Everything You Need To Know About India Pale Ales (IPA)

illustrated cover image for guide to IPAs from Office Libations

While there are tons of different types of beers, none seem to be more popular in the craft beer world than the IPA. Whether you’re a fan or not, you may have heard a bit about it and maybe you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. 

IPA stands for India Pale Ale, is one of the most popular craft beer styles– thanks to its bold, bitter, and fruity hop flavor. It seems like every craft brewery has their own take on the style, but what exactly is IPA? 

In this guide, we’re going to breakdown everything you need to know about the IPA, from vocabulary, history, to styles from different places.

First Off, Let’s Define What Pale Ale Is

As craft beer continues to grow in sheer numbers, as well as style diversity, it’s the perfect time to look back on the pale ale— it is a popular style of beer known to be hop-forward with a malty flavor and a golden to amber color. Like many beer styles, pale ale resulted from innovation in brewing technology. 

For decades, it was the norm for every American craft brewery to offer its own signature pale ale recipe as a part of a core lineup. Clearly, this is the style that inspired the American craft beer scene, and there’s a good reason for that. 

Additionally, pale ales are those beers that bridge the gap between dark stouts and light lagers. They have all the flavors you want but are not too heavy. You’ll never be bored by this style as there is a great array of pale ales to explore. 

Introduction to IPA

Introduction to India Pale Ale

An India Pale Ale is a much more hoppy beer. It has a floral, earthy, citrusy, piney, fruity, and yes, bitter flavor notes. So at its origin, the IPA was a more intense version of the Pale Ale and characterized by an abundance of hops. 

On that note, it has a higher level of  Alcohol by Volume (ABV) between 5.5 and 7.5%, and International Bittering Units (IBU) between 30 and 50, thus making it stronger and more bitter. This bitterness is imparted into the beer through the use of more hops throughout the brewing process. 

In many ways, that is still an accurate description today but it’s not that easy. The term IPA has been used to describe a wide variety of modern craft beers. That alone makes this a complicated topic. To shed more light about India Pale Ale, let’s dig into the history and its different styles to better understand the slight differences…

A Brief History Of The IPA Beer Style

First of all, they are not beers specifically brewed in or from India. The story behind the exact birth of the IPA beer style is often debated, but most agree that what became later known as IPA was pale ale prepared for shipment to India in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

It was said to be the answer to the problem of providing beer for the British Empire in the east. It was too hot to brew in India, so what was needed was a beer that could survive the grueling six-month journey from Britain intact. 

Hops, a natural preservative, was added in greater number to the grist and was brewed to a higher strength to aid the transport to India. With more hops comes a higher alcohol content too – so these tend to not only be a bit more bitter than a pale ale, but they also have more carbonation and a lot more dominating flavors from the hops. 

The beer not only survived the journey but was found to have improved immeasurably. This was the prototype IPA; the beer gradually became paler and more refreshing to suit the Indian climate.

IPAs gained popularity in the United States in the 1970s and the style underwent a craft beer rediscovery in the 1980s. Modern examples are inspired by classic versions, but shouldn’t be assumed to have an unbroken lineage with the exact same profile. 

Today, breweries eventually sprung up in more locations. Refrigeration was invented. The original hurdles IPA was created to clear were no longer an issue. IPA has stuck around and even gathered its own pack of diehard fans.

Brewing An IPA

brewing an ipa

IPA is a hoppy, fairly strong pale ale traditionally brewed with English malt, hops and yeast. Hops dominate the flavor of an IPA, so careful selection of the hop additions is critical to success. 

Traditional English IPAs use popular English hops such as Fuggles, Goldings, Northdown, Target, though sometimes noble hops are also used in finishing. Higher alpha English hops are also popular for bittering. American IPAs use the rough American equivalents such as Cascade, Centennial, Williamette, though again higher alpha hops are often used in bittering.

Multiple hop additions are almost always used for IPAs including bittering hops at the beginning of the boil, often several additions of finishing hops in the last 5-15 minutes of the boil, and dry hops to provide a hoppy aroma. In general, higher alpha hops are used for the base boil addition while aromatic lower alpha hops are used in finishing and dry hopping.

Brewers are also making sure that there is a balance in the beer’s flavor. Higher alcohol percent reacts differently with the hops than IPA with lower alcohol percentage. Also, high alcohol adds body and perceived sweetness to a beer. For the bitterness, brewers use a formula to calculate the actual bitterness of a beer based on the hops used and their alpha acid content. An average IPA will have approximately 40 – 60 IBU’s, with a high IBU level around the 100 – 120 mark.

Lastly, IPAs are fermented and stored at the traditional ale temperatures, usually, around the mid 60’s F. Long storage periods are sometimes required to achieve the proper hop-malt balance.

Different Styles Of IPAs

Different styles of IPAs

One of the many wonderful things about craft beer is its ability to reinvent. With almost unlimited ingredients, beer has an almost unlimited ability to change. This has resulted in various kinds of IPA, all as radically different as other styles are to each other. So here is our guide to the complex world of IPAs.

English IPA

The one that started it all and the roots from which all other IPA’s have stemmed. Traditionally they are golden brown in color and exclusively use British hops. It is a hoppy, moderately-strong, very well-attenuated pale British ale with a dry finish and a hoppy aroma and flavor. Classic British ingredients provide the best flavor profile. Expect grassy and earthy notes with some mild citrus character. Typically you’ll find them at 6-7% ABV with a crisp body and bone dry finish. 

