If you’ve ever sidled up to a craft beer brewery and found yourself wondering, “What is IPA?” then you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll walk you through these Indian Pale Ales, starting with their English origins before moving into the brewing process. From there, we’ll explore the nuances of several sub-types and the artisanship that goes into concocting them.
What Is IPA?
Let’s start with the fundamentals of the IPA, including the definition and illustrious history of this popular beer style.
IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a type of beer packed with hops, giving it a strong bitter taste and delightful aroma.
But it’s not just about the bitterness; a skillfully made IPA also has a malty foundation that adds a touch of sweetness to the mix. This balance keeps your taste buds from being overwhelmed by naturally herbal and bitter flavors.
History of IPA Beer
The story of the India Pale Ales began in the 18th century when British brewers sought a brewing method to make beer that could survive long ocean trips to India.
To keep the beer fresh during these extended journeys, they boosted both the alcohol content and hop, thanks to their natural preservative powers.
That led to the creation of a stronger, more hop-centric beer known as India Pale Ales.
The IPA’s fame grew steadily from there, especially during the 19th century, and eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the United States. American brewers, always keen to put their own twist on things, started using local hop varieties.
That gave rise to the bold, in-your-face American IPA we all enjoy today.
How Are IPA Beers Made?
In an IPA, you’ll find four fundamental ingredients: malted barley, hops, water, and yeast.
The choice of malted barley can influence the beer’s color and flavor, but it’s typically pale malts used in IPAs.
Of course, the real star here is the hops. Brewers carefully choose from various hop varieties, each with its own distinct flavors, to craft the perfect blend of bitterness, aroma, and taste.
When it’s time to start brewing, they kick things off with the mashing process.
This is where crushed malted barley comes together with hot water to draw out the balancing, fermentable sugars.
Boiling and Hopping
Once the mashing is finished, the liquid – now known as wort – gets separated from the grain and moves on to a kettle for boiling, which is when hops join the party.
Bittering hops go in early during the boil, releasing their alpha acids that give the beer its signature bitterness. Aromatic hops come in later, either during the boil or in the whirlpool stage, allowing their essential oils to shine through and enhance the beer’s aroma and flavor.
Some brewers take it further with “dry hopping,” adding hops during or after fermentation to amp up the IPA’s hoppy personality.
Once the boil is over and the wort has cooled, brewers introduce pale ale yeast to catalyze the fermentation process.
As the yeast gets busy feasting on the wort’s sugars, it converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which typically takes around two weeks.
After that, the beer gets some extra time to condition and mature, during which it develops those well-loved IPA flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel.
Types of IPAs
Let’s jump into the diverse world of IPA sub-styles.
You can discover a few new brews to add to your “must-try” list.
New England IPA
New England IPAs, also known as NEIPA or Hazy IPA, have gained immense popularity recently for their juicy, fruity flavors and hazy appearance.
Originating in the northeastern United States, this sub-style trades in bitterness for vibrant hop-derived flavors such as citrus, tropical fruit, and stone fruit.
The haze comes from high-protein grains like oats and wheat, along with late addition and dry hopping techniques, which allows brewers to retain more hop oils and polyphenols.
The British IPA, the grandparent of all IPA sub-styles, has a more balanced profile than its American counterparts.
Brewers use traditional English hop varieties like Fuggle and East Kent Golding, giving these suds more earthy, floral, and herbal hop flavors balanced by a robust malt backbone that lends a touch of caramel or biscuit sweetness.
Typically, British IPAs have a tempered down bitterness and slightly lower alcohol content than American versions, making them easy-drinking while retaining their rustic charm.
West Coast IPA
Beloved for its intense hop bitterness and dry finish, the West Coast IPA–originated in California– is a hop lover’s dream.
It’s a bolder, more assertive take on the IPA style.
Showcasing American hop varieties like Cascade and Chinook, this sub-style is flavor-forward with citrus, pine, and resin, balanced by a complementary toffee malt backbone.
The impressive balance and easy drinkability in West Coast IPAs are a true testament to the creativity and ingenuity of American craft beer brewers.
