Craft Beer Breakdown IPAs

There is a revolution going on in beer in Colorado and across the US. Craft beer has exploded in popularity in every state of the Union. In 2011, craft beers crossed 5% of total volume of beer sold for the first time. By 2016, that figure had jumped to 12.3% of volume, essentially one in every 8 beers sold.

The revolution has occurred in part because craft brewers have emphasized diversity in styles for their beers. That’s why we’re launching a series that will look at the incredible diversity of beers offered by craft breweries, and why they have caught the attention of beer drinkers across the country.

And for this series, there’s no better place to start than with IPAs, the India Pale Ale. The IPA has been the standard-bearer (standard-beerer?) of the craft revolution. IPAs remain the bestselling type of craft beer, accounting for 26.5% of all craft beer sales. The next most popular style is “seasonal,” at 14.0%. (If you want to get technical, that’s really at least four styles rolled into one, so the next real competition is pale ale, at 9.3%. But, hopefuly, we’ve made our point.) Nearly every craft brewery offers one (or more), so this is a great place to start in understanding craft beers.

What Is an IPA?

IPAs are hop-forward beers that are built around the pale ale style. They typically have a higher alcohol content than other mainline beers, have a strong malt profile to balance the hops, and range in color from pale yellow to light amber.

The origin story of IPAs is that they were brewed in the late 18th century with extra hops to survive the long journey to India (hops and high alcohol content helps beers resist spoilage by bacteria).

When the British colonized India, they famously wanted to bring as much of Britain with them as they could. They took British laws. They built “English” gardens. And, of course, they wanted British beer. This was not as easy as it sounded. The trip to India in the 1700s could take as much as six months and required taking a beer from the cool British climate and crossing the equator twice. Remember, there was no such thing as refrigeration at this time, so shippers had to put the beer in casks and hope for the best. It became standard practice to use more hops and a higher alcohol content to help beers make the journey.

One of the most successful brewers at shipping beer to India in the 18th century was Hodson’s Bow Brewery. Part of the reason for their success was that they were just two miles from the headquarters of the East India Company. But they were also successful because their beers arrived in good condition.

But was it IPA? They didn’t call it IPA. They just called it pale ale. But it seems appropriate to call it an IPA. We know that the beer shipped by Hodgson’s was exceptionally bitter from historical tasting notes. We also know that all beers shipped to India were dry-hopped, as additional hops were added to the casks prior to shipping. And we know that it was straw-colored from historical documents. The ABV was probably around 6.5%. Anyone tasting that beer today would probably describe it as an IPA.

However, the first printed reference to India Pale Ale doesn’t appear until 1835, at least 50 years after Hodgson and other brewers started creating this style of beer to ship to India. So if someone tells you that the origin story of IPAs is inaccurate, hopefully you can agree to the compromise that beers resembling IPAs were shipped to India starting in the mid-1700s, but weren’t called IPAs.

The American IPA and the Craft Brewing Revolution

So, why are IPAs so strongly associated with craft brewing? In short, it’s because IPAs represent everything that large, commercial brewers had tried to strip from beer.

When refrigerated trucks allowed beers to ship cross country, a small number of breweries consolidated their control over the market. Where in 1887 there were over 2000 breweries in the US, that number had dropped to only 89 by 1979. And in 1980, the top 10 breweries accounted for 93% of beer made in the US. The style favored by these big brewers was the pale lager or American lager. With its mild taste, low hops, this relatively low ABV had taken over. This style was inexpensive, easy to make, and highly sessionable, which allowed them to sell more units. The goals of this style are nicely encapsulated in the Keystone “Bitter Beer Face” campaign. Basically, if your beer was bitter, it was bad. (Not coincidentally, this is the period that gave rise to the joke of American beer being like making love in a canoe.)

So when craft brewers sought to make a beer that could distinguish them from the big brands, they naturally settled on the style of IPA, inventing the American IPA. Like the original IPAs, the first American IPAs also were not called IPAs. Liberty Ale, released by Anchor Brewing in 1975, was modeled on the Ballantine IPA, the only major IPA offered in the US after Prohibition. Liberty Ale was the first beer to feature the Cascade hop as its primary aroma and bittering hop. This hop variety came to be the most characteristic flavor of craft-brewed beer. Liberty Ale immediately turned the fates of Anchor Brewing around, saving the failing brewery. And in 1981, Sierra Nevada Brewing released its Celebration Ale, also based on the Ballantine IPA. The first craft beer to be called an IPA was Bert’s IPA, first bottled in 1983.

IPA Varieties

Since its introduction over 40 years ago, the American IPA has become so popular that its target market is constantly looking for new flavor combinations in their IPA. This has led to many variations of the style. Each of these styles has something unique to offer, and they can help people who don’t appreciate IPAs learn to appreciate the style.

Imperial IPA

The most natural variation on IPA is to just make it bigger and bolder. You like a strong beer? We’ll make it really high ABV. You like hops? Get ready for a hop bomb! Likely the first Imperial IPA was brewed by Rogue Brewing in small batches in the early 1990s, and it has since become a mainstay of the brewery. It’s simply called IIPA, often pronounced, “I squared PA.” Most large craft breweries will offer this style, such as The Maharaja from Avery Brewing and 2X4 from Melvin Brewing.

Black IPA

Black IPAs may seem contradictory. After all, how can it be a “pale ale” if it’s black. But this is just the way language works, and it’s understood what you mean when you talk about a black IPA, it’s a hop-forward beer with high ABV brewed with a very dark malt. Perhaps the first ever black IPA was Hill’s Darkside Black IPA, but the beer that really made the style popular is the Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale from Stone Brewing. A local favorite is Mountain Standard from Odell’s Brewing, whose autumnal release even has its own festival!

Belgian IPA

Belgian IPAs are an attempt to give the standard IPA a twist by brewing them with Belgian yeasts, which have a spicy, phenolic character. This can be really hard to match with hop flavors, so many of these beers don’t succeed, but when they do, they can be superb, even sublime. A couple of examples are Raging Bitch from Flying Dog and Le Freak from Green Flash.

White IPA

Where the black IPA seems like a contradiction, the white IPA seems redundant. But there’s a reason why it’s called a white IPA: it’s a combination of an IPA with a Belgian Wit (three guesses what “wit” means). These unfiltered wheat beers are also typically spiced, which makes them distinct form other IPA varieties. The first regular white IPA released by a craft brewer was Deschutes’ Chainbreaker. It’s not as popular as other IPA varieties, overall, so its availability may be waning.

Find the Right IPA

As with anything popular, the IPA has its haters. But the truth remains that IPAs are loved by many people. If you haven’t tried them, or think you don’t like them, we recommend you try the “Pick 6 test.” For this test, make a pick 6-pack of different IPAs and try them all. If you still don’t like them, then the style’s probably not for you. But the odds are good that you’ll find one of the beers really strikes your palate, and then you can find other beers similar to it to enjoy.