IPA beer is divisive—it’s either the savior of the beer drinker’s world, or it can be delightfully described as having a foul aftertaste.
However you feel about the flavor, the rising popularity of IPA beers as part of the “craft beer movement” has been responsible for a boom in interest in the world of beer and a surge in creativity when it comes to the art of brewing.
Let’s take a dive into the world of IPA Beer and navigate what has quickly become a complex, exciting, and delicious budding subculture in the beer sphere.
What IPA Beer Is: Explained
Craft beer is such a nuanced field that Guildsomm, one of the largest sommelier training schools in the world, has started opening classes and staff training services in beer knowledge.
That’s partly a goal we’ll share with you—by the end of this article, you should know enough about IPAs to be pouring them.
While this article can’t make you an IPA sommelier, it will nevertheless provide you with the essential first step of knowledge – particularly when it comes to:
- An explanation of what IPA beer is, including the origin and the reason behind its complex and varied tastes
- The unique benefits of IPA beer
- A buyer’s (or drinker’s) guide that discusses the best US brands and the main types of IPA beers that you’ll find on the shelf and in the bar.
Let’s get straight into it.
Origin of IPA Beer
IPA stands for India Pale Ale. It’s a bitter, hoppy beer that was originally invented in England but popularized and refined by British colonists in tropical India.
India’s weather was simply too hot to brew beer, and during that time refrigeration technology wasn’t invented yet. As a result, colonists had to import their drinks.
This prompted the invention of the October ale, a halfway point between an IPA and the rich, dark beer which was popular in England at the time. October ale would be ready for bottling as soon as the ship landed on the Indian shore.
Colonists preferred pale ales over dark beer due to the hot climate, further pushing the development of the drink.
During the twentieth century, IPA’s popularity died out. We can attribute this to the invention of refrigeration, the global temperance movement, the rationing of the World Wars, and the ensuing economic depressions.
However, once real ales began to pick up again in the US, a new development blossomed and caused the resurgence of IPAs.
Ingredients of IPA Beer
All beer consists of four essential ingredients: malt, yeast, water, and hops.
In dark beers the malt takes the forefront, providing sweetness and bread-like flavors. Hence, the reason why people will dub dark beer as tasting like bread is due to its being heavily malted.
Hops, on the other hand, take the spotlight in IPAs. Usually paired with a pale malt to further tone down the bread flavors, hops add citrus and fruit flavors, bitterness, and a variety of aromas—depending on how long they’re boiled for.
Alcohol in IPA Beer
IPA beer tends to have a higher alcohol content that typically ranges from 7% to 10%, with some brews going as high as 16%. This is because the hops used in IPAs can be rather intense.
To counterbalance this effect, brewers will often add more malt – resulting in an increase in fermentable sugars and alcohol.
Taste of IPA Beer
IPA beer has some wonderful variations in the flavor profile. Experimenting with hops gives brewers a lot more tools at their disposal and allows them to modify the taste as they see fit.
Generally, you can expect an IPA to taste bitter while having citrus flavors. It’s also rather delicate and often has fruity aromas.
In sum, the range of flavors you can get out of the IPA brewing process is outstanding, so it’s definitely worth exploring to find what suits your taste buds best.
Calories of IPA Beer
A simple guide to determining a drink’s calories is using the alcohol percentage—the higher it is, the higher the number of carbs that the beer has.
For a high-alcohol IPA (at 7% or above), you can expect upwards of 300 calories in 12 ounces of beer. The average IPA, meanwhile, has about 180 to 200 calories for each 12-ounce serving.
Benefits of IPA Beer
The IPA brewing process has beer enthusiasts excited all over the world, and for a good reason. Because brewers have a lot of tools with IPAs, they can make interesting and unique beverages.
The “IPA attitude” toward beer is more sophisticated. It’s a breath of fresh air for some, especially those who previously saw beer culture as simply sitting around and drinking box after box of flavorless supermarket beer.
To explore the benefits of drinking IPA beer, here are five things that set it apart from the rest of the box.
