There is nothing quite as modern cliche as the doting we give to IPAs. Once an obscure beer style, it is now a mainstay of virtually every micro and macro brewer in the world. But before you dive into the hop pipeline, it’s best to understand what makes an IPA so unique and yet so ubiquitous. To that end, this week’s post shall provide some explanation on the nature and history of the IPA. From there, we will evaluate the three principle IPA styles that serve as binding precedent today through the lens of three stellar exhibits.* Finally, we can compare the elements of the exhibits to recommend the best IPA style for every type of newbie who has been hesitant about taking the hoppy plunge.
Statement of Relevant Facts (Why is IPA?)
The best place to start is at the beginning. Unlike most overly romanticized, yet apocryphal origin stories invented post hoc to sell merch, the India Pale Ale comes with an absolutely brilliant, true story. The first well-known “extra-hopped” pale ale was developed and marketed by George Hodgson in late 18th Century London. Hodgson exploited contacts with the East India Company (you see where this is going) to control the market. And yes, as overwrought as it sounds, it is true that the ale was brewed with additional hops and higher ABV to act as preservatives for the journey from England to India primarily destined for British soldiers and citizens originally from the four countries of the modern United Kingdom.
However, the first true “IPA” as we understand it today was developed by brewmaster Samuel Allsop to wrest control from Hodgson. Allsop took advantage of the “hard water” found in his region of England to brew a brighter ale with the telltale “hoppiness” that came to define the style.
The IPA thrived in the colonies (including colonial America). However, not content to leave a good thing alone, the US eviscerated the IPA (and ales generally) with Prohibition and the post-Prohibition rise of the American Pilsner macro-brews. Fortunately, an upstart from San Francisco by the name of Anchor Brewing (check out our recent post putting Anchor Brewing Company on Trial) reinvigorated the style in 1975 with the release of Liberty Ale.
The American IPA gradually gained popularity both here and abroad in the ensuing decades before splintering into three main sub-styles: the West Coast IPA, the Imperial IPA, and the newest addition, the New England IPA (yes, I know there are all sorts of hybrids and unique/absurd experiments with dry hopping, wet hopping, and extreme alcohol content, but the vast majority are just riffs on the three major types of IPAs).
Assets of the Estate (We Three Kings of IPAs)
To understand the best style for you, we need to explain (briefly) each of the three styles and examine a representative exhibit. We’ll evaluate the styles in chronological order of creation, starting with the West Coast IPA.
The West Coast IPA
The West Coast IPA is defined by its bright, hoppy characteristic with very limited malt notes. Given this intentional construction, West Coast IPAs tend to have a lot of bitterness, though this is part of the brew’s charm. When you think of the prototypical “American” IPA, this is what comes to mind. Until recently, West Coast IPAs such as Stone IPA and Flash West Coast IPA (the names were so clever early on) dominated the market. This is basically the solo practitioner of IPAs, with a broad practice that does a little of everything without scaring off any potential clients. For our exhibit, we will examine the ever-popular Sculpin IPA.
Exhibit 1 – Sculpin IPA (West Coast IPA) – Ballast Point Brewing Company
Sculpin IPA is one of the “100 point” IPAs, having been awarded a coveted perfect score by the RateBeer professional review aggregator (think Rotten Tomatoes for beer). It has good hoppiness with a bright, fruity bouquet to balance the bitterness. At 7% alcohol and 70 IBUs (international bitterness units), you will have no doubt that it’s a true West Coast IPA.
The Imperial IPA (aka the Double IPA)
The Imperial IPA, also colloquially called the Double IPA, was the first and most successful offshoot of the American IPA. In the truest of American creations, it is basically what it says: a stronger, hoppier, higher-alcohol IPA, often reaching over 10% ABV. But it’s also more than that. Because everything was stronger, it was necessary to increase the malty flavors to prevent the brew from moving in the direction of wine and other spirits where alcohol becomes the dominant flavor. Suffice to say, this is a difficult balance to achieve and it can easily go wrong. If you’ve ever waited in vain for the annual 120 Minute release that never comes, you already know what I mean. This is the boutique trial lawyer of the bunch; aggressive, experienced, and DEFINITELY not for everyone. Speaking of, let’s check out our exhibit, the amped-up 90 Minute IPA.
Exhibit 2 – 90 Minute IPA (IIPA) – Dogfish Head Brewing Company
I’ll get some hate for this (I see you Russian River), but my take is that the 90 Minute is the best Double IPA on the market. Unlike a lot of Imperials, Dogfish Head made a concerted effort to balance the malt flavors with the extra hops, providing a complex and layered flavor profile despite 90 Minute sitting at 9% ABV and 90 IBUs. Like most IIPAs, this is not for the casual drinker and is generally reserved for the IPA-lover who wants more of everything.
The New England IPA (aka the Hazy or Juicy IPA)
The most recent of the three IPA styles, New England IPAs first emerged in Vermont in the early 2010s. As the style has spread, it has become more commonly referred to as a “hazy” or “juicy” IPA. These monikers are certainly on-point, as this style is defined by juicy, citrus-forward flavors and a hazy, unfiltered appearance. By utilizing this palette structure, Hazy IPAs are able to include a substantial amount of hops without developing too much bitterness. As a result, this is 100% that IPA right now, having its Lizzo moment (wow, this sentence will not age well). This is basically the privacy attorney of IPAs, a highly sought-after modern darling. For our exhibit, we’ll focus on the most widely available New England IPA, ironically from Sierra Nevada.
Hazy Little Thing IPA (New England IPA) – Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Though Sierra Nevada is best known for their pale ale, they have made strong attempts at the various IPA styles, with Hazy Little Thing being the best of the efforts. Very bright, with lovely floral notes and a beautiful hazy appearance that isn’t overdone. At 6.7% ABV and only 35 IBUs, this is also one of the most accessible of the juicy IPAs available in wide distribution.
Distribution of Assets
So now you know your options, but not your best personal choice. So, which is it??? Well… (don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it) … it depends. It all depends on your temperament and your prior ex-beer-ience with pale ales and/or IPAs.
If you are just a young associate in the hops game, start with a modest New England IPA. The citrus profile and lower IBUs provide a great introduction to IPAs without overpowering you.
If you are already a fan of pale ales and feel ready to restructure, go with the West Coast IPA. These brews lean on the hoppiness, but leave room for you to “get used to” the delightful bitterness of the style.
And if you are ready to take a risk, we’re talking buying all the troubled assets while hunting for a golden goose, jump on the Imperial IPA. Double IPAs are not for everyone – and we have to admit that some IIPAs aren’t for really anyone – they present a unique opportunity for an exceptional return on investment when your plan is confirmed and reaches the Effective Date.
Court is adjourned.
*Author’s Note – We are aware that today’s exhibits are not all brewed and distributed by “craft” breweries in the micro-brewery sense. Sam Adams now owns Dogfish Head, Ballast Point sold out to Constellation Brands years ago (Ed. Note: yes, we know Constellation just sold Ballast Point to microbrewery Kings & Convicts, but the main financier for the deal chairs The Wine Group, which makes Franzia, Benzinger, and Cupcake wines… so, yeah, probably still not back to craft brewery status), and Sierra Nevada is a “craft” brewery in name only. That said, our goal here was to provide exhibits that are distributed everywhere. So, please, don’t @ me. But feel free to sound off in the comments on your best evidence. As we say here at Beer At Law, there’s a beer for that.