While out on the town last week, I stopped at the local watering hole and was excited to see somewhere around 20 tap lines. While this is not as uncommon as it used to be, it still excites me a bit.
After looking over the list I noticed that around 15 of the beers on tap were India Pale Ales, or IPAs — and these were all domestic versions to boot!
As an IPA lover, I have mixed feelings about this. Even though IPAs are a great style, other styles deserve better. That’s for another article, though.
Like it or not, IPA is the current darling in the craft beer world and as an IPA lover, I realize the reason for the popularity is that the beer can vary tremendously depending on the brewer, hop used and many other factors.
IPAs are generally hoppy and not for the faint of heart. But that’s like saying all hot sauces are hot. IPAs, like hot sauces can differ tremendously — in the case of IPAs, in terms of their hoppiness, flavors, intensity and balance.
In order to demystify the dizzying array of IPAs, let’s break them down into a few basic styles:
English IPA: This is where it all started. IPAs originally were brewed to survive the voyage from England to India. The temperature extremes and rolling of the seas caused other beers to get thin. Extra hops was added to maintain some semblance of body and flavor. The aroma of an English IPA is typically moderate in hop aroma with a floral, earthy or fruity nature. Also, a moderate caramel or toasty malt presence is common. In the mouth, the hop flavor is medium to high with moderate hop bitterness. The hops are typically similar to the aroma, and the malt flavor should be medium-low to medium-high. The malt notes show a typical English character of bread or biscuit, toast, toffee and caramel. Overall, English IPAs typically show more malt in an attempt to balance the hops. Classic examples are Fullers, Summit, Samuel Smith’s and Goose Island.
American IPA: This is an American version of the historical English IPA, brewed using American ingredients and of course the American attitude. The aroma consists of intense hop aromas with citrus, floral and a resinous piney character. Many are dry-hopped, which will impart an additional grassiness. The aromas of malt should still be there, but lower in intensity than the English versions. In the mouth, the hop flavor is medium to high and the American hop character of citrus and pine show through. Malt flavor is low and more clean than the English versions. The toastiness and caramel, if present, should be very low. Overall, the American IPA is more assertive and hoppy than the English versions, with less toffee character. Classic examples are Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Great Divide Titan, Victory Hop Devil and Founders Centennial.
Belgian IPA: Belgian IPA combines the hoppy assertiveness of American IPA with the classic spicy notes and fruity esters of classic Belgian beers. Probably my favorite style, but it is considered too hoppy by many of the Belgian locals. Lighter in color and higher in alcohol than both English and American versions, the beer is considered a “Euro IPA” and mostly European hop varieties are used. This gives the beer a more subdued hop profile compared to American IPA. Classic examples are Green Flash Le Freak, Lagunitas Little Sumpin Wild Ale, Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel and Gouden Carolus.
Imperial IPA: Fairly new on the scene, Imperial IPA is an American innovation by brewers pushing the envelope to satisfy the market’s craving of hops. The term “Imperial” simply means a stronger version of IPA. You may see other terms such as “double,” “triple” or “extra” used in place of the term Imperial. The aroma is quite prominent and the citrus character is very noticeable. Almost all versions are dry-hopped and have the piney and grassy character. In the mouth, the hops are strong and complex. Extreme hop bitterness is present, but most Imperial IPA’s also have ample malt to try to tame the hops. Even though the malt is present, it is not meant to overpower. This beer is all about the hops! Hop-flavor is up front and also very present in the long, complex finish. Overall, this is intensely hoppy and very strong without heavy malt flavors. Despite the heaviness, it should be clean and drinkable. This is an American IPA on steroids. Classic examples include Bell’s Hop Slam, Great Divide Hercules Double IPA and Victory Hop Wallop.
Sam Kolas is co-owner of Apollo Wine & Spirits. To contribute to Cocktail Hour, send email to email@example.com.