If you’re a fan of craft brewing, or even just have a passing interest in beer, you will almost certainly have heard of IPA – and there’s a good chance you may have tried one or two as well.
Within the hugely fashionable world of craft beer, IPA is the undisputed king, and it seems that just about every brewery has its own take on this style.
But how much do you know about IPA? What gives it its distinctive flavor? Where does it come from and what’s the story behind it?
In this post, we’ll consider questions like these and more as we answer, what is IPA beer?
If you want a preview of some of the stuff we’re going to be talking about – as well as a bit of extra info – you can also check out this video before reading on.
The short answer – what is IPA Beer?
To give you the short answer, IPA stands for India Pale Ale. IPA is a broad designation covering a range of styles, but generally speaking, they are pale ales brewed using lightly roasted malt, a top-fermenting yeast and a generous dose of hops.
More than anything else, it is the unmistakable flavor of hops that marks out an IPA, but thanks to variations in brewing techniques – and the range of hops that can be used – the IPA moniker includes a wide assortment of beers.
In a moment, we’ll have a look in more detail at the variations you are likely to encounter, but to appreciate how IPA became the hugely popular beer it is today, we need to look at where it came from.
A little history – pale ale in 18th-century England
To understand the origins and development of IPA, we need to travel back in time to the England of the 18th century.
Back then, several styles of beer were being brewed, among which was a type made by dry-roasting the malt with coke. This process produced a beer that was lighter in color than the other popular beers of the time like porter and mild, and by the start of the 18th century, people had begun referring to it as “pale ale”.
Jump forward a few years, and by the early 19th century, the British Empire was at its height, with colonies around the globe. The jewel in the imperial crown was India, and a ceaseless flotilla of vessels plied the route between England and its prized colonial possession, carrying all manner of items for trade – including beer.
George Hodgson and the Bow Brewery
When telling the tale of IPA, one name is inextricably linked to the early development of this style of beer, that of George Hodgson; however, the often-repeated claim that he “invented” IPA for export to India is probably wide of the mark.
Hodgson was the owner of the Bow Brewery, a relatively modest operation located on the border between Middlesex and Essex to the east of London. One of the beers he specialized in brewing was October beer, a well-hopped pale ale that was aged for two years in cellars before it was ready for consumption.
According to one version of the story, Hodgson is supposed to have deliberately added extra hops, a natural preservative, to his beer to help it survive the journey from England to India, a voyage which in those days took from four to six months.
However, Hodgson wasn’t the only brewer producing well-hopped October beer, and other beers such as porter had been shown to be quite capable of arriving in the far-flung colonies without suffering any significant loss of quality.
Rather, Hodgson’s initial involvement was probably attributable to the fortuitous location of his brewery close to the East India docks.
Instead of travelling to London to purchase beer for export, buyers were able to acquire goods from his more conveniently situated site, providing the Bow Brewery with a steady stream of customers.
However, the traders soon discovered that something unexpected was happening with the beer they were transporting. Thanks to the special conditions on board the ships, beer that usually required two years in a cellar to mature was found to be in perfect condition and ready to drink when it was unloaded in Bombay, Madras or Calcutta.
This was something Hodgson couldn’t have planned, but it ensured the continued popularity of his beer with the traders – although he also did his best to cement his position by extending an unusually generous credit of 18 months to his customers. In this way, they were able to acquire his beer before their departure, paying for it on their return with the profits they made from its sale.
The decline of Bow and the rise of the Burton breweries
There is room for debate over the precise sequence of events, and there are still those who maintain that the Bow Brewery consciously created a more heavily-hopped beer specifically to make it more resistant to the arduous sea journey to India.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether Hodgson planned it or just got lucky – what is important is that his brewery became the favored supplier of beer for the export market, and his product soon became highly sought-after by customers in India.
However, it appears that when the operation of the Bow Brewery was taken over by Hodgson’s son, his business practices made him less popular with the brewery’s regular customers.
At around the same time, the market for English beer in Russia suddenly dried up due to a punitive tax imposed on British beer imports by the tsar. This meant that brewers from the northern English town of Burton upon Trent who usually made beer for export to Russia were on the lookout for new areas in which to expand.
So at precisely the moment when former Bow customers were exploring other options, the Burton brewers were only too happy to step in.
Burton is a town blessed with water that is especially suited to the brewing of beers, and the high-quality offerings produced there in the style of what Bow’s had been exporting to India soon found favor among the colonial clientele.
