Style profile: IPAs keep pushing the envelope

India Pale Ales, or IPAs, are like your your quick-witted buddy from school who always has a sarcastic zinger AND your back in any battle – they keep you on your toes, and keep you coming back for more. Always hoppy, often bitter, usually sharp-tasting, and occasionally tongue-punching, IPAs are the current kings of American craft brewing. There are three basic types of IPAs: English IPAs, American IPAs, and Imperial IPAs (in order from mild to powerful).

English IPAs

In a nutshell (or, since we’re talking beer, barley husk), English IPAs like Samuel Smith’s India Ale are the original IPA. Legend has it that these beers were brewed to survive the journey from English breweries like Bass and Burton’s to India. To prevent spoilage during the 3-month journey around the Horn of Africa, English IPAs were loaded with antibiotic hops. Eventually, folks back in England started getting their hands on the style, and by the mid-1800s, IPAs dominated English brewing.

English IPAs are typically milder, lighter, and less bitter than their American counterparts. They often use traditional Fuggles, Goldings, and other long-standing English hops, and well-made versions are always well-balanced between malty sweentess and hoppy bite. Often medium-bodied and highly-carbonated, English IPAs can be almost dry on the palate.

Some of my favorite examples: Berkshire’s Lost Sailor India Pale Ale, Samuel Smith’s India Ale, Shipyard’s Fuggles IPA

American IPAs

American IPAs are to English IPAs what Americans are to the English – brash upstarts who thumb their noses at the establishment and strive to make a more perfect union (of hops, malt, and yeast). American IPAs are often more hop-forward and less sweet, and have a tendency to be a bit darker-colored and higher-alcohol.

There also tends to be a difference between East Coast IPAs and West Coast IPAs, which often to bump up the hop character and reduce the sweetness even further than their East Coast siblings (typical “Left Coasters” – always pushing the edge of convention).

American IPAs are commonly the most innovative in the world, due in part to the newness of the US craft beer market and lack of IPA tradition. We are constantly improvising and seeing what new formulas we can come up with. American hops play a major role in the aggressiveness of our IPAs, with well-established US-grown hops like Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Columbus, Liberty, and Willamette being enhanced by popular new cultivars like Amarillo, Citra, and Simcoe.

While the initial impression of American IPAs is their bitter character, that bitterness is usually balanced by a moderate malt profile and often by a wide variety of aromas. From fruity citrus to floral perfumey scents, our IPAs are a kaleidoscope of smells … enough to drive a bloodhound mad with their differences.

Often golden in color, American IPAs can reach an almost-brown copper red. They typically range in alcohol from 4.5 to 7.5% or so, in part because their prominent hop character requires a sturdy malt backbone to balance the brew, and more malt = more alcohol.

Some of my favorite examples: Ithaca Flower Power, Victory Hop Devil Ale, Harpoon IPA (the most easy-drinking of the bunch), Mayflower IPA, Sam Adam’s Latitude 48 IPA, Buzzards Bay IPA

Imperial IPAs

Loaded with hops, high in alcohol, Imperial IPAs (also called double IPAs) are a hop freak’s dream brew. Borne of the American craft brewing industry’s urge to push beers as far as they can go, Imperial IPAs sometimes range in wine-like double-digit alcohol levels. In fact, the distinguishing line between Imperials and their cousins is at 7.5% ABV, beyond which the beer has entered Imperial Country.

By adding even more hops and malt than the already impressive American IPA, brewers have a wider array of tools at their disposal with an imperial IPA. Unconstrained by limits, imperial brewers can create even more complex flavors and aromas than they can in an American IPA, leading to a surprisingly wide diversity of flavors and subtleties. These aren’t just big dumb high-alcohol hop bombs, these are often works of art.

Some of my favorite examples: Fiddlehead Second Fiddle, Tröegs Perpetual IPA, The Alchemist Heady Topper, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Southern Tier Unearthly or 2xIPA

Originally published on December 5, 2013