In many ways, American IPAs are the foundation of the modern craft beer movement.
But what is IPA? Here’s a quick overview for you beer lovers.
IPA is short for ‘India Pale Ale’. When we opened Sabaja and released our first batch of IPA, many people thought we invented the name – I’m afraid many people still think that.
Pale Ale is a broad category of beer that can range in color from very pale straw to rich dark copper, and in flavor from a balanced malty sweetness to moderate hop bitterness. India Pale Ale is a variation of this family of ales, with some very specific characteristics. To learn about the difference between ales and lagers, check out our blog on the topic here.
Before we talk about what makes IPA special, let’s talk about where it came from.
IPA has something of a legend attached to it. Like most great styles of ale, IPA originated in England.
The story goes that the British army was shipping beer to its colony in India, circa 1800, via the East India Company. The beer was usually a porter, the most popular style of the day, but which was not well suited to the hot Indian climate or, more importantly, the six months of storage in an unrefrigerated hull of a boat crossing the equator. The beer that reached Indian shores was usually stale, at best, or spoiled by infection at worst.
The brewer of this porter, George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery, searched for solutions. They were under pressure from a displeased East India Company. The solution that worked best was sending a stronger style of beer, then called ‘October Beer’ due to its production timing around the harvest season. Today we might classify that beer as a barleywine. This beer was brewed with a high ABV and loaded with freshly harvested hops. The idea was to let it age, like a wine, which made it more ideal for the long journey across the world. That first batch of October Beer arrived in January 1822, reportedly with much fanfare from the Calcutta Gazette.
The higher concentration of alcohol and hop acids both acted as preservatives, which kept the beer fresh. They also resulted in a strong kick, and a bitter taste. Although the term India Pale Ale would not enter circulation for at least another 40 years after Hodgson’s first shipment, this moment is traditionally considered the birth of the style.
The legend concludes with the colonists falling in love with the bitter pale ale, and beer lovers at home in Britain getting a toned-down version of the drink, which we would now recognize as the original Pale Ale.
This legend is told and re-told around brewing circles with a number of variations. There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of some of the details, but the central point is that more alcohol and hops resulted in delicious beer with a long shelf-life.
IPA fell out of fashion for a time, but was revived in the 1970s by early American craft brewers, who had a thing for reviving lost British styles of ale. However, when Americans revive anything British, we tend to push the limits, thus Americanizing it. American IPA is, therefore, generally hoppier and higher in ABV than any of the originators of the style.
Some purists might cry ‘sacrilege’ at the American interpretation of the IPA, but none can argue with the result – whether you love or hate the American IPAs, their popularity gave rise to the craft brewing industry, which has brought us all a world of beer variety that many of us could never have imagined. And thank goodness for that – as much as we love German lagers, they do get boring, don’t they?
So What Is an IPA?
Now that we have covered the lore, let’s look at the details of the modern beer style we know as IPA.
There are a few categories of IPA – English and American are the big ones, but the Belgians have something to add to the conversation too. However, when most contemporary brewers talk about IPA, we are talking about the American style, because it has become a global benchmark for craft beer.
Your basic American IPA has a few main characteristics. First, it’s an ale. That may seem obvious, but it’s important - an IPA cannot be a lager.
Next, it’s relatively strong and bitter – most American IPAs land somewhere between 5 and 7 percent alcohol, with bitterness at 40 IBUs* or more. IPAs with an ABV lower than 5% are usually sold as ‘Session IPA’, while those with more than 7% are usually dubbed ‘Double IPA’ or ‘Imperial IPA’. Finally, and most importantly, IPAs are all about the hops!
Specifically, American hops are the star of this show. The difference between American and European hops will eventually be the subject of its own blog entry; for now, just know that American hops tend to focus on citrus and floral notes while European hops tend to have more subdued characters of earthy and herbal notes. And it is those big citrus notes that we love in our IPAs – the aroma especially.
The Bitter-Sweet End
So there you have it. Today’s IPA is an especially bitter pale ale with a nice alcoholic kick to it and some very citrusy aromas. It has a fascinating history and its revival more or less kicked off the craft beer industry.
The coolest thing about IPA, however, is that there is a huge variety within the style. While pilsners have to conform to very specific guidelines – pale, very carbonated, not too bitter – IPAs can come in a range of colors, they can focus on different types of hops, have different aromas, variable levels of bitterness and alcohol contents. One brewery could make several different IPAs and they could all be as different as Pilsner and Porter.
Which one is right for you? Well, that depends on your tolerance for bitterness and alcohol content, but the only way to know for sure is to try as many as you can. Cheers!
*IBUs are International Bittering Units, which brewers use to measure the bitterness of their beers on a scale of 0 to 100. In theory, humans cannot taste bitterness beyond 100 IBUs. For reference, Pilsners typically clock in with bitterness ratings of 25 to 40 IBUs.