IPA, short for India Pale Ale, dominates tap handles and sales numbers in the craft beer world. In 2008 IPA was already the most popular style of craft and in eight short years it has increased twenty fold in total sales! Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman introduced hop forward beers to the mainstream with his Pale Ale back in 1980. So for those who think hops are a fad, it’s a 37 year-old fad that shows no signs of slowing up.
The showcased ingredient in IPAs is the hops, which come from the plant Humulus Lupulus. This is a vine-like plant that produces hop flowers known as strobiles. Within these strobiles are two prized contributions to brewing: alpha acids and hop oils. Alpha acids, when boiled, provide the bitterness in beer which gives the drinker the crisp, clean finish and acts to balance the sweet malt. The hop oils produce the flavor and aroma, which, in American style hops, typically provide flavors and aromas of pine, grapefruit, tropical fruit and citrus.
There are various sub-categories of IPA such as light or “session” IPAs, Black IPAs, Red IPAs, Belgian IPAs (fermented with Belgian yeast) and many more. Standout examples of IPAs include: Ballast Point Sculpin, Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed, and Firestone Walker Union Jack. To many craft beer lovers, bitter is better and there’s no sign of IPA’s popularity slowing down anytime soon.
Legend has it that British colonists and military personnel who were stationed in India were thirsty for the beer of their homeland. Beer exported from England to India had to travel for many miles usually in very hot temperatures. Heat and oxygen are enemies to beer and what arrived in India was often undrinkable. Brewers soon realized that in addition to adding bitterness and flavor to the beer, hops also contained anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties. British brewers loaded their traditional pale ale with hops to see if it would sustain through the long, hot journey to India. Not only did it sustain, many of the colonists actually preferred this new style of beer to their traditional pale ale, and out of necessity, a new style was born.
Since the “pale” in India pale ale refers to color, it creates a bit of a misnomer in the modern beer world when you hear of beers known as Black or Red IPAs. A beer can’t really be pale and black, can it? For now, until a new moniker sticks, we will still refer to these beers as IPAs, regardless of color, even if it may be grammatically incorrect.
IPAs are intentionally unbalanced beers that showcase the hops, usually with just enough malt to back up the hop assault. Traditionally made with mostly base malt which gives IPA their pale color, and just enough character malts such as Crystal, Munich or Victory to add some color, body and complexity, these beers tend to hover in the 6-7% abv range. The drinker will find a lot of flavor up front and a pleasant dry, crisp finish. IPAs pair wonderfully with fried foods since they are a terrific palate cleanser.