Since school is back in session, let’s take a moment and do a quick crash-course on that most trendy beverage: the IPA.
India Pale Ale is a British invention. Nineteenth-century sailors would load barrels of beer with hops on homeward voyages from India. Hops, the floral seed cones that give IPAs their distinguishing flavor, were in those days used as a preservative. In a happy historical accident, the long voyages caused the hops to lose whatever fruitiness they had and instead leave behind that quintessential IPA bitterness. This is the British IPA, the daddy that birthed all the offspring that led brewing and drinking into wild new territories.
Here in the U.S., you will most likely come across these three styles: West Coast (WCIPA), East Coast (ECIPA) and New England (NEIPA). These beers encompass a broad spectrum of tongue-tingling and lip-pursing flavors that bring forth the distinct regionalism of each. WCIPAs are very crisp, a balancing act between malts, hops and tropic fruits; try the Stone IPA, Ballast Point’s Unfiltered Sculpin or the Lagunitas IPA.
The ECIPA is at the crossroads between the traditional Brit and its hippy California offspring. They’re hoppier than a British IPA and maltier than a West Coast. Victory Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head excel at these.
And then there’s good ol’ New England. Currently the trendiest IPA of the bunch, the NEIPA has been – some would say falsely – labeled as “The IPA for People Who Don’t Like IPAs.” New Englands are unfiltered, giving them their thick, cloudy look, and intensely fruity. The bitterness is masked by a range of fruits like oranges, grapefruits, pineapples, peaches and even sometimes coconut. Sam Adams NEIPA is a decent, easy-to-find offering, but if you truly want to delve into the craziness that comes with the territory of IPA brewing in New England, I encourage you to check out Alchemist (Vermont), Titled Barn (Rhode Island), Tree House (Massachusetts) and Trillium (Massachusetts).
A beer isn’t always defined or labeled by the coast on which it’s brewed. Some other IPA vernacular you’ll encounter in bars or on restaurant menus are words like single, double, imperial or session. I will quickly explain each, so you know what you’re looking at. Single: made exclusively with one variety of hop. Single IPAs can often be misleading due to their title, but they all pack a very hoppy punch. Double/Imperial: (virtually identical) more hops + more malts = more alcohol content (upwards of 7%). Session: a light-bodied beer, not insanely hoppy but also not too bitter. I’ve found that many NEIPAs and WCIPAs are brewed in the double or imperial variety because it leads to more experimentation with different hops and malts. In fact, Greater Good Imperial Brewing, located here in Worcester, brews only imperial IPAs.
Regardless of how you feel about IPAs, they’ve had, and will continue to have, a lasting impact on how we brew and how we drink. And now, hopefully, you’re a little more knowledgeable for the next time you’re out and about.