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All About IPA: A Primer on India Pale Ales

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Pliny the Younger. Photo by David Jensen.

On August 4, 2011, beer enthusiasts around the world gathered to celebrate the first International IPA Day. What’s so special about this particular beer style that it warrants its own worldwide celebration?

The answer to that question is bound to be as varied as IPA’s many devotees, but most would surely agree there’s something about the balance of intense hop bitterness with malt sweetness coupled with the floral, piney, citrus aromas that attracts so many craft beer drinkers to IPA. After all, many beer enthusiasts are self-proclaimed “hop heads,” or lovers of hoppy beer, and (usually) nothing is hoppier than an IPA.

What exactly is IPA? The acronym stands for “India Pale Ale,” which dates back to the days when beer brewers exported their beer to British colonies in India. The IPAs found in North American stores today pay tribute to the original style but are much different.  Known as American-style India Pale Ale, this broad term encompasses a handful of variations on the style with a common theme, intense hop flavors and aromas. According to the 2008 BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) guidelines, American IPAs are brewed “using American ingredients and attitude.”

A Brief History of IPA

A voyage from England to India took about four months in the 18th and 19th centuries but many pale ales would spoil during the journey. In order to meet the demand of thirsty troops and colonists in India, prevent spoilage, and preserve the beer for the long journey, extra hops, a natural preservative, were added to pale ales of the day. Furthermore, the beer was slightly higher in alcohol and highly attenuated, which meant that very few residual sugars remained in the final product. England couldn’t grow enough hops to meet the demand, and so, much like today, IPAs were produced with hop varieties hailing from all over Europe as well as North America.

Today, some might argue that the craft beer movement has been, in part, fueled by a thirst for hoppy American IPAs. After all, in 2011 alone, the popularity of IPA has grown by 42%.

The Ingredients Make a Difference

What goes into making a great IPA? The base ingredients are roughly the same as what goes into a pale ale. The primary difference: IPAs are made with more hops and sometimes more malt to balance the added bitterness. In fact, as measured against the International Bitterness Units (IBU) scale, an IPA can be upward of three times more bitter than some pale ales.

Some IPAs are sweet and malty while others are dry and crisp. Different hop varieties can even impart a different bitterness sensation. Some hops, for example, such as Amarillo and Simcoe, have a smooth bitterness. Others, like Cascade or Chinook, feature a harsher or spicier bitterness by comparison.

Style Specifications of American-Style IPAs

When you find an IPA made by an American craft brewery, chances are it will be an American-style India Pale Ale (a few notable exceptions are listed under English IPA). Here’s a look at some of the characteristics that make this style unique.

Color: The color of an IPA is roughly similar to that of a pale ale, ranging from a golden yellow to a medium-reddish color. Some IPAs are a little hazy while others are crystal clear. Both are acceptable by most style guidelines.

Aroma: The aroma is dominated by American hops. The exact combination of aromas will vary but can include one or more of the following notes: citrusy, floral, piney, resinous, grassy, hay-like and fruity (like passionfruit or peaches). In the background, you might notice some mild malt or grain characteristics. The maltiness sometimes enhances the floral and fruity aromas from the hops. The head of the beer will express the hops more than the malt, so be sure to give your IPA a big whiff before the head dies down.

Flavor: The one constant in a good IPA is strong hop flavors and bitterness. The hop flavors are similar to the aromas: citrusy, piney, floral and fruity. The variation comes from the malt backbone, which can vary from sweet to dry and everything in between. Some brewers even choose to include a touch of caramel or toasty flavors.

Mouthfeel: Most IPAs are medium-bodied beer with a moderate amount of carbonation. Variations of the style generally have more body.

Alcohol: IPA has a wide range of alcohol by volume: 5.5% to 7.5%. If the beer is higher than 7.5% alcohol by volume, then it becomes classified as a Double IPA.

Good Examples: Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, Bells Two Hearted and Stone IPA.

