad during the long journey. Taking advantage of the natural preservative properties found in both hops and a higher ABV, a brewer named George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in London created a stronger, more bracingly hopped beer style designed to survive the journey. That beer style was such a hit in India that the Britons started drinking it themselves and calling it “India pale ale.”

We’ve all read that, right? You can find that same story on almost any brewery website, on many beer bottles, and even in numerous books on brewing history. The fact that much of it is flat-out wrong, however, is slightly problematic if you’re concerned with actual history.

Here, I largely defer to the earlier-mentioned Martyn Cornell, a British historian who has been studying beer academically for decades. His findings are not based on “popular opinion” but on actual historical data—data such as primary sources, old brewery logbooks, shipping registrations, etc.—that paint a more mundane, less concrete origin for IPA. Many of his findings have been roundly ignored by writers and brewers, and I often get the sense that people don’t listen to his work because Cornell has a tendency to sound like one’s cranky, octogenarian next-door neighbor. But damn it, he’s right, and do we not have a journalistic duty to actually listen to the guy who can furnish evidence?

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Here’s a few key bullet points of IPA history that you can find via Cornell pieces here (IPA: The executive summary) and here (Four IPA myths).

— IPA was not knowingly “created” in response to a need, nor does it predate “pale ale.” Heavily hopped paler beers had been common in the U.K. long before these beers were regularly being shipped to India. These beers might be recognized as “IPA” in the classic sense, but the term obviously didn’t exist yet.

— George Hodgson didn’t invent shit, and he wasn’t the first to send pale ale to India. There’s evidence that pale ale was being successfully exported to India as early as 1711, and the earliest record of Hodgson sending his first pale ales there wasn’t until 1793. Likewise, he didn’t have any monopoly on the market, as several other British breweries were also exporting pale ale to India at the same time.

— Brewers were indeed instructed from at least the 1760s that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to warmer climates—in all markets, and certainly not in just India. There’s nothing linking this to any specific brewery, especially Hodgson’s Bow Brewery.

— The idea that dark beer such as porter couldn’t make the journey to India just as well is incorrect, and it was in fact preferred by most of the British troops and workers throughout the 19th century. In fact, dark beer styles are still popular in many hot-weather climates, such as the Caribbean, where Guinness FES (foreign export stout) has remained popular since the 1800s. Pale ale was instead the drink of more middle- and upper-class residents, who could also afford the personal glassware that showed off pale ale’s radiant color. This is also true of the British market, where pale ale was more commonly consumed among the bourgeoisie.

— Pale ales for the Indian market weren’t any stronger than the typical pale ale found elsewhere, nor were they stronger than other beer styles being shipped to India.

— We know that this style of beer was being offered for sale in London for at least 15 years before the first recorded usage of the term “East India pale ale” in print, which came in 1835.

Regardless, when we look at the breadth of Cornell’s findings, it becomes clear that one can’t ascribe a simple history to IPA. As nice as it is to explain the story to a nascent beer geek, IPA simply isn’t a style that arose for one reason, or from one source. Suffice to say, the full story won’t actually fit on a brewpub placemat or beer bottle.

Sub-Styles of IPA

Like many American beer styles, IPA is an idea that we borrowed from British ancestors and then modernized (i.e. made bigger and louder) via the American craft beer revolution from the mid-1970s onward. For a number of decades, if someone said “IPA” in American brewing, the only question one really needed to ask was “British or American-style?” However, since the advent of black IPA and its rise in popularity around 2009, the IPA market has exploded into a galaxy of sub-styles. I’ll try and tackle as many of those as possible below.

English IPA

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AKA, the original IPA. English IPA has never been a very popular style on the American market, and they remain a rather niche side of the style that is viable only because it has “IPA” in the name. They can be interesting beers, however, combining a more assertive, often toasty/bready/toffee malt character with the signature aromatic notes of English hop varietals and a fruitier English ale yeast. Malt styles such as Maris Otter and the requisite crystal malt tend to give these beers fuller bodies and more residual malt sweetness than American examples, and malt character that ranges from toast to caramel to nutty. Classical English hop varietals such as East Kent Goldings or Fuggles are common, delivering floral, herbal and grassy characteristics, but newer English aromatic varieties such as Bramling Cross or Progress have also been developed to widen that palette somewhat. Still, English IPA can be a tough sell in the U.S.—there were only 42 entered at the Great American Beer Festival in 2015, vs. 336 American-style IPAs.

