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.
June 10, 2021
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 brew 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?
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, 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 had become destinations for beer tourism. Unheard of names like Tree House Brewing Company in Massachusetts and Hill Farmstead in Vermont were winning national brewing 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’ and “fresh-squeezed” danced across the packaging.
From coast to coast, Americans had fallen in love with IPAs.
Crank up the hops
Brewers 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 kinds of hops, 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 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 Company 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.
Top selling IPAs
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.