Style Variations: Specialty IPAs

Belgian IPA

The Belgian IPA was popularized by Brasserie d’Achouffe in Belgium, brewers of Houblon Chouffe. There are a couple of ways this style can be created. A brewer can start with an IPA and ferment it with Belgian yeast or start with a Belgian blonde ale and add loads of American hops. The effect can be slightly different but the basics are about the same, resulting in a very hoppy Belgian pale ale. If you like Belgian pales and hoppy IPA, then you might like this style.

Good Examples: Brasserie d’Achouffe Houblon Chouffe and Flying Dog Raging Bitch.

American Black Ale

Also known as Cascadian Dark Ale, India Black Ale or Black IPA, this style was first created by the late Greg Noonan in 1994 at Vermont Pub & Brewery. This variation of IPA has much of the same aroma and bitterness as an American IPA but is also a dark roasty beer. The flavor of American Black Ale tends to be a bit sweeter and more roasty than other IPA variations. Imagine a light-bodied porter combined with a hoppy American IPA and you’ll have a good idea of what this style is all about.

Good Examples: Deschutes Hop in the Dark, Stone Sublimely Self Righteous and 21st Amendment Back in Black.

Double IPA

Was this style first created by Rogue? Pizza Port? Or Blind Pig? Each of these breweries made the first version of a double IPA with within a four-year span, so they should all get some credit for creating this wonderful beer style. Incidentally, Vinnie Cilurzo (then of Blind Pig Brewing, now of Russian River Brewing) has described making this beer by accidentally adding 50% more malt to an IPA recipe and then fixing it by adding 100% more hops.

This style takes an already-aggressive American IPA and makes it bigger: more hops, more malt, and more alcohol by volume. It is a style to be appreciated for how difficult it is to craft. If not made well, it can come out too sweet or too bitter.

Good Examples: Russian River Pliny the Elder, Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA, Southern Tier Unearthly and Stone Ruination IPA.

English IPA

The main difference between an English IPA and a traditional IPA is that the hops used in this beer produce aromas that are earthy, herbal, floral, and fruity; there are no citrusy or piney notes.

Good Examples: Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn East India Pale Ale and Meantime IPA.

Whether you’re new to IPA or a longtime hop head, I hope I’ve provided you with some new information and inspiration to go out and have a hoppy IPA. Don’t forget to gather some friends and toast to IPA on August 4, 2011, for International IPA Day.

Author’s Note: For further reading, check out Mythbusting the IPA on AllAboutBeer.com and read about IPA on Wikipedia.

Editor’s Note: We’ve heard about some of David’s favorite IPAs. Now it’s your turn! What will you be drinking on IPA Day?
  • http://twitter.com/beer47 Beer47

    On IPA Day I’m going to start with a Ballast Point Big Eye IPA. Houblon Chouffe is also on the short list.

  • http://twitter.com/beer47 Beer47

    For a really detailed timeline on the early days of IPA check this out: http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/ipa-the-executive-summary/

  • Docworker

    IPA and Double IPA fan here.  Great info on IPA roots–many greats out there.  Don’t stick on one as just when you think you have found the best,  another stellar IPA shows up.  Have fun!

  • http://blog.justinchen.net/ Justin C

    This is an awesome primer.  Thanks, David!  Can’t wait to try the IPAs you’ve listed. 

  • Bbyrd009

    agree w/ Docworker; the standard I currently use for comparison is “Racer 5″.

  • http://twitter.com/Will_Hawkes Will Hawkes

    ‘The main difference between an English IPA and a traditional IPA’? Surely an English IPA is the traditional form of IPA?

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David Jensen is based out of San Francisco and is the primary writer and photographer for Beer 47, a blog focused on craft beer, beer events, cooking with beer, and homebrewing. In addition to the blog, you can frequently find David on Twitter as @beer47, tweeting interesting news and sparking up conversations about craft beer while sipping his favorite Double IPA. By day David is a software engineer for a small Internet company.


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