The English language is filled with words and phrases that have little to do with their original meanings. In days of yore, wooden stakes were called pales, as were, by extension, the stake-based fences that marked the boundary of a kingdom or empire. Thus, one who was “beyond the pale” would have been lawless, uncivilized, and generally frowned upon. But today, when we say “beyond the pale,” few of us picture wooden fences. It’s just a way to say that something is unacceptable or unconventional.
And so it is with India Pale Ale (IPA). The oft-told story is that India Pale Ale was brewed strong and hoppy to survive the long sea voyage from England to India. And while that tale is certainly romantic, the connection between historic IPAs and today’s American IPAs is about as strong as that of a certain taco chain and the street food of Mexico.
And yet, when you order a beer whose name contains those three letters, you know exactly what to expect when you take that first sip—hops, lots and lots of hops.
So forget India. Forget beer color. Forget empires. Today’s American IPAs are divorced from any historical meaning of the term. IPA is, you might say, ale beyond the pale.
The American Revolution
In the mid-1970s, true IPA was all but gone in Britain. And America’s only remaining commercial IPA, brewed by Ballantine, was in a death spiral of downsized bitterness, reduced strength, and shortened aging that foreshadowed its eventual discontinuation. It seemed that IPA as a unique beer style was headed toward extinction.
So it was perhaps unlikely that, in 1975, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company released the first IPA of the modern craft movement: Anchor Liberty Ale. With nothing but U.S.-grown Cascade hops contributing a hefty 40–50 International Bittering Units (IBUs), Liberty Ale represented a major departure from the sub-20 IBU light lagers that had grown to dominate American brewing.
Our enchantment with hops continued with Sierra Nevada’s release of Celebration Ale in 1981. And then in 1996, BridgePort introduced its signature IPA, which once again challenged Americans’ perceptions of what a beer could be. With a hops blend that included Cascade, Chinook, Golding, Crystal, and Ahtanum, BridgePort’s effervescent, bottle-conditioned beauty redefined “hoppy” and paved the way for even more to come.
It was only a matter of time before classic domestic hops gave way to new varieties that offered flavors of tropical fruits, berries, and even must. And that brings us to today.
We Americans aren’t known for our subtlety, and our take on IPA reflects this. Our hops are loud and boisterous, and unlike the aged IPAs of yesterday, modern American IPAs are best consumed fresh to showcase their unique hops character.
Party up Front, Business in the Back
The very first thing you notice in an American IPA should be hops. Plain and simple. From that initial aroma, through the first sip, to the bitterness that lingers on your tongue, New World IPAs are all about hops. Classic American IPA flavors are described as citrusy, fruity, piney, herbal, or resinous—derived from such quintessentially American hops as Amarillo, Centennial, Cascade, Simcoe, and Columbus. Think Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Avery IPA, Odell IPA, and Russian River’s Blind Pig.
Newer American hops varieties such as Citra and Mosaic can contribute berrylike flavors, impressions of tropical fruit, or even dirt. Many craft brewers are also using New Zealand hops such as Nelson Sauvin and Wakatu, which can bring winey flavors to the table, as well as suggestions of lime zest, pepper, and herbs. Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo, Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust, and Mikkeller’s Nelson Sauvin Single Hop IPA typify these kinds of ales.
In American IPAs, hops create a party in your mouth. But they couldn’t afford to do so without generous support from beer’s business side—malt. The role of malt in world-class examples of American IPAs can’t be overstated. Insufficient malt backbone can make for a terrifyingly bitter, even astringent, beer. But going overboard on the malt can leave a cloying sweetness in your mouth. A good American IPA should offer enough malt to balance the hops bitterness, but not much more.
These beers should also be crisp and refreshing. Even if you never try to identify the numerous flavors that contribute to your overall impression, a well-executed American IPA should clean the palate even as it assaults it. Key to this clean, crisp effect is a yeast strain that attenuates a large percentage of the available sugars in the wort.
Brewers usually select a neutral yeast strain to ferment American IPAs. This allows the natural flavors of hops to dominate the palate with little interference from by-products of the fermentation process. Many breweries opt for some variation on the so-called “Chico” yeast, which is said to have been sourced from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. Some strains may contribute some fruity notes, but such yeast-driven flavors aren’t common in American IPAs.
IPA Is a Family Thing
Of course, it’s becoming less and less common today to find a commercial craft beer that’s simply labeled, “IPA.” Just a few of the many variations you might find include the following:
- Imperial (double) IPA: More hops plus more malt equals a higher alcohol beer (Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA).
- Session IPA: Fewer hops plus less malt equals a lighter beer that you can enjoy by the liter (Founders’ All Day IPA, Boulevard Pop-Up Session IPA).
- Single-hops IPA: Brewing an IPA with just one hops variety showcases that variety’s unique flavor and aroma profile (single-hop series from Mikkeller).
- Rye IPA: Substituting rye for a portion of the barley malt lends a unique spicy flavor (Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye).
- Belgian IPA: Using an assertive Belgian yeast strain creates fruity, spicy notes that play well with certain hops (Flying Dog Raging Bitch, Brasserie d’Achouffe Houblon Chouffe).
- Black IPA (Cascadian Dark Ale): Combining American hops with dark malts yields a black ale with a hoppy alter ego (Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack, Deschutes’s Hop in the Dark).
- Brett IPA: The unique flavor of Brettanomyces yeast creates a whole new wild twist on the American IPA (Surly Brett Liquor IPA).
- TRIPLE IPA: This evolving style describes heavily hopped 10%+ ABV IPAs (Pliny the Younger, Green Flash Green Bullet).
What began as an attempt to resurrect a dying English ale has yielded a family of beers, the head of which remains the most popular style among craft brewers and connoisseurs today. Chances are you’ve had one. And chances are you’ll have one again. Just don’t have too many. Or you, yourself, may end up beyond the pale.
PHOTO: MATT GRAVES