The craft beer world seems to run in cycles, with specific styles rising in popularity, only to fall back as another replaces it. A few years ago, ultra-strong beers were incredibly popular. Then, session-style beers rose to take their place. Dark beers were very popular at one point. Today, the style that’s becoming more and more popular is the IPA. If you’re new to the world of craft beer, it pays to know what’s out there. You’ll find a very broad range of IPAs on offer, from traditional to black (which sounds like an oxymoron, but there you have it). What are these beers and what do they offer? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is an IPA?
IPA stands for India Pale Ale. It was originally brewed for export from England to India, and to make the journey, it had to be brewed differently from others. IPAs have a very high concentration of hops, but they’re usually also higher in alcohol content than other beers. Both of these steps were taken to help protect the brew on its long voyage. Beer with less alcohol and hops content would spoil before it reached the subcontinent, ruining the brew and losing profits. IPAs beat that problem handily.
Hops are used in brewing as a bittering agent – something to combat the sweetness of the malt. However, hops also do more. They’re an antibacterial agent that works to preserve the freshness of beer. While IPAs shipped from England, around Africa and finally to India were undoubtedly not as fresh as we’d expect today, the combination of high alcohol content and hoppy flavor helped.
So, to answer the question asked previously, an IPA is (or at least was, originally), a pale ale brewed with lots of hops and higher alcohol content than normal. These were (and largely remain) rather dry on the palate, and they make an excellent starting point for drinkers just beginning to experiment with the craft beer world.
How the IPA Has Changed
Today, you’ll find only a few examples of true IPAs hailing from Britain. Most of what you’ll find on the market is from the American craft brew scene, where the style has exploded, and brewers regularly try to one up each other. IPAs lend themselves very well to experimentation and pushing the envelope, and a number of different sub-styles have evolved over the past decade or so.
American Style IPAs
As mentioned, most of what you’ll find on the market today is actually an American style of IPA. You’ll find these beers are much bitterer than their English counterparts are, and they’re also different in coloration. Where English style IPAs might range to pale golden at the darkest, American styles can range from gold to amber and more. They also incorporate other notes in their flavor profiles, usually citric in nature, but there’s a host of possibilities. They also generally use American grown hops, rather than English or German varieties.
Double, or imperial, IPAs are recent additions to the world of craft brewing. The “imperial” term is used because of the similarity to the imperial stouts brewed for Russian consumption. However, don’t worry that these ales are anything close to stouts in flavor or coloration. Double IPAs tend to be much higher in alcohol content than other styles, but they’re bigger in all ways. They have more malt, but are super-heavy on hops as well. In terms of taste, they’re generally much higher-impact than American or English style IPAs, too. Alcohol content can range as low as 7% ABV, or as high as 14% ABV.
The term “Black India Pale Ale” might seem something of a contradiction in terms, but they exist. Essentially, these brews combine the best of both worlds – dark and light – into a unique amalgam. Most beers in this style use American hops, and lots of them. However, they feature roasted malts, and bring something of the malty character of stouts and porters to the mix. You’ll find that they range from dark brown to pitch black in color. If you’re a stout fan looking for a new style to explore, this is an excellent way to maintain some connection to the roasted goodness you love, but branch out with something different.
There are numerous other variations on the IPA formula out there. You’ll find red IPAs, white IPAs, rye IPAs and more. Generally, these are created in the same way. You take a recipe for a white or red ale, and increase both the alcohol content and the hops added to the brew. These “fusion” styles offer a very broad range of tastes and flavor profiles. While purists might not enjoy them, they represent one of the best aspects of the modern craft beer scene – the willingness to experiment and try new things.
Is IPA for You?
If you’ve never sampled an IPA before, it might be best to start with something a bit more traditional – an English style IPA will work well. There’s nothing wrong with leaping straight into the fusion IPAs right off the bat, but getting your feet wet with a style that’s closer to the original definition will help you decide if it’s something you’d like to pursue. All fusion styles maintain the high hop character of the original style, so you’ll find plenty of similarities.
With that being said, if you’re a fan of a particular style of ale (red, stout, white, etc.), choosing a fusion style might be the best way to ease yourself into this high-hopped style of beer without getting culture shock. Some of the more famous IPAs in the craft brewing world include those from Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Founders, Flying Dog and Heavy Seas to name just a few.
There’s a wide, wide world out there – experiment with different styles and sub-styles, and find what works for your particular palate.