American IPA

This catch-all term includes a variety of American-made IPAs, as well as IPAs made in “the American style”—which mostly means IPAs that are bigger in ABV, IBU, possibly drier, and featuring an array of both American and global hops and a clean-fermenting American ale yeast. If anything, the yeast is the most consistent aspect, as many IPAs in the U.S. are fermented with the same one or two very similar strains, which are meant to be very neutral and instead give precedence to the malt and especially the hops.

Other than that basic definition, however, simply calling a beer an “American IPA” tells the drinker very little about what to expect. Differing hop varietals have such wildly different characters that the style encompasses scads of different flavor profiles. There are grassy IPAs, resinous, woodsy IPAs, citrus pithy IPAs, fruit juicy, sweeter IPAs—it never truly ends. Owing to all that variety, “single-hopped” IPAs have been a popular way for brewers and drinkers to experiment and taste-test the flavors conferred by the ever-expanding American hops market. All it takes is one whiff of an all-Simcoe or all-Mosaic beer to see the massive differences.

I’m also going to use “American IPA” to contain several other substyles that aren’t quite big or different enough to require their own bullet point. Alternate grains such as rye are often used to make spicier “rye IPAs,” and the monumental success of Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin has triggered an explosion of imitating fruited IPAs in the last year, with popular fruits including grapefruit, pineapple, tangerine and more—this is something we’ve written about in detail. The advancements in nitrogenation technology and cans have also given rise to more “nitro IPAs,” a style that I personally dislike, as the creamier consistency and head seems to kill the aromatic quality of these beers.

Session IPA

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Last year’s 2015 GABF was the first year ever for session IPA as an official style, and it had 161 entries. That’s exactly one more than the American pale ale total, in its first year. That’s how huge session IPA has become, in only a couple years time.

This is a substyle that is often contentious. I myself have argued at length that many session IPAs are simply American pale ales with the “IPA” name slapped on for marketing purposes, but a definition has slowly emerged that at least codifies somewhat how they are meant to differ. Session IPAs are obviously lower in ABV than standard IPA, and indeed lower in ABV than many current pale ales. They’re very light in malt presence, once again lighter than most pale ales, but pack a similarly over-the-top hop rate as a full-on “single IPA.” This leads some to accuse them of being “hop water,” but they serve a purpose: A single-minded hop delivery system contained in a package that is easy to drink in moderation while giving nothing to distract from the hops. That same quality makes them doubly effective to use for single-hopped beers, as the flavor and aroma of a single variety stands out all the more strongly with the absence of malt. Unsurprisingly, many session IPAs have fit into the role of summer seasonals.

Black IPA

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You can read our full history of black IPA here, but suffice to say, the style originally seems to have developed on the East Coast in the early ‘90s, despite some brewers in the Cascade mountains attempting to take credit. As a style, it stayed largely under the radar for quite a long while, until the second huge surge of craft beer growth at the end of the 2000s began bringing it to the forefront. Black IPAs, as a fad and a recognized style, had been fully popularized by 2009 or 2010, with many breweries jumping onto the bandwagon at that time.

Typical black IPAs walk a balancing act between light roast (often achieved with debittered black malts) and American hop character. They can be a difficult style to achieve this balance in, as all too many are either overly roasty/bitter or simply taste like a regular American IPA that has been dyed black. However, when done well, the balance between roast and citrusy American hops can be a revelation. Check out our recent blind-tasting and ranking of 21 black IPAs to see which ones we liked best.

Belgian IPA/Farmhouse IPA/Brett IPA

Into this catch-all category, I’m simply throwing the smallish but significant substyle of American IPAs that are currently being made with alternative yeast strains. Some are classical takes on the idea of “Belgian pale ale,” a style that is not really a “style” at all, given the Belgian brewing tradition’s distaste for the idea of style guidelines—but in effect, a Belgian ale with a charge of American hops.

Others are IPAs in recipe, but with their clean-fermenting American ale yeast swapped out for a saison or farmhouse yeast profile, which obviously delivers much more pronounced esters and yeast character. Still others are truly American wild ales, infused with brettanomyces or bacteria on top of a typical IPA recipe. In some applications these beers can be effective, but it’s safe to say that they’re still fairly challenging for many palates, and remain one of IPA’s smaller niches.

