What is an IPA?

Frequently on the show we talk about IPAs and we’ve even talked in this segment before about what exactly a West Coast IPA is. But, what exactly is an IPA and how does it differ from other styles of beer?

First, IPA stands for India Pale Ale and its origins began when the British were colonizing India in the early 19th century. When Brits were shipping pale ale beer to the troops, the beer would have to travel by sea south all the way to the Cape of Good Hope, which is the southernmost tip of Africa, and then northeast again to India.

With such a long voyage that took six months, extreme temperature changes thanks to crossing the equator twice and no refrigeration, the beer was frequently stale or infected by the time it reached India. While legend has it that it was all beer, it’s worth noting that porters were also shipped successfully to India. But, given the heat of India, the British soldiers were unhappy with such a heavy, dark beer.

George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in East London is the one that solved the beer spoilage problem and created the first IPA. When trying to solve the problem of spoilage, Hodgson first recognized the preservative qualities of hops through barleywine, a beer that was brewed for wealthy country estates when disputes with France caused wine shortages. It was meant to be aged and in fact, many estate owners would brew a barrel of barleywine when a son was born and tap it when the son turned 18.Barleywines were  also known as October beer, named after the harvest, and they used intense amounts of freshly-picked hops to keep them fresh. 

Hodgson’s resulting beer was more alcoholic and very bitter, but it would survive the trip. It first arrived in India in January of 1822 and the rest is history.

Eventually refrigeration was invented, of course, and spoilage was no longer an issue. But, the bitter style has survived and become very popular today.

The bitter characteristic in IPAs has remained throughout history and of course, this means that the beer will be much more bitter than you may be used to with other beer styles. As we’ve talked about before, the bitterness in beer is measured in IBU, which stands for International Bitterness Unit. The higher the IBU in a beer, the more bitter it is expected to be, but this also depends on the malt profile. With the lower malt profile of an IPA, you IBU will hold more weight than it will with, say, a stout or a porter.

Alcohol in an IPA tends to start higher than other beers, at around 5.5% ABV, though that is changing quickly with the advent of session IPAs in recent history, such as Lakewood’s Hopochondria or Founder’s All Day IPA.

Today there are three main styles of IPA: American, English and Imperial and beneath that there are many substyles, such as a black IPA. All three use an abundance of hops both in flavoring the beer and providing an aroma, and often brewers will use several varieties in one recipe.

Both American and English IPAs tend have medium-high to intense bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content. American IPAS tend towards the fruity, floral or citrus flavors and aromas thanks to hops from America, whereas English IPAs are typically more earthy and spicy, using hops of a variety of origins.

The Imperial or Double IPAs are those at have intense bitterness, flavor and aroma and alcohol content will be high, like most Imperial beers. There is no one hop or hop origin that comprises an Imperial. The presence of malt will likely be higher as well.

Popularity for IPAs has skyrocketed in the last decade, as drinkers’ palates have evolved and grown accustomed to more bitter flavors. They’ve gotten so popular now that people are looking for the “next” IPA, whether that’s goses or wild ales or sours, but so far IPA is the king of craft beer.

You may hate IPAs the first time you try them; I certainly did. However, the more I drank them, the more I came to appreciate the wide range of flavor that is present. Keep trying them and you may find that a whole new world opens up for you.