Beer 101
The Beer Drinker's Complete Guide to Enjoying IPAs
Being an IPA drinker in America is exciting—and overwhelming. We're here to help.
08-27-2021
Kate Bernot

No craft beer style is more popular than IPAs. Yet no craft beer style is more diverse, fragmented, and perhaps bewildering than IPAs. Order an IPA and you could be handed a pint of brilliantly clear, caramel-hued liquid—or a pint of a completely opaque liquid that looks like orange juice. An IPA could deliver flavors as varied as pine, grapefruit, orange, mango, mint, chives, strawberry, green tea, or white wine, depending on the ingredients used to brew it.

Safe to say, IPAs are a beer universe unto themselves. Brewers are continuing to push the limits of what this style can encompass, both in terms of the ingredients and the techniques used to brew them.

But there is one unifying factor to IPAs: hops. Hops, a species of flowering plant in the hemp family, are one of the four ingredients that make beer, joining malt, water, and yeast. Like wine grapes, hop varieties share basic genetics in common, but there are more than 100 varieties with a kaleidoscopic range of characteristics.

In no style do hops take top billing more than they do in IPAs. IPAs are a hop showcase, where the contributions of beer’s other ingredients play only a supporting role. As brewing chemists learn more about the organic compounds that contribute to hops’ flavor and aroma—and how those compounds are chemically transformed when they come into contact with yeast during the brewing process—brewers are unlocking new ways to harness hops’ full spectrum of aromas and flavors.

There’s never been a better time to be an IPA drinker in America, yet the category has never been more crowded. Ahead, we’ll demystify what makes an IPA and explore the most common substyles that fall under its umbrella. Provided you enjoy some type of hops, there’s an IPA destined to be your next favorite beer.

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What are IPAs, and where do they come from?

IPAs are a hop-focused style of beer brewed with ale yeast, a species distinct from the lager yeast used to brew lagers. IPA once stood for “India pale ale,” though many breweries and writers prefer the initialism rather than the full name, for a few reasons.

The prevailing narrative of IPA’s origin, and the story behind the India pale ale moniker, is that pale, hoppy beer from Britain began to be exported, via the East India Company, to colonists in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Heavy use of hops, which have some antibacterial and preservative powers, was thought to prevent the beer from spoiling.

More recently, beer historians and scholars have begun critically interrogating this tidy tale, both in terms of its historical accuracy and the colonialist past with which it’s associated. As a result, India pale ale as a term is perhaps falling out of favor. The Beer Judge Certification Program, which certifies beer judges, has done away with India pale ale, noting in its guidelines that: "The term 'IPA' is intentionally not spelled out as 'India Pale Ale' since none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren't pale." Yet India pale ale is still relatively common on beer packaging and on some menus.

Fast-forwarding to more modern times, IPAs have become a largely American, rather than British, phenomenon. English-style IPAs have become their own substyle (more on that below), one that is rare to find stateside. Since at least 1975—the year that San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing released its Liberty Ale—America has been the center of the IPA universe. American-style IPAs, with their bold, brash, in-your-face hop character, have become the modern global standard. In fact, most craft breweries in other countries who brew IPAs now attempt to emulate an American take on the style.

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How are IPAs made?

All beers, regardless of style, are produced through the same basic steps. The goal of the process is to turn starches from grains into fermentable sugars that yeast can convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

First comes malting. Grains—usually barley—are steeped in hot water until they begin germination. Then, at a precise stage, the grains are dried in a kiln to halt the process. Germination unlocks enzymes in the grains that, when put into contact with water in a process called mashing, will turn grains’ starches into fermentable sugars. After mashing, the sugary liquid (called wort) is boiled, and hops are generally added to it. It is then cooled so brewers can introduce yeast to the liquid. (Hops can be added at this stage as well.) The yeast converts sugars from the grains into alcohol and carbon dioxide, producing a liquid we know as beer.

Because IPAs are all about the hops, the brewing process for an IPA centers on when these hops are added, how much is added, and of what varieties. These are simultaneously creative and technical choices, requiring both a brewer’s knowledge of best brewing practices and the brewer’s creativity in combining and layering flavors into a harmonious whole.

Brewers develop a recipe for their IPAs like chefs do for cookbooks, ensuring that they know what ingredients they’ll need and that they can replicate the same beer consistently. How and when they add hops to the brewing process alters their characteristics: Adding hops in the boil generally unlocks more of their bittering compounds, while adding hops after the boil (called dry hopping) releases more of the hops’ aromatic and flavor compounds.

Additionally, brewers can add all sorts of other ingredients to IPAs besides malt, hops, water, and yeast. Brewers commonly steep fruit, spices, and herbs in the beer to introduce new flavors—and contemporary craft breweries have gone so far as to brew with everything from cereal to marshmallows to waffles. Really.

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A Taxonomy of Modern IPAs

IPA is an umbrella term in the way that pizza is an umbrella term. Order a pizza, and it could be thin crust or deep dish, topped with anchovies or sausage, shaped like a circle or a square. (While anchovy IPA hasn’t been invented yet, perhaps one day it will be.)

To make sense of the diversity, IPAs can be classified into substyles. These substyles are based on alcohol strength, color, place of origin, special ingredients, or other characteristics of the IPA. And as with pizza styles, they’re a little fungible: A person can make New Haven-style pizza in Florida, and a Chicago restaurant can specialize in New York-style slices. Belgian IPAs, you see, don’t need to be brewed in Belgium.

