If you could choose a poster child for the ‘craft beer’ revolution that has swept the USA over the past few decades, it would not even be a close call. The India Pale Ale, or IPA, is without a doubt the most produced, requested, and consumed ‘craft beer’ across the country. In fact, six of the top ten most ‘checked in’ beers on Untapp’d in 2017 were IPA’s. However, what many don’t realize is that those IPA’s they are ordering at their local watering hole are in fact American IPA’s, a varietal that has become so synonymous with those three letters that they have, in many parts of the world, eclipsed the fame of their parent varietal and driven brewers and connoisseurs to create a new category for it. To understand how American IPA’s came to rule as the craft beer king, we will need to understand a little bit of its history.
The True Colonial Craft
The origins of the American IPA cannot be discussed without going back a long way to the heights of the British empire, and its parent varietal, the India Pale Ale. As you may have guessed, the original IPA has its roots in the British colonial rule of India in the late 18th and 19th century. The exact origin story of the IPA is one with as many versions as there are offshoots of its style, some more myth than others. What we do know is that brewers in the UK began adding increased amounts of hops to their brews and, for one reason or another, the crisper, more bitter style of beer it produced became particularly popular among colonists in India, earning the beer its title. It may have been due to hops’ preservative nature making the beer more consistent after its long journey. It may have been that it suited the hot and humid climate better. Either way, it became the beer of the colonies for decades.
It seems only fitting then, that over a hundred years later it was this colonial staple that sat at the center of the burgeoning ‘craft’ revolution in American brewing. In 1975, Anchor Brewing of San Francisco began brewing the Liberty Ale. While not labeled as an IPA, many consider it to be the original example of the American IPA style, with its explosion of floral notes coming from the cascade hops. Following that, a wave of other breweries followed suit, unleashing their own versions of pale ales until, finally, Bridgeport Brewing Co. released the first American beer to dub itself an IPA since prohibition. In keeping with America’s distaste for colonial rule, brewers were not content to merely copy the British. American brewers took the intense hopping of IPA’s to new heights, with a focus on the fresh, floral, citrus aromas of the hops taking center stage, opening up a door to a whole new world of wild, intense, explosive flavors that took the world by storm and sparked a brewing revolution.
The appearance of an American IPA is a tough thing to pin down. If one includes all the various sub-categories that have emerged over the years, that definition gets even wider. However, in its classic form, the American IPA is a close cousin of the classic Pale Ale. Generally, on the lighter end of the spectrum, they range from a pale orange or gold to a burnt ochre color. Classically, an American IPA will be filtered and fairly clear, although increasingly brewers are leaving their creations cloudy to capture the fruity notes of the yeast. This is most evident in the New England style, a varietal that is becoming a classification in its own right. As for the head, you can expect a white to off-white coloring, with some yellowing in the unfiltered varietals.
Aromatics are what the American IPA is all about. The over-hopped style lends itself to an abundant, intense bouquet that can manifest itself in as many ways as there are American hop styles. You’ll commonly find floral or crisp fruity notes, often paired with bright citrus overtones. However, certain hops can even deliver an almost piney note, usually a marker of a more bitter flavor profile. Fresh-hopped styles, only available during harvest season, will sometimes offer up notes of fresh fruits or grass. Stronger varietals like the Double IPA may carry some malty, caramel undertones, but they are not generally associated with the classic American IPA aroma profile.
Never a full-bodied beer, the extra-hoppy profile of American IPA’s makes them lighter and crisper in the mouth than their English counterparts. Double-hopped offerings will often combine with the moderate to high carbonation levels to produce a drying effect on the palate.
Hops are front and center in the American IPA, so expect a good amount of bitterness. However, most quality offerings will strike a balance that rounds off the sharper notes. Beyond the bitterness though lies a huge variety of flavor possibilities. In keeping with the aroma profile, you will commonly find strong, grapefruit citrus notes giving way to either fresh, floral tones or juicy, sometimes even tropical fruit flavors, depending on the hop blend and filtration level. Certain hops blends will sit much further over on the bitterness scale though, with resinous, fresh pine flavors being dominant. Although the American style has drifted a long way toward the hoppier end of the scale than its English roots, many American IPA’s still carry a noticeable hint of malt beneath the crisp bitterness, sometimes producing almost caramelized citrus zest flavors.
Due to the wide range of flavor profiles that an American IPA can carry, there is no hard and fast rule for perfect pairings. However, due to their inherent bitterness, fried or fatty foods are generally a safe bet, particularly with the more bitter offerings. The bite of the hops cuts through the rich, fatty flavors of a good piece of fried chicken or pork belly, with the fats and salts helping to tone down the piney notes and bring out some of the malty flavors underneath. For the more floral, juicy American IPA’s, like those in the New England style, you can’t go wrong with curries or Mexican dishes. The hops will bring out the spiciness of the dish before the fruit and citrus notes move in to mellow it out and complement the rich spices and complex flavors of a good curry or burrito. Finally, a good bit of charred and caramelized meat fresh off the grill will do wonders to complement the subtle malts of a fuller-bodied IPA, with the hops working to draw out the umami flavors of a good piece of steak.
Bell’s Brewing – Two Hearted IPA
A truly classic example, Two Hearted regularly tops lists as the most widely popular American IPA. Everything you would expect an American IPA to be, it’s bold and citrusy with a strong hoppiness from its 100% Centennial hop blend that is perfectly balanced with a malt backbone to tie it all together.
- ABV: 7.0%
- IBU: 55
Ballast Point – Sculpin IPA
The defining feature of a true West Coast IPA is bold, in-your-face hoppiness with a crisp, dry finish loaded with citrus or pine notes. Arguably then, there is no better example than Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. Loaded with grapefruit notes giving way to a bone-dry finish, it’s no surprise that Ballast Point’s offering has become synonymous with the coastal style.
- ABV: 7.0%
- IBU: 70
Tree House Brewing Company – Julius
Juicy doesn’t begin to describe the ultra-cloudy Julius from Tree House Brewing. Named for its similarity to Orange Julius, this epitomic example of the New England style packs a rich mouthful of fresh-squeezed orange citrus flavor, coupled with a creaminess that makes it one of the smoothest, juiciest IPA’s on the market.
- ABV: 6.8%
- IBU: 72
Breakout Box Stats
- ABV Range: 5.5-7.5%
- IBU Range: 40-70
- Color Range: 6-14 SRM
- Original Gravity: 1.056-1.070 OG
- Final Gravity: 1.008-1.014 FG
- Suggested Glass: IPA Glass
GABF Entries 2018: 331