This style of beer, which subsequently became known as India Pale Ale, quickly became popular in other British possessions around the globe and was exported to distant territories such as Australia and New Zealand – as well as being widely consumed in England itself.
The craft beer revolution and the resurrection of IPA
Although it never disappeared entirely, consumption of IPA dropped throughout the first half of the 20th century as it fell out of fashion.
However, this was not the end of the story for India Pale Ale as it was to experience a resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic, starting from the 1970s.
Since that time, there has been a growing demand for what has been termed “Real Ale” in Britain, a reaction to the mass-produced and often bland lagers that people were then regularly consuming.
This coincided with the craft beer revolution in the US, with brewers keen to experiment with styles that had fallen out of favor. This movement has seen a focus on beers of quality that exhibit unique or interesting flavors, and IPA lends itself perfectly to this exploration and rediscovery of beer by US brewers and consumers.
In particular, American brewers have been keen to produce beers brewed with American hops rather than the European hops that were traditionally used.
The different types of hops available to brewers in the US, along with a range of innovative brewing techniques, has led to an explosion in the types of IPA that are now available. As a result, India Pale Ale has established itself as the darling of the craft beer community both in America and around the world.
Different IPAs to look out for
As one of the most popular, most sought-after styles among craft brewers, aficionados and beer dilettantes alike, a broad range of distinct versions now exists within the IPA family. Here are some of the most important ones to look out for.
1. West Coast IPA
The West Coast was where the recent IPA renaissance began, and these beers are characterized by a distinctive strong hoppy flavor and – usually – a relatively high alcohol content at around 6% ABV or above.
West Coast IPAs tend to use American hops, which imparts a complex flavor profile tending towards citrus and tropical fruits. They are usually bitter, but in a good West Coast IPA, this is balanced by deep maltiness, creating a beer with a crisp taste and a satisfying finish.
2. New England IPA
After West Coast IPA, perhaps the most important North American style is the New England IPA – and right now, this is the style that’s leading the way. These beers are unfiltered, resulting in a cloudy appearance, which is why they are also known as hazy IPAs.
In terms of flavor, expect notes of citrus – especially orange – which makes them crisp and refreshing. They are also less overpoweringly hoppy than West Coast IPAs, so if you’re just taking your first baby steps into the world of IPA, these beers are easy on the palette, making them a great place to start.
There is some controversy associated with these beers, however, with some purists claiming that many of them taste too much like orange juice – and that they are just beers for people who don’t like beer.
Also, some brewers have been accused of prioritizing Insta-friendly haziness over flavor – when in fact, the opaque appearance should be a side-effect of the brewing process rather than its goal.
3. East Coast IPA
The third of the major American versions is East Coast IPA, although it isn’t recognized as a distinct style in the same way as West Coast or New England IPAs. You will be able to recognize these beers by their pronounced hoppiness combined with a stronger, sweeter maltiness than their West Coast brethren, giving them a more balanced feel.
4. Black IPA
Black IPA is a less common style that is distinctively darker in color. This is because the malt is roasted for longer prior to brewing.
A range of IPAs is available in the UK, some of which are more traditional in style while other more modern takes also exist. An example of the former is Worthington’s White Shield, a beer that has been brewed since the early days of IPA. In the last few decades, its popularity has grown again after it had fallen out of favor with British drinkers.
Perhaps the most famous of the modern craft beer-style IPAs is Punk IPA from Scottish brewer Brewdog. It is now the best-selling craft beer in the UK and is a common sight in pubs throughout the UK.
6. Fruit IPAs
Nowadays, with brewers trying to come up with more and more exotic techniques and flavors to make their products stand out from the crowd, some have begun incorporating fruit into their brewing process.
For the purist, this might seem like sacrilege, but some of them taste pretty good, making them a good option if you’re looking for something refreshing and unusual.
7. Double IPA
A double IPA gives you more of everything. The original idea was to produce an extra-hoppy beer, but to do this, you need to balance the flavor with more malt – and, in simple terms, this also results in more alcohol.
This beer is a relatively new member of the IPA family. It is a distinctively American creation, a brash and irreverent offspring of the IPA that has attracted many adherents.
IPA has been with us for a long time – and now it’s here to stay
IPA may have gone through a rough patch in the first part of the 20th century, but now it is most definitely back, and it’s unlikely to go away again soon.
There are many different types of IPA to sample, and American-style IPAs have now left the land of their (re)birth and set out to conquer the world. So if you haven’t had chance to enjoy one yet, perhaps it’s about time you did.