East Coast IPA
Developed in the eastern US, the East Coast IPA is a more balanced and malt-forward interpretation of the IPA.
While still hop-forward, this sub-style emphasizes the malt character, often resulting in a slightly sweeter, less aggressively bitter beer than the West Coast IPA.
East Coast IPAs showcase a blend of American and English hop varieties, giving them a diverse profile that includes earthy citrus or floral flavors.
Double and Triple IPA
Double IPA (DIPA) and Triple IPA (TIPA) are the amped-up versions of the classic IPA, boasting higher alcohol content and even more pronounced hop flavors.
Double IPAs, also known as Imperial IPAs, generally have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 7.5-10%, while Triple IPAs push the boundaries further, with ABVs often exceeding 10%.
These sub-styles present an intensely hops-forward experience yet skillfully balance the flavors to prevent them from becoming too overwhelming.
What IPA Beers Tastes Like
Compared to other types of beer, such as lagers, IPAs tend to be more assertive regarding flavor and bitterness.
While lagers are typically clean and crisp, focusing on malt character, IPAs celebrate hops’ versatility. The malt backbone in IPAs does provide a balancing sweetness, but the overall flavor profile remains hop-forward.
That said, the taste of an IPA can vary significantly depending on its sub-style.
For example, New England’s hazy IPA will have a softer, juicier profile with low bitterness. At the same time, a West Coast IPA will pack a punch with its intense bitterness and resinous, piney flavors. British IPAs, on the other hand, offer a more balanced experience, with earthy hop notes complemented by a more robust maltiness.
Noted IPA Beer Brands
If you’re unsure where to start with IPA beers, we’ve curated four options that run the gamut from light and fruity to deep and hoppy.
Houblon Chouffe, a Belgian-style IPA from the acclaimed Brasserie d’Achouffe, brings together the best parts of classic Belgian Tripel and American brewing traditions.
With an ABV of 9%, Houblon Chouffe boasts a complex flavor profile that includes fruity esters from the Belgian yeast, a prominent hop bitterness, and notes of citrus spice.
The iconic Lagunitas IPA hails from Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California.
It’s a quintessential West Coast IPA with bold, hoppy beer bitterness and notes of pine.
At 6.2% ABV, it’s an excellent middle ground between session-style IPAs and the more intense triple IPA. The malt adds a subtle hint of richness, but it’s very much a hops-focused brew.
Produced by Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah, Iowa, King Sue is a New England-style double IPA with a golden pour and ripe, tropical juiciness thanks to the use of Citra hops.
It’s an intensely complex hazy IPA, with notes of grapefruit and lime from the very high myrcene terpenes in the hops strain, and boasts an ABV of 7.8%
Pliny The Younger
Pliny The Younger, crafted by Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, is a legendary Triple IPA with a cult-like following among craft beer enthusiasts.
This annual release, available for a limited time each year, boasts an impressive ABV of 10.25% and features an intensely hoppy flavor with notes of citrus, pine, and tropical fruit.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before we wrap up, let’s tackle some of the most frequently asked questions about IPA beer.
Are there low-carb alternatives to IPA beers?
Session IPAs typically have fewer carbohydrates due to their lower alcohol content and lighter body, making them an excellent choice for those watching their carb intake.
What’s the best type of glass for drinking an IPA beer?
For an IPA, choose a tulip or IPA glass. These shapes concentrate aroma, enhance flavors, and maintain the beer’s frothy head. Experiment with both to find the one that suits your taste best.
Can you pair food with an IPA beer?
Definitely! With their bold hoppy bitterness, IPA beers pair well with various foods. Spicy dishes, like curries or buffalo wings, are excellent choices, as IPAs can cut through the heat. Burgers, grilled meats, and barbecue also complement the hop-forward flavors.
India Pale Ales are a diverse beer style that showcases the sheer versatility of hops. From the juicy, fruity New England IPA to the boldly bitter West Coast IPA, there’s a flavor profile to suit every palate.
Now that we’ve covered “What is IPA,” what are your thoughts on this bitter brew? Do you have a favorite sub-style or a go-to brand?
Share your experiences and preferences in the comments below!