“White IPA”

This quasi-style has arisen in the last few years, and doesn’t seem to be fully and concretely defined as of yet. Some breweries, when they use the term on a beer label, are referring to a cross between a Belgian witbier and an IPA—essentially an overly hopped Belgian wit, complete with the orange peel and coriander common to that style. Others have taken “white IPA” to mean any American IPA with a substantial portion of malted wheat in the grist, which has become a popular alternative to soften the beer’s mouthfeel and add a bit of creamy, bready flavor. It’s hard to say whether this style will gain enough examples to make itself felt as an “official” IPA substyle, but I’d at least like to say it’s more legitimate than the next one.

“Red IPA”

One of the latest IPA substyles you’ll see on a significant number of beer labels is “red IPA,” but it’s a term that feels entirely unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. The classical definition of India pale ale has always allowed for beers that are amber/red in coloration—the “pale” part of the name was simply in comparison with the brown beers that were common in England when lighter-kilned malt first allowed for the production of pale ale. In short: Pale ale and IPA have always run a range of color, and amber/red is perfectly acceptable for an IPA, and always has been. Many classic American IPAs fall on this side of the color spectrum, but the term has become more popular as craft breweries fight for shelf space and find it useful as a way to designate another IPA for their lineup that seems “different” than the others. It might help those breweries push one more competitor’s beer off the shelves at the local package store, but I’m not about to recognize it as a separate substyle just because there’s a little bit more crystal malt in there than most modern examples of the style. Unlike black IPA, this beer just isn’t different enough to demand its own name.

The Role of IPA in American Craft Beer

India pale ale may be America’s most popular craft beer style, but it certainly hasn’t always been the case. It may be hard for many current drinkers to think of a time when IPA wasn’t king, but it wasn’t that long ago that the mere idea of IPA (and especially DIPA) fell into that category people thought of as “extreme beer.” As mentioned above, although IPA grew consistently throughout craft beer’s second big growth period during the 2000s, it didn’t actually surpass pale ale as the country’s most popular craft beer style until 2011. Since then, however, it’s safe to say that IPA has left all other styles in the dust.

Naturally, that popularity and ubiquitous nature has earned the style some blowback. It is trendy, within certain craft beer circles, to hate on IPA in general and proclaim that “no one really likes” the style, and insist that people are only posturing in some way to show off their taste for trendy beer. This is, to not mince words, mostly a stupid opinion. People love IPA for many different reasons, and they love many different styles of IPA. As the above section on IPA sub-styles shows, simply being “into IPA” can mean an awful lot. Likewise, other styles are continuously advanced as being “the next IPA,” but none ever quite seems to supplant the king. Surely you’ve heard phrases like “sour in the new hoppy,” or “______ is the new hoppy.” And yet, IPA sales only continue to grow. The style simply refuses to be denied—it is the heart and soul of American craft beer.

With that said, IPA has undergone numerous transformations along the way. If you saw a beer with the IPA label in the ‘80s or ‘90s in America, it was much easier to predict what you’d be getting. More likely than not, the beer would hew close to the following profile: Substantial malt body and light/moderate caramel flavors, with substantial bitterness and a pithy/zesty hop profile evoking citrus (grapefruit, orange), pine and grass. That is “classic American IPA,” in the style popularized on the West Coast and then copied ad nauseum across the country. It’s important to note that relative balance between malt and hops was a more key component, at the time. Even when I was first discovering craft beer as a 21-year-old drinker in roughly 2007, this is more or less what could be expected from bottles bearing the “IPA” name.

Second-wave American IPA, gaining popularity around the same time, took advantage of the emergence of new hop varietals such as Amarillo, Centennial and Simcoe to evolve those flavors. One might think of some of these beers as today’s “classics” that still hold up—think Bell’s Two Hearted or Firestone Walker Union Jack. They amplified the classic American hop profile while largely shrinking the malt aspect to deliver cleaner hop characteristics.

Third-wave American IPA, meanwhile, is closer to what I think of as currently “modern IPA,” i.e. those beers that the market has currently thrust into the limelight. The new, modern strain of IPA has once again been fueled by the development of new hop varietals, and the one thing these hops tend to have in common is that they deliver even bigger, more pungent aromatics. Hop varietals such as Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado, Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin and even experimental strains like Jarrylo belong to this current generation, many of which deliver huge tropical fruit characteristics that are juicy, sweet and overwhelmingly fruit-forward. Coupled with new brewing techniques that reserve the vast majority of hops for very late additions to the brew kettle, they have created a modern IPA style that is even less malt-forward, while reveling in hop-derived citrus and tropical fruit juiciness. It’s not necessarily a “better” style either way, but anyone can see that it is what has come into vogue. These flavors have only been amplified further by the national wave of fruited IPAs that has become a veritable phenomenon after the runaway popularity of Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin.