Unique And Complex Flavor Profile
IPA beer tastes very different from dark beer. Some don’t like the flavor, but for many, the complex flavor profile and the variation between brews is a huge upside.
Supports Local Breweries And Communities
Because the variation in flavor is so high, even small breweries have a shot at creating truly award-winning beer.
If you go to a bar and order an IPA, ask the bartender who brewed the drink. You’ll likely find that the money you spent is going straight back to your local community and supporting a local brewery.
In comparison, the lager you’re eyeing is likely mass-produced by an international corporation such as Heineken – a company that’s worth about $56 billion dollars.
Often Uses High-Quality Ingredients
Brewing IPAs is an art. When making art, you want to use the best tools.
That’s why breweries will search far and wide for the best ingredients at their disposal, benefiting the customer in the process. These quality ingredients would often cost more, however, so you usually pay a little extra for an IPA.
Wide Variety Of Styles And Flavors To Choose From
IPA can vary from “hazy” or “session” ales with low bitterness to the most bitter thing you’ve ever tasted. They can taste sweet and citrusy (like an orange), caramel-like, earthy, and quite literally anything in between.
This wide variety of flavor profiles is a huge plus for many people, particularly those who want to engage on a deeper level with their drinks.
It’s similar to wine connoisseurs who drink wine not only for the flavor but also for the warming, enjoyable effects of the alcohol.
Can Be Paired Well With Certain Food To Enhance Dining Experiences
Finally, the unique flavor of IPA can be paired with food to create a brilliant dining experience.
For instance, you can pair a fruity IPA with Mexican food to bring out the spicy-lemon flavors. Alternatively, you can combine a bitter, caramel-malt IPA with grilled meat.
These are just a couple of ideas, and you can certainly explore more food-beer pairings and find something that truly catches your tastes.
Best IPA Beer Brands
So, which brands should we look for?
Although there are literally thousands of microbreweries around the country doing wonderful things, let’s keep this list to the legendary brands whose reach can extend across the country.
This way, readers from different states have a chance to try out some of these beers.
Maine Beer Company
Like a lot of beer companies, Maine Beer started small – only significantly upgrading its facilities in 2019. You can now find its minimalist branded beers in 32 states.
The company offers a range of IPAs, but two of its most popular drinks are the “Dinner” and “Another One”. Both of these beers involve dry-hopping, so they have a hazy color and fresh, citrusy aromas and tastes.
Also, Maine Beer is part of the 1% for the planet movement—one percent of all its profits is donated to the fight against climate change.
Hill Farmstead Brewing Company
This Vermont-based company distributes its beers in over 60 establishments in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont, as well as some liquor stores along the East Coast.
It creates award-winning beers with a particular focus on the ethos of the brewery as it aims for conscious and sustainable business practices.
Similarly, the company also has an excellent range of IPAs, with one of its most popular ones being a brew called Abner which is named after the founder’s great-grandfather.
Founders Brewing Company
One of the larger breweries on this list, Founders brews beer that can be found in every mainland state – although availability might be limited in some areas.
This brewing company is based in Detroit and offers a huge range of beer, including several brilliant IPAs.
For those who are new to the world of IPAs, Founders’ All Day IPA is one of the best drinks to ease into.
This canned drink can be found all over the country and boasts a complex flavor while still retaining some bitterness.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company
This West Coast company has several breweries in California, but its beer isn’t too hard to track down no matter where you are in the States. If you don’t like to search around, you can always just get a box delivered.
If you are new to IPAs and you want something easy to drink, check out Mind Haze – a hazy IPA with low bitterness.
Firestone Walker is a critically acclaimed brewery, so you can confidently pick any of its beers that you can find at your local liquor store.
Allagash Brewing Company
Wrapping up with another big name is Allagash Brewing Company. Another Maine-based brewery, Allagash has benefited from the beer renaissance that boomed in Portland, making it a great choice for your drinks.
Allagash is a certified B Corp that’s committed to sustainable business practices, just like a lot of breweries on this list.
However, what sets Allagash apart is the incredible range of great beer that it has – giving you access to some amazing brews when you visit one of its pubs.
