Think you know about IPAs?

What exactly embodies "hoppiness" in a beer? IPA's... Right?

But can we really pinpoint the exact flavors we are tasting in the beer by summing it up in this one word descriptor?  After all, not every IPA tastes the same, does it? With that said, I'd like to the examine historical traditions that have led us to the point today where IPAs are (overwhelmingly) the most popular style in craft beer in our fair country*.

First, we find the restrained English IPA:

Without getting into – and dispelling – the myth of how IPAs were created by increased hopping rates for traditional English Pale Ales (to serve as a preservative in withstanding the long and rigorous journey to the Indian subcontinent*), let’s simply understand that IPAs originated from England and carry much of their traditional brewing processes through to the product. Most importantly, you find the use of an English ale yeast strain, which will often yield a fruiter nose , reminiscent of ripe red apples, especially when compared to its American counterpart. The yeast may also have a tendency to flocculate early (which we try not to do in public whenever possible*), one of the results being a beer that may exhibit a very slight hint of diacetyl in the flavors. Best described as buttery, diacetyl will also impart some slickness to the body and impact the final product's mouthfeel. As for malt, the English options will present themselves as bready, toasty, and biscuit-like in flavor, with potential hints of caramel depending on the malt bill. When we consider hops, the UK varieties are ground in notes ranging from woody to earthy to floral, and perhaps even grassy. Water composition in the IPA brewing regions of the UK possess high levels of gypsum (calcium sulfate), which impart a plaster-like character to the beer, emphasizing the hop characteristics along with a hop bitterness-forward finish to the beer.  All in all, these characteristics come to define an English India Pale Ale as a hop driven ale that is still restrained and moderately in proportion with the elements that compose its product.

In contrast, let's analyze the brute from across the pond: The American IPA

What Americans generally consider as “IPAs” (and their associated characteristics) stem from the American tradition, and a lineage that traces itself to the beginning of the craft beer movement. Understand that all of the bold flavors of these IPAs – pine needles, orange, lime, to name a few – were originally considered faults for brewers in Europe and the UK, often viewed as harsh and unrefined. It's fair to credit one Ken Grossman and his quintessential Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as the forebearer to the IPA movement as we see it today. Utilizing a “barbaric” hop varietal from the Pacific Northwest known as Cascade, Grossman embraced the assertiveness of the hop, and it produced a bright tasting, clean beer that lent hop notes of grapefruit and orange blossom; a product aligned directly with the craft beer revolution's ethos of breaking molds and pushing boundaries for the sake of creating a distinctively different product than its cousins overseas. The American IPA celebrates hop volatiles such as myrcene (typical American “citrusiness”) and cis-rose-oxide (floral and fruity sweet, with some herbal hints) in stark contrast to the woody and earthiness found in UK varieties. It is a bolder hop flavor as well, thanks to something known as cohumulone, a “piece” of the hop that provides bitterness, as opposed to the flavor derived from the aforementioned hop volatiles. American hops generally have a higher ratio of cohumulone in the hop acids*, thereby imparting a more aggressive bitterness when compared to some beers from other historical traditions. The hallmarks of an American IPA will usually possess a very clean overall profile, especially when compared to the British, due to the use of American yeast strains producing those characteristics. Along with the hop elements discussed in detail, American IPAs will use two row malt as a base malt which doesn’t lend the fragrant complex aromas of the English counterpart. Water varies slightly more that the gypsum heavy English versions, and thus can either emphasize the hop bitterness, or potentially round it off and focus more on the malt softness, sometimes also bringing out more sweetness in the product.

The utilization of different hop varieties has led to increased experimentation, and has pushed the hop industry to create new and interesting varietals for use in brewing. While the creation of a new hop typically will take a few years to go from conception to commercial harvest, we are seeing some more and more implementation of “Special” hops used for flavor. From the lemony overtones of the Sorachi Ace, to the tropical passion fruit/apricot expression of the Australian Galaxy hop, more IPAs are being crafted for the purpose of showcasing the different flavors possible within a beer.

And with that, I hope you take a minute during that next pint to actively pick out some components of that “hoppy” beer, and perhaps try and detect its flavors and origin by historic tradition. By increasing your vocabulary and descriptive characteristics, your ability to refine your perception and better hone in on a favorite hop will certainly increase your enjoyment of this fine beverage. We’ll circle back next time to talk about some hops and food pairings that work best for particular palates.


*Don’t take my word – simply look at the Great American Beer Festival and how IPAs have historically yielded the greatest number of entries, with a record 279 in 2014).

*Read “IPA” from Stone Brewing’s esteemed Brewmaster Mitch Steele for a comprehensive look into America’s favorite beer style

*Hop acids are divided into 6 analogs – three different alpha (of which cohumulone is one), and three different beta. Of the two, alpha acids are isomerized in the beer to produce the bitterness that we taste. Beta acids may have some impact, but this usually expresses itself after the beer has aged a little, thereby creating the seeming paradox of older IPAs (supposedly being less ideal than fresh examples) seeming more bitter, with different, interesting, and potentially more complex hop flavors on occasion.

Styles and ScienceJames Tai