American West Coast IPA

The West Coast IPA was the beginning of the fruity hop explosion. This style gets credit for exploring the rowdy, fruity flavors in hops, while shedding some of the bitterness. The bitterness is balanced with an exceptionally clean, crisp body, higher carbonation, and big tropical fruit notes. 

An invention of the Golden State, this California born IPA is also golden in color with clear clarity. Brewers of these hop bombs back down on the malt and go full-throttle on the hop flavor. West Coast IPA takes its inspiration from British IPAs and American hops. Its use of cascade, citra, chinook give it a huge citrus aroma, verging on pine and slightly dank, weed-like smells too. 

Additionally, these beers are also usually a little less dry because they often use crystal malt, but significantly more bitter, sometimes topping 80 IBUs which is about as much as the human palate can sense. 

American East Coast IPA

The east coast IPA—more specifically the “Northeast” or “New England-style” IPA—has become the preeminent breed of IPA. When craft beer started to gain popularity in America, East Coast brewers sought after the tradition of European ales and lagers. The so-called “East Coast IPAs” are a bit more balanced, with stronger malt component matching the stronger hops component, but still have that pleasant bitterness IPAs are known for. 

The East Coast IPA is based on the West Coast with one fundamental difference – yeast. Where California brewers use clean, almost flavorless yeasts to focus the drinker on the hop aromas and flavors, East Coast brewers are using mutated, complicated British yeasts. 

These yeasts produce lots of smells and flavors as they ferment the sugar – usually stone fruit, banana and tropical notes – which the brewers use to top up the intense hop aromas. With this flavor boost, they can use fewer hops so the beers are less bitter, and they also leave the beer cloudy to give it a cloudy look and a pillow-like texture. As hazy as a squall off the coast, this beer captivates the tongue with a fruity and malty profile.

Double IPA

Also known as the Imperial IPA, this style is an intensely hoppy, fairly strong pale ale. The adjective “double” is arbitrary and simply implies a stronger version of an IPA– strongly hopped, but clean, dry, and lacking harshness. Double IPA’s take a regular IPA and amplify all the characteristics, with a bigger malt and hop profile, yet remaining quite drinkable. The alcohol content is also greater with Double IPAs, usually between 7.5-10%.

Triple IPA

For some, the highly bitter profile of the West Coast IPA wasn’t enough. They clamored for more hops and so the hoppy arms race was on. Brewers responded in kind with the addition of more hops, the development of bolder flavor and stronger aromas. 

The hop plant was pushed to its limit and the result were some of the strongest, headiest, and driest IPAs on the market. This takes a Double IPA to the next level and is probably the least commercialized IPA style, mostly because of the higher alcohol content, sometimes pushing 12% or even 13%. Clearly, these beers are not for the faint-hearted.

Session IPA

On the flip side of the coin, it was recognized that not everyone wants to drink themselves stupid after only a pint or two. Some folks enjoyed the hoppy flavor but found West Coasts to be aggressive and Imperials as overkill. Some people wanted to enjoy a summer barbeque without destroying their palate and their mind. So born was the Session IPA. 

Never usually topping more than 5% ABV brewers tend to dry hop them to death so as to obtain the greatest aroma with the lowest amount of bitterness. They are cracker dry and dry-hopped to buggery to get the maximum amount of aroma for the minimum amount of bitterness so they are as drinkable but full-flavored as possible.

Belgian IPA

Inspired by American India Pale Ales and Double IPAs, more and more Belgian brewers are brewing hoppy pale colored ales for the US market. The driving flavor in a Belgian IPA comes Belgian yeast, which provides sweet, bready, warm notes to the beer. These usually end up tasting like a British IPA mixed with a Belgian tripel. 

Additionally, this beer has a more complex flavor profile and may be higher in alcohol than a typical IPA. Like the Double IPA, ABV on Belgian India Pale Ales is between 7-10%, so it should not be slammed or chugged.

Black IPA

Also known as India Black Ale (IBA), it’s a beer with the dryness, hop-forward balance, and flavor characteristics of an American IPA, only darker in color – but without strongly roasted or burnt flavors. The flavor of darker malts is gentle and supportive, not a major flavor component. 

A variation of the American IPA style first commercially produced as Blackwatch IPA around 1990. Popularized in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California starting in the early-mid 2000s. This style is sometimes known as Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA), mainly in the Pacific Northwest.

Summary

India Pale Ales have become so popular, widespread, and they come in a range of styles. The IPAs we encounter today are characterized by an abundance of hops. Hops affect flavor, aroma, and bitterness

On that note, brewers can experiment endlessly to impart other hop flavors and aromas to the beer. The modern approach to hoppy beer isn’t just a declaration of bitterness, but a beer that explores the world of fruity flavors.

There are few main styles of IPA produced today. They are American-style (West & East Coast), English-style, and Double or Imperial. There are also plenty of sub-styles, including Black, Belgian, and Session IPAs. Each style and sub-style has its own characteristics. In addition, many craft breweries have created their own unique twists on the classics. This proliferation means there is plenty of variety in what falls under the IPA label today.

So there you have it, an in-depth guide into the history and different styles of IPA’s. The best way to learn about India pale ales isn’t to read about them– it’s to drink them! If you’d like to try an IPA, we encourage you to do so. Find your favorite local brewery and see if they offer an IPA.


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