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As an offshoot of that third-wave IPA movement, we should also mention the rise of so-called “northeast IPA” or “Vermont-style IPA,” in reference to several renowned Vermont breweries such as Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist and Lawson’s Finest Liquids, but also typified by places such as Tree House Brewing and Trillium Brewing Co. These beers tend to use the same nouveau hop varietals as other third-wave IPAs, but differentiate themselves by either using a substantial portion of malted wheat in the grist or by totally forgoing filtration. This type of treatment, coupled with massive amounts of dry-hopping, yields intensely aromatic IPAs that are often significantly turbid/cloudy. It seems likely that this result at first came about naturally/tangentially as a result of trying to achieve a specific flavor profile, but regardless, “cloudy IPA” has become a trend and fad all its own as a result. Various northeastern breweries are now regularly accused by more stickler craft beer geeks of using artificial means (such as flour) to give their beers a cloudier and more turbid appearance, in an attempt to copy the juicy, fruit-forward style. This naturally makes these beers somewhat controversial, but at the same time they now completely dominate online ranking sites in almost ludicrous fashion. Of the top 20 American IPAs on Beer Advocate at this moment, 8 are from either Tree House or Trillium alone.

Of course, blind tasting is the only way to know for sure, and if you look at the results of our just-completed blind tasting of 247 IPAs, you can see that beers from these breweries performed extremely well on average. The moral of the story: IPA continues to evolve. You may think you have a definition of the style within your head, but trying to pigeonhole it is setting yourself up for disappointment. There’s truly no end to the dimensions that IPA can take.

Three Essential IPAs You Need to Try

Anchor Liberty Ale

Anchor’s Liberty Ale is arguably the oldest classic American IPA, much in the same way that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale fills the same role in its own genre. In reality, this beer straddles the boundaries of APA and old-school IPA, sitting at 5.9% ABV, but it remains a classic of the genre. Amber/orange in color (it could call itself a red IPA, because that’s not a real style), it sports a toasted malt body and the classic Cascade hop character: Floral, pleasant and evocative of grapefruity citrus. Well-balanced and easy drinking, it’s a classic that is suitable for practically any task. There’s not many other 40-year-old beer recipes you can say that about.

Firestone Walker Union Jack

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When Paste first tasted IPAs in a 64-entrant bracket, way back in the dark ages of 2013, Firestone Walker’s Union Jack was the beer that emerged as #1, going up against Cigar City’s Jai Alai in the finals. Those are both excellent beers, but the fact that they triumphed in a blind tasting only three-to-four years ago just goes to show you how quickly this beer style has evolved, because both have a more difficult time standing out in the current field. With that said, Union Jack in particular is a marvelous beer, and this time around it was its subtleties that earned high marks, landing it at a very impressive # 28 in the field of 247. It features well-balanced floral and citrus (grapefruit, lemon) hop aromatics, some bready malt and just a touch of caramel, making it lighter of body than many of the other IPAs in the tasting and also a bit drier. Bitterness is moderate and firm, and one can’t help but walk away with the idea that this is a benchmark IPA—a perfect example to explain to someone new to beer what people mean when they say “IPA.” There’s no gimmicks to it, and it’s likely to remain timeless forever.

Prison City Mass Riot

We had to include the winner of our new 247 IPA blind tasting, of course. Prison City Pub & Brewery hails from upstate New York—Auburn, to be precise—and is very small in stature, although the brewery’s immediately enthusiastic and award-winning first year have led to an expansion on the way. Once the brewery is able to produce a lot more Mass Riot, they’re a name you’ll likely be hearing quite a bit more often.

As for the beer, Mass Riot is a burly, tropical, rich IPA that teeters on the sweeter side and revels in its massive fruit influences. To quote our new tasting: “Mass Riot is a huge, massively tropical, unabashedly juicy hop bomb. Orange juice hits hard, as does pineapple juice and grapefruit candy. Resinous flavors on the back end help rein things in only the slightest bit, but this is definitely a juicy IPA first and foremost, and a moderately sweet one as well. In the finals, it was particularly beloved despite having a little bit of age on it, with one taster writing “Rich and fruity, cantaloupe and citrus, a beautiful combination.” Likewise full in terms of mouthfeel, it seems significantly bigger than its 6.3% ABV, with a body that goes on for days. It’s truly a decadent IPA.”

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident staff writer and beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more craft beer coverage on a regular basis.

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