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Don’t worry, be hoppy: an IPA guide

India pale ales highlight new hop varieties and bright flavors that appeal to almost any beer drinker. American brewers have helped launch a craft beer revolution with this ultra-popular style.

India pale ales highlight new hop varieties and bright flavors that appeal to almost any beer drinker. American brewers have helped launch a craft beer revolution with this ultra-popular style.

Head to any bar in the United States, and you’ll almost certainly find an IPA draft on tap. This hoppy, bold and bitter brew has experienced tremendous growth in popularity and dominated the craft beer industry through the 21st century.

What makes these brews so delectable? How do their flavors shift from coast to coast? It’s intriguing to consider how quickly this floral concoction took over our hearts and taste buds in just a few short years. How has the humble IPA, originally designed for long voyages across the British colonial empire, expanded and re-branded into the craft brew heavyweight it is today?

 What is an IPA?

Since beer has a pretty simple ingredient list: water, a starch, yeast and hops - how is an IPA different from pale ales? The answer is hops. The IPA beer style is more heavily hopped than their predecessor though otherwise have similar qualities.

History of the IPA

The story goes, the traditional English beers didn’t export well to the ever-expanding British colonies around the globe. India, in particular, was a six-month voyage by sea; the beer would often sour, and the heavy porters were unappealing to the tropical tastes.

The India Pale Ale, a hop-forward ale with high alcohol content, was based on a British brew that was meant to age like wine. So, during the long trip to India, the IPA maintained its fresh yet complex flavor.

The American IPA began emerging in the late 20th century, largely in the Pacific Northwest thanks to the hop-friendly climate. Over 90% of hops grown in the United States can be traced to Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Several regional breweries were experimenting with IPAs throughout the 1990s, blending different hop varietals and complementary flavors.

Even though the American IPA dominated the past decade in craft beer, California legends Lagunitas and Stone Brewing both released their signature IPAs as early as the mid-90s.

East coast vs. west coast

From rappers to sports teams, the rivalry between the U.S. coasts continues. While west coasters were sipping clear and crisp IPAs with bitter pine notes, beer savants in Vermont were developing a true cult classic: the hazy New England IPA. Unfiltered like a bad pre-Instagram selfie, the style was initially criticized. Its cloudy quality and weedy aroma broke traditional beer expectations, but no one could deny the unrivaled taste experience.

By the mid-2010s, these tiny avant-garde taprooms and breweries had become destinations for beer tourism. Unheard of names like Tree House Brewing Company in Massachusetts and Hill Farmstead in Vermont were winning national awards, pushing the limits of traditional flavors. The ultra bitter West Coast IPA was suddenly infused with flavors like guava, melon, orange and passionfruit; descriptors like ‘juicy,’ 'citrus' and “fresh-squeezed” danced across the packaging.

From coast to coast, Americans had fallen in love with IPAs.

Crank up the hops

Breweries didn’t stop there; swing by your local gas station or grocery store and you’ll inevitably find a dozen different styles of IPAs. It’s not just different flavors and hop varieties, the range in alcohol content typically averages between 5% and 7.5%.

Then there’s the Double IPA (or Imperial IPA) and even the Triple IPA. The terms are used to describe the increased volume of hops used in the recipe, and drinkers will quickly notice an extra punch of flavor. As brewers crank up the hops, additional malt sweetness is needed to balance out the intense, floral bitterness.

The American IPA industry has created a delicious monster. These darker brews often top 8% to 10% ABV and more.

What is dry hopping?

Dry hopping is a term used to describe adding hops later in the brewing process. Brewers 'dry hop' either during fermentation or conditioning. The flavor dry hopping gives to your beer is fresh and not bitter. When a brewer adds hops later in the process, it preserves the flavor and aroma from the hops' oil.

What is a less hoppy IPA?

While you might be satisfied with just one of the more boozy IPAs, there are new, lighter alternatives for a more low-key afternoon brew without having to compromise on the IPA’s signature flavor. In 2010, Founders Brewing Co. created the All Day IPA, a refreshing, low alcohol beer bursting with hoppy goodness.

The style of the Session IPA has since boomed throughout the U.S. It allows brewers to demonstrate hop flavors without the corresponding ABV; most session IPAs dip below 5%. It’s tricky alchemy, no doubt, challenging beer makers to maintain the dry, crisp quality of an IPA without accidentally crafting a more watery pale ale.

What are some popular IPAs?

Even though the original English recipe is hundreds of years old, the ingenuity of American brewers has kept IPAs as a pillar of the beer industry. The depth of sub-categories ensures there’s a style for nearly any palette. IPA sales continue to experience startling growth each year, with New England hazies topping the lists.

Session IPAs are climbing the charts like a summertime bop. Consistent top-sellers can be found on shelves everywhere; Lagunitas IPA, Founders All Day IPA, Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing, Goose Island IPA and Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale IPA should be no surprise. However, the small regional favorites always manage to jump the line, like the Mighty Squirrel’s Cloud Candy IPA, featuring notes of papaya and starfruit in an appealing pastel blue can.

What are different kinds of hops?

There are three types of main hop categories: bittering, aroma and dual.
  • Bittering: has higher acidity and gives beer that notably bitter flavor.
  • Aroma: less acidic than bittering hops but have a bigger flavor and aroma.
  • Dual: You guessed it - best of both worlds. These hops have qualities similar to both bittering and aroma hops which make beers with this hop variety both bitter and aromatic.

Top selling IPAs

    1. Lagunitas IPA: From California, this beer is 6.2% ABV and has a hop flavor, bitter taste and notes of floral and citrus.
    2. Founders All Day: This Michigan craft beer clocks in at 4.7% ABV and has a light, dry and hopped flavor.
    3. IPA Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing IPA: A fan favorite, this 6.7% ABV beer is bold, fresh unfiltered IPA that defines fruit forward hoppiness.
    4. Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai IPA: Tropical, citrusy and bitter, this Florida bred, 7.5% ABV beer is the perfect pair for salads backyard party.
    5. Goose Island IPA: Big fan of hops? This beer is for you. Super hoppy and malty, this 5.7% ABV beer is a great pair for beef dishes and charcuterie.
    6. Elysian Space Dust IPA: Citrusy, hoppy IPA with strong hoppy bitterness and flavors of peach. This beer clocks in on the heavier side with an 8.2% ABV.
    7. Night Shift Santilli IPA: An award winning crowd favorite, Santilli is a 6% ABV that got its name from the beloved street the brewery resides in Everett, MA. We love a full circle moment.
    8. Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA: A best seller from Dogfish Head, this piney IPA has tasting notes of hop, malt and pine with a 6% ABV.
    9. Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA: The OG masters (and inventors) of Continual hopping, Dogfish Head made an icon when they made the 90 Minute IPA. Called, "the best IPA in America," the 90 Minute IPA has notes of malt and clocks in at 9% ABV.
    10. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: A winner of multiple beer awards, this brew has bright flavors, citrusy aromas and some dang crispiness thanks to the hops. Serve this 7% ABV beer with pretty much anything that has a hint of tropical flavor.

If you’ve avoided IPAs in the past due to their rumored bitterness and high ABV, it’s time to dip your toes back in the hoppy pool. There’s a reason this particular kind of beer has beaten the competition in beer sales year after year.