Its best IPA is probably Brett, which uses yeasts similar to those that existed in the wooden barrels of the original English-made IPA.
Meaning: What Does IPA Beer Stand For?
As mentioned, IPA stands for India pale ale – referencing the hoppy pale ales that were popularized by British colonial India.
However, if you want to be more symbolic about it, IPA stands for a beer culture that strives for creativity and excellence.
IPA fans see beer less as a way to get drunk and more as an art form—a way of creating unique and exciting beer.
Types of IPA Beer
These different types of beer are all created using variations in ingredients or the brewing process.
While they can have wildly different flavor profiles, they all center around accentuating the taste and aroma of the hops.
The English IPA
English hops tend to have a more earthy and less citrusy taste than American hops, and the taste of English IPA—modeled after the original IPA shipped to colonial India—reflects that.
English IPA doesn’t necessarily have to have hops from England; it just requires having the same strains of hops or even just the same flavor profile.
English IPA is going to be bitter, with more earthy, floral notes, and a usually lower alcohol percentage.
The West Coast IPA
With its resemblance to the American IPA, the West Coast IPA is one of the most common types you’ll see in craft beer bars and is probably the reason a lot of first-time drinkers are turned off by IPAs.
West Coast IPA is the flavor profile first popularized in the seventies’ real ale revival movement and that uses antagonistically bitter hops with a pine or grapefruit aroma.
These high-alcohol drinks are usually an acquired taste.
The East Coast IPA
Similar to the hazy drinks of the New England IPA, the East Coast IPA couldn’t be a more polar opposite of the West Coast flavor profile.
That’s because brewers of East Coast IPAs tend to use hops that have a flavor more comparable to tropical juices.
Brewers focus on bringing that flavor to the forefront by adding hops later on in the brewing process, boiling them for a much shorter time period, or even “dry hopping”— the process of adding hops without boiling them at all.
This, as well as adding some additional ingredients like oats or wheat, results in the beer’s hazy appearance.
The Double IPA
Otherwise known as the “Imperial IPA”, this beer is a Double because of an extra step involved in brewing it.
After the brewing process has begun, an additional layering of hops increases bitterness that’s balanced out by an additional layer of malts.
Extra malt, the source of sugar that the brewing process converts into alcohol, results in an extra-strong beer.
This is essentially an IPA turned up to 11, and you can expect a strong malty caramel flavor balanced by a powerful bitterness.
The Triple IPA
If you take the concept of a Double IPA and add another layering of hops and malt, you get a triple IPA. This will be an expensive beer with intense flavor and a very high alcohol percentage; at a minimum, the alcohol content stands at 9.5%.
The Session IPA
It’s difficult to get a good Session IPA. It apparently gets its name from being low in alcohol, meaning you can drink a few in a “session”.
The issue with these beers is that in order to lower the alcohol percentage, you have to lower the malt while making sure that the hops don’t overwhelm the flavor profile.
Of course, there are also plenty of amazing Session IPA’s out there, but they’re just less common due to the intricacies outlined above.
The Black IPA
A bit of a fusion of flavors, the Black IPA or Cascadian Dark Ale uses dark malts traditionally used in brewing stouts or porters.
This beer will have an intense taste that combines the bitterness of dark roasted malt with the bitterness of hops.
The Belgian IPA
This is a really interesting beer.
Instead of packing the fermentation vessel full of hops, the Belgian IPA relies on Belgian yeast to bring out the flavor of the hops.
Belgian yeast makes the beer very dry and gives it the phenolic taste of tannins. Its contrast with hops highlights the latter’s flavor.
The Bottom Line
To wrap all of this up, we could say that an IPA is generally a beer that focuses as much—if not more—on the taste of hops than the taste of malt. As a result, it also tends to have a high alcohol percentage.
IPAs are the flagship drink for the real ale movement for a reason. Their diverse and complex flavors put a lot of room for creativity in the hands of the brewers and give beer enthusiasts plenty to talk about.
Armed with some knowledge, you can now hopefully explore the world of IPAs with a better appreciation for the craft and excitement for what direction you’d like to try next.