A Guide To The Evolution of IPAs

IPAs are hot: Beer drinkers have embraced the India pale ale style characterized by its assertive hop aroma and bitterness. American IPA—the most-entered category at the Brewers Association’s annual Great American Beer Festival—is the most-competitive and sought-after craft brew in the U.S.

American IPA put several West Coast microbreweries on the map in the early 1990s, giving way to an early spinoff—double/imperial IPA. Wild IPA now courses through American draft lines as the most-popular iteration of the style. During the past two decades numerous subcategories, such as rye IPA and black IPA, have also had their moment.

Hoppy beers reign in Washington, the largest hop-producing state by volume in the U.S. “IPAs are still king in the Northwest, says Ian Roberts, co-owner of The Pine Box beer hall in Seattle.

For instance, “I can have four or five IPAs blow in a single night, while other styles can often linger as long as a week,” Roberts says. Once a mortuary, The Pine Box now dedicates its pews to serving thirsty consumers with a draft system that features more than 30 beer taps.

IPA Four Ways

English IPA is a palatable entry point to this family of beer, though the specifics of its origin are enveloped in legend. When 18th century British merchants sent beer to India, the shipments had to circumnavigate the south of Africa,

This journey exposed the beer casks to widely fluctuating temperatures and erratic jostling. The alpha and beta acids in hops are antimicrobial and prevent bacterial growth, so brewers could preserve the beer in warmer climates by increasing hops.

Modern English-style IPAs are typically amber to copper colored, ranging from 5% to 7.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 40 to 60 International Bitterness Units (IBUs). Bitterness is balanced, ranging from moderate to assertive, and bready, biscuit-like malt is present. Goose Island IPA and Brooklyn East IPA are early American representations of this style that remain top examples today.

American IPA amplifies its predecessor using West Coast hops and bumping up the alcohol to 5.5% to 7.5% ABV and the bitterness to 40 to 70 IBUs. These beers are gold to copper in color, and the American hops most commonly used have citrus, floral, and pine notes.

Brew an IPA even stronger, with more hops and higher alcohol, and you have double/imperial IPA. This style boasts alcohol content from 7.5% to 10% ABV and 60 to 120 IBUs. Imperial IPA looks just like American IPA, but must be presented in smaller servings for responsible consumption and to keep cost reasonable.

The three aforementioned styles are recognized by the Brewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Brett/wild IPA is the newest subcategory of IPA. Take the basic structure of American IPA and inoculate the brew with a touch of the wild yeast Brettanomyces (Brett). Goaty, leathery and phenolic, Brett yeast produces a spectrum of barnyard and farmhouse-related aromas that mingle with the piney or citrusy hops.

For beer neophytes or those accustomed to milder domestic lagers, it’s a good idea to brace customers for the intense bitterness of IPA. At Ashland Hill, a Santa Monica, CA-based beer and wine garden, co-owner Luke Tabit makes sure palates are prepared.

“Most consumers know what IPAs are, but our staff is very educated on our IPAs and able to steer our guests in the right direction,” Tabit says. Ashland Hill encourages guests to taste IPAs before ordering if they are on the fence, he adds. Pints at Ashland Hill average $9, but on weekdays Social Hour features Flights & Fries: four 5-oz. tasters and fries priced at $12.

Unconventional ales have taken off at The Hay Merchant in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, TX. The Hay Merchant offers bold and eccentric menu choices such as a half pig’s head and peanut-butter-and-jelly wings to adventurous Texans. The beer lineup is ambitious, with 75 draft beers and five cask engines. Pints of IPA at run from $4 to 6, increasing for Imperial IPA.

The Hay Merchant’s owner, Kevin Floyd, has seen IPA trends fluctuate. “A few years ago, everyone was brewing rye IPAs, and the year after that, it was black IPAs,” says Floyd. “During those trends, it was common for us to have 5 to 10 different beers brewed to those styles on tap at a time. Now it’s rare that we see a rye IPA.”

The Hay Merchant customers have a hankering for those wild and Brett IPAs. “We really love sours, wilds and as such,” Floyd continues, “our list is always outside the norm for these styles. Taking that into consideration, IPAs are our second most popular style.” Strong commercial examples include Escondido, CA-based Stone Brewing’s “Enjoy After” Brett IPA series, or Denver-based Crooked Stave’s Hop Savant Brett IPA.

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