What Is an IPA? Everything You Need to Know About the India Pale Ale

Love them or hate them, IPA beers are here to stay.

<p>CatEyePerspective / Getty Images</p>

CatEyePerspective / Getty Images

Originally brewed in Great Britain, this hop-forward beer style has been around since the 1800s but rose to prominence in American brewing circles during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Groundbreaking releases like Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder (released in 1999), Stone Brewing IPA (1997), and Ballast Point Sculpin (2005) helped to steer beer drinkers away from the sea of watery light lagers that dominated the domestic beer space at the time, turning them into hopheads who sought more. It could be said the subsequent rise of IPAs helped launch the modern craft brewing scene as we know it.

As drinkability took a backseat to intensity, craft brewing eventually evolved into a veritable space race to concoct the biggest, baddest, most bitter brews out there. Double IPAs like The Alchemist Heady Topper (2004), Bell’s Brewery Hopslam (2006), and Dogfish Head 90 Minute imperial IPA (2001) helped set the stage for breweries to begin pushing the limits of the style and expanding its popularity.

But after a long stint at the top, outrageously hopped hype brews aren’t quite as common as they used to be. Light, crisp, crushable lagers are on the rise once again, and some brewers are looking to strike a balance between hop flavor and bitterness in their IPAs.

However, there’s still plenty of variety within the style, and a wealth of descriptors and designations to explain the nuances of each bottle. To figure out what kind you might like, here’s a guide to some of the most common IPA terms, and what they mean . 

IPA Vocabulary 101

The most important IPA term is International Bitterness Units (IBUs), which measure the level of alpha acids present in a beer. Alpha acids are one of two acids that hop plants (humulus lupulus) contain, and cause humans to experience bitterness.

Popular Ways to Hop IPAs

  • Wet Hop: Brewers add fresh whole hop cones rather than dried pellets to impart a unique, fresh, green flavor and aroma.

  • Dry Hop: To amplify the aromatics of an IPA, brewers may add more hops later in the brewing process, a step known as dry hopping.

The IBU scale runs from zero, meaning no perceptible hop bitterness, to 100, or extremely bitter. (The scale can go higher than 100, but at that point, the human tongue maxes out and can’t perceive a difference.) Not all beers list the IBUs, but essentially, the higher the number, the more bitter the beer will be. Most IPAs fall between 40 and 7o, with more aggressive iterations like Double or Triple IPAs landing in the 90s or 100.

The other naturally occurring acid present in hops is beta acids, which contribute most of the aromatics. To amplify the aromatics of an IPA, brewers may add more hops later in the brewing process, a step known as dry hopping. Late addition hops help add aroma without adding bitterness, helping to make a beer that may end up smelling hoppier than it tastes.

Wet hopping, on the other hand, is when brewers add fresh whole hop cones rather than dried pellets to impart a unique, fresh, green flavor and aroma. These beers are called fresh hop or wet hop beers, and can only be brewed during the autumn harvest season. Sierra Nevada’s annual Celebration Ale is one of the most well-known examples of fresh hop beers, bursting with Cascade and Centennial hop aromas and flavors.

Now that you have the basic vocabulary of IPAs, let’s talk about the subcategories of the style. 

The Classics - Pale Ales and IPAs

When one wanders into the wide world of hoppy beers, pale ales are usually the jumping-off point before IPAs. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), American pale ales typically fall between 30–50 IBUs and 4.5% and 6.2% ABV with a crisp finish, light to medium body, and balance between the malts and hops. Classic pale ales include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Half Acre Daisy Cutter, and Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale.

American IPAs punch up the hoppiness from pale ales, falling between 40–70 IBUs and up to 7.5% ABV. Bell’s Brewery Two-Hearted Ale, Russian River Blind Pig, Lagunitas IPA, and AleSmith IPA are iconic examples of American IPAs, helping to usher in generation after generation of hop lovers. 

Related: Do You Know the Difference Between Pilsners and Lagers?

Their Offspring - Hazies, New England, West Coast, and English IPAs

Hazy IPAs caused a craze when they first hit the scene in the 2010s, with The Alchemist largely credited as producing the first hazy hype beer (Heady Topper), followed by Tree House Brewing Company and Trillium Brewing Company.

Since hazy IPAs originated in New England, they’re often referred to as New England IPAs or sometimes Juicy IPAs, thanks to their thicker mouthfeel, opaque appearance, and focus on juicy, tropical, fruity hop flavors rather than bitter finish.

The West Coast’s answer to hazy IPAs is the West Coast IPA, offering a comparatively more bitter and aromatic brew with a cleaner finish than its chewy counterpart. West Coast IPAs showcase American hops like Cascade, Chinook, and Centennial, full of dank, piney flavors and aromas. As hazy as New England IPAs are, West Coast IPAs are crystal clear — or at least should be — and tend to have a dry finish. Notable examples come from breweries like Burgeon Beer, Highland Park, and North Park Beer Company. 

The Big Guns - Double, Triple, and Imperial IPAs

Double, Triple, and Imperial IPAs take things even further, loading up hops for maximum effect on the nose, flavor, and bitterness. Alcohol content can go as high as 10% ABV and IBUs to 100 or above. Russian River Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger are some of the best examples of Double and Triple IPAs, and you might even spy a Quadruple IPA on shelves every now and again (though proceed with caution here).

Related: Would You Order a Beer Inspired by a Negroni or Old Fashioned?

The Old Guys - English, Belgian, Brut, Black, and Sour IPAs

English IPAs may have launched the IPA movement, but they rarely pop up on American draft lists nowadays. Other somewhat-dated takes include Brut IPAs, which had a brief moment in the sun around 2018, and quickly faded from popular discourse soon after. Belgian IPAs bring fermentation profiles to the forefront alongside hops, and of course, the occasional mouth-puckering Sour IPA might pop up now and again as well.

There are also Milkshake IPAs, Red IPAs, Rye IPAs, Fruited IPAs, New Zealand-style IPAs…every town, state, coast, and country has a take on hop-heavy beers and they’re evolving every day. IPAs can be fruity, funky, dry, bitter, balanced, and beyond, making them one of the more fluid and wide-ranging styles of beer anywhere.

Even if you think you don’t like “hoppy beer,” there may very well be a version of an IPA out there that suits you. But if you remember just one thing, make it this — drink them as fresh as possible.

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