Walk into any beer bar, and you're likely to find up to 20 different IPAs on the menu. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by or glassy-eyed at the lyrical descriptions, which include words like “bright,” “fruity,” and “hazy.” Not to mention the detailed lists of each and every hop that’s been introduced to a beer over the course of its brewing and fermentation.
The India Pale Ale has gone through so many paradigm shifts that we thought it’d be helpful to break down the major subcategories of America’s favorite beer style so that you can be better prepared the next time you saddle up to an IPA-filled bar.
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The classic, old-school, British-style IPA has been imbibed in England for centuries. In the 1800s, when the Brits were colonizing the world like a virus, beer was a very much required commodity in warm, faraway climates -- but perishable, as well. As the romantic legend has it, George Hodgson of Bow Brewery had the smarts to figure out that higher levels of hops and alcohol would help preserve beer during its journey to India, in particular. And thus, the India Pale Ale was supposedly born.
But the truth is, brewers had been brewing these pale beers since the early 1700s. And beer sent out east didn’t spoil due to low ABV -- the IPA's supposed 6.5% ABV wasn’t especially strong for beers during this time period. What's more, exporters paid less tax the lower their beer was in alcohol, so they were incentivized to keep the levels as low as possible.
Hops aren’t a dominant flavor of an English IPA -- they’re just there to balance malt sweetness, and provide a crisp, lightly bitter finish. This style has been brewed in the United States, too, from the mid- to late- twentieth century. Hops used include East Kent Golding, Styrian Golding, and Fuggles, and grains are traditionally English 2-row pale malts like Maris Otter and Golden Promise. Crystal malts are sometimes used to boost body and color.
Recommended beers: Anchor Brewing Liberty Ale, Samuel Smith's India Ale, Goose IPA
West Coast IPA
The West Coast IPA was, as its name implies, born on the West Coast. From San Diego to Seattle, the IPA uses hops grown primarily in the Northwest, like Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, Amarillo, Simcoe, and Citra hops. West Coast IPAs are intensely hopped and often tongue-numbingly bitter, although perceived bitterness varies wildly, depending on the varieties and amounts used, and the timing of their addition to the boil. The hop flavor is often piney, citrusy, resinous, or a blend of all three -- and the beers are significantly higher in alcohol (6.5-8% ABV) than British-style IPAs.
Recommended beers: Green Flash Brewing West Coast IPA, Stone Brewing IPA, AleSmith Brewing Co. IPA
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Also known as Cascadian Ales or American Black Ales, Black IPAs were incredibly trendy about five years ago, but have since petered out more recently. The style calls for a super hoppy and bitter beer made with robust, roasted dark malts. Some beer nerds get bent out of shape about calling these black, hoppy beers "Black IPAs" because of the contradictory “p” for “pale” in the name. "Cascadian Ale" came about as an alternative moniker to represent the beer's Pacific Northwest origin, and to keep pedantic people’s minds from blowing over the paradoxical designation.
Recommended beers: 21st Amendment Brewery Back in Black, Lagunitas Brewing Co. NightTime, Sanitas Black IPA
New England-style IPA
Hailing from Vermont and Western Massachusetts, the New England-style IPA has less malt/grain heft and hop bitterness, for a lighter-colored beer with powerful hop aromas and flavors of citrus or tropical fruit. The yeast and grains create a haze that's left unfiltered, so as not to strip any hop juiciness -- though this does further limit shelf life. The hop flavors shine bright for a few weeks -- maybe a month -- but begin to go stale beyond that. And you don’t want this beer when it’s stale.
New England-style IPAs are incredibly popular right now, all of which carry little malt presence, low bitterness, lots of fruit flavors, and a hazy appearance. Notable breweries known for the style include The Alchemist, Trillium Brewing Co., Tree House Brewing Co., and Lawson’s Finest Liquids -- but there are also plenty of breweries far from New England who've nailed the style, too.
Recommended beers: Tree House Haze, WeldWerks Juicy Bits, Trillium Fort Point Pale Ale
How to find an IPA that’s perfect for you
Though understanding the above styles may help, there's also plenty of overlap between them, with a wide range of flavor profiles amongst all IPAs. In order to further decode the beer menu, paying attention to the hops profiled in the beer description (or in the name of the beer itself) will help you figure out what's in the glass.
Below are some general flavors found in particular hop varieties. Of course, a beer's profile will also depend on the other ingredients used -- but this cheat sheet will at least give you a place to start!
Tropical / Fruit: Mosaic, Belma, Calypso, El Dorado, Galaxy, Huell Melon, Motueka, Rakau, Zythos
Citrus: Amarillo, Citra, Cascade, Centennial, Falconer’s Flight, Mandarina Bavaria, Nelson Sauvin, Sorachi Ace, Summit, Waimea
Pine: Ahtanum, Chinook, Simcoe
Floral / Grassy: Hallertau, Comet, Challenger, Mt. Hood
Other important IPA terms you might hear
Dry hopped: Hops were added after the beer had completed fermentation. This provides a powerful hop aroma and flavor, since the hops haven't been exposed to the heat of the boil, which drives off essential oils.
Wet hopped: Similar to dry hopping, except the hops used were freshly harvested, not dried or converted to pellets. They still have the sticky resin of the plant, so the aroma/flavor is boosted, although much greater quantities (by weight) must be used. Can sometimes add a vegetal or grassy note to beers.
Double dry hopped: The beer had been dry hopped more than once, and double the amount of hops were used during that process
Double / Imperial IPA: More hops and malt went into the brewing process than usual, resulting in more flavor and a higher alcohol content.
Note: Goose Island Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.