Easily the most popular set of styles in the craft beer world, IPAs and counterpart style category of Pale Ales are the beers that just about everyone thinks of when they think of craft beer. Generally the most bitter and hop-filled of the craft beers, these bitter beers are the canvas that nearly every craft brewery paints their masterpiece.

Origin of the India Pale Ale

Pale ales originated in the 18th century and referred to beers that were brewed using pale malt. These beers stood in contrast to the popular porters of the time. There are quite a few stories explaining exactly how the IPA, or India Pale Ale, came into being, and nearly all of them are false. The actual reason that some pale ales started to be called India Pale Ales is lost to history, but the most likely reason is this:

During this period the British kept India as a colony, and as such had many soldiers and staff stationed there. The climate in India was by far more hot than anything experienced in England, which means the popular malty beers in England just didn’t cut it in the hot climes of India.

IPA Brooklyn Image

This led brewers to create a beer that was more attenuated (less sweet) than the currently produced beers, and included far more hops than currently used. This large addition of hops was done to make sure some hop flavor and bitterness stayed in the beer after the long sea journey. Hop flavor dies off quickly in bitter beers, making them poor choices for aging.

These beers began to be served in England, and were designated as beers brewed for India. The beers gained popularity and continued to be brewed under the name of India Pale Ale, even though many of them never saw the Indian shores.

But…

What is IPA

Ah, the king (or queen, however you look at it) of American craft beer. The IPA is a sub-style of the pale ale, and is the most popular style of craft beer around today. IPAs are typically broken down into three major categories:

  • American IPA
  • English IPA
  • Non-Traditional IPA

Let’s take a look at each.

American IPA – The king of bitter, hoppy beers, the American version of the English beer, these are big, hoppy, and bitter beers. These beers showcase American hops while sometimes featuring unique hops from all corners of the world. Decidedly bitter in nature, the hop profile in these beers can be in the range of citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, tropical fruit, berry, and even some melon.

American IPA Image

The American IPA features a lower malt presence than typically found in standard pale ales, but can sometimes find a nice balance between malt and hops. Hop flavor should be medium to very high, and should be the predominant feature of the beer. While hops are forefront, malt can show through with light caramel flavors and some toasted character, but not much.

The American IPA can range from 5.5-7.5% ABV and beyond. Higher alcohol versions can be called Imperial, Double, or even Triple IPAs, with some extreme versions like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA coming in at 19% ABV! As the alcohol increases in these beers, expect them to gain more malt character and sweetness along with more bitterness to offset the additional leftover sugars.

Some commercial examples of American IPAs include Stone IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute, Ballast Point Sculpin, Fat Head’s Head Hunter, Lagunitas IPA, and Bell’s Two Hearted.

English IPA – The originator of the IPA style, the English IPA is a hoppy, moderately strong British beer that’s very well attenuated (very low sweetness) and features traditional British ingredients. The hops found in English IPAs tend to focus on spicy, peppery, orange citrus, and grassy in flavor and aroma. This, paired with the increased malt profile give these beers a typically heavier feel than their American counterparts.

English IPA Beer Image

The English IPA can range from 5-7.5% ABV, with most falling closer to the 5% ABV mark. While there are few true English IPAs available in the US market, some commercial examples commonly available include: Samuel Smith India Pale Ale and the semi-British Yards IPA.

Non-Traditional and Specialty IPAs – It seems that just about every style of beer today has an IPA counterpart. Some common non-traditional IPAs include:

  • Black IPA
  • White IPA
  • Brown IPA
  • Belgian IPA
  • Rye IPA
  • Red IPA
  • Wild IPA

These beers are generally more bitter and hop-forward than their traditional styles, and typically feature key elements from their native style, with hop focus and better attenuation added. Some common examples of these non-standard IPAs include: Dogfish Head India Brown Ale, Dogfish Head 60 Minute, Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA, 21st Amendment Back in Black IPA, Green Flash Le Freak (Belgian IPA), and Sierra Nevada Flip Side Red IPA.

Wrap-Up

As you can see, there’s a lot more to your IPA than meets the eye. From lupulin levels to alpha and beta acids, to where hops are grown, theres a world of information we didn’t cover here, and while those are all amazingly interesting things to learn, they’re not necessary for you to gain a basic understanding of what an IPA truly is. By being able to answer the question “What is an IPA?” you can help inform people that may not know, and could go without tasting one of these amazing beers.