The following substyles aren’t completely comprehensive—new IPA recipes are being dreamed up every day, and craft brewers sometimes develop their own terminology to reflect that—but they encompass the vast majority of the known IPA universe.

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  • IPAs Classified By Strength

    Modern, standard IPAs typically have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 5.5-7.5%. Session IPAs—so called because they’re easier to drink multiples of during a drinking session—typically have an ABV of 5% or less. Coincidentally, this also gives them a bit lower calorie count than typical IPAs. On the other end of the spectrum, imperial or double IPAs have an ABV of 7.5% or higher; they are also typically maltier and/or slightly sweeter than standard IPAs and have a fuller texture. Triple IPAs are a relatively new arrival, and often pack double-digit ABVs.
  • IPAs Classified By Color

    Black IPAs are dark brown or black in color, thanks to the addition of heavily roasted malts used to brew them. These roasted malts impart a toasted, roasty, coffee- or chocolate-like flavor to the beer. Red IPAs similarly boast a reddish color, again owing to the specialty malts in their recipes. Typically, those malts lend a caramel or toffee flavor that would be familiar to fans of amber ales. Now here’s a curveball: White IPAs are not typically white. They may be lighter than an average IPA, but the “white” in their name comes from the characteristics they share with a Belgian witbier: namely, fruity-spicy Belgian yeast or the addition of coriander and orange peel.

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  • IPAs Classified By Country of Origin

    American IPAs make up the vast majority of IPAs you’ll find on shelves or draft lists; consequently, they’re considered the default and are not always labeled as American IPAs. It’s assumed to be a given. American IPAs are decidedly hop-dominant, bold, and with little discernible malt character. They also typically make use of American-grown hop varieties that grow in the Pacific Northwest. English IPAs, by contrast, typically make use of English ingredients, including hops. They are also less intensely hop-dominated, and tend to have more malt flavor in the form of biscuity, toasty, or caramel-like notes. Overall, they are more balanced between the malt and hops than American IPAs. Belgian IPAs make use of Belgian yeast strains, which are distinctive for imparting aromas and flavors of clove, peppercorn, banana, pear, and/or apricot. Whereas most American IPAs derive little flavor from their yeast, Belgian IPAs are characterized by their spicy, fruity, expressive yeast.
  • IPAs Characterized By Special Ingredients

    Sometimes, it’s a specialty ingredient that, along with hops, steps into the spotlight. In the case of rye IPAs, that’s the rye grain, the same ingredient used in rye bread or whiskey. As it does in other culinary applications, rye adds a distinctive flavor to IPAs that’s sometimes described as prickly or spicy. Fruit IPAs are relatively straightforward: They contain the addition of fruit puree or commercial flavorings, generally in a way that compliments hops with inherently fruity flavors. Milkshake IPAs, which have only existed for about five years, typically contain lactose, often in addition to vanilla and/or fruit puree or flavorings to give it both a fuller texture and flavors reminiscent of milkshakes. Fresh hop IPAs are special because of the form of hops they use: fresh-from-the-vine, undried hops. Most commercial hops are picked at harvest (that’s late summer or early fall in the Pacific Northwest), then dried and turned into pellets for ease of storage and transport. When brewing fresh hop IPAs, brewers use hops within days, sometimes hours, of the hops being picked from the vine, which means fresh hop IPAs are generally only released within a few weeks of hop harvest. Fans of these beers say these hops have a more vibrant, “green” character than dried hops do.

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  • IPAs Characterized By “Coast”

    Within the last decade, different genres of IPAs began to take hold on America’s coasts. Not unlike East Coast versus West Coast rap music, these IPAs don’t have crystal clear definitions; they share characteristics, ingredients, and—this is likely the best way to put it—an attitude.

    Originating with some pioneering craft breweries in Vermont and surrounding states, New England IPAs (occasionally also called Northeast IPAs) are often hazier in appearance than their West Coast counterparts due to procedural choices made during brewing. East Coast IPAs also tend to use hop varieties with fruity, citrusy flavors, and are sometimes referred to as being “juicy” in character thanks to the way those hops interact with particular yeast strains’ fruity esters (an organic compound that’s a byproduct of fermentation). Finally and perhaps most critically, East Coast IPAs are much less bitter than West Coast IPAs.

    West Coast IPAs, by contrast, are more neutral in their yeast character, and present more traditional hop bitterness. They also tend to have a more classic hop profile, focusing on piney, dank (yes, think cannabis aroma), resinous, and grapefruit pithy flavors.

    To further complicate this coastal contrast, New England IPAs are sometimes referred to as juicy/hazy IPAs. That’s the category name given to them by the Brewers Association, the trade group that represents small and independent craft breweries. But West Coast IPAs, depending on the hops used, can also present juicy grapefruit or orange flavors . . . but they’re not hazy. Instead, they’re quite clear. Beers labeled “tropical IPAs” are also becoming more common, though this hasn’t yet become its own true substyle and instead refers to the particular hops’ mango, passionfruit, or pineapple flavors.

In five years, these terms may have shifted again. Breweries are constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to IPAs—and the words used to describe them. Think of IPA substyles less as rigid, dictionary-defined categories, and more as general baskets that help group an evolving, expanding, and ever-changing galaxy of beers. Identifying the characteristics you like about IPAs, whether it’s fruity flavors, strong bitterness, or creative ingredients, will help to make your next beer decision a more delicious one.

Header photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

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