IPAs: the true American style

Every beer-making region in the world has had a distinct style for generations. The Germans have their lagers. The Irish have their stouts. The English have ales. The Belgians have their fruit wines lambics and wits. In truth, to be a worldwide beer producer, it seems that you must have a defining style that proves your standing in the market: a flagship.

In this post, I’ll be arguing why the quintessential American style has become and will continue to be the India Pale Ale.

The oft-repeated history of the IPA goes something along these lines:

In the late 1700s, British breweries tried to ship their lightly hopped ales to India, where the English had a strong colonial presence. Unfortunately, the beer didn’t keep on the long journey, so brewers cranked up the hops on their pale ales, making “India Pale Ales” produced exclusively for export.

Advertisement for Hodgson’s East India Pale Ale

This is only part true. In the late 1700s, it was known that brewers had to use hops to export their beer, but hops didn’t do a whole lot for keeping the beer specifically to India. One brewer, George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery, produced a specific “pale ale for India,” advertised as a “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate.” It became wildly popular, making up for over 50 percent of the beer sales in colonial Calcutta and was a standard on ships of the East India Trading Company. The term “East India Pale Ale” first showed up in an advertisement for Hodgson’s brews on January 30, 1835 in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper.

“Being Brewed from the finest East Kent hop,” the advertisement reads, “it contains a particularly fine tonic property.”

The English style is definitely hopped, but not as strongly as the Americans tend to see as the norm. The English commonly use Fuggle, Golding and Bullion hops for bittering and flavor. While I haven’t had a truly British IPA, I could see this making it a little smoother with less bite than an average American brew.

The BJCP has a whole category for the style with three subcategories: 14A) English IPA, 14B) American IPA and 14C) Imperial IPA. Here’s a selected description for an American IPA.

 AROMA: A prominent and intense hop aroma with a citrusy, floral, perfume-like, resinous, piney, and/or fruity character derived from American hops. Many versions are dry hopped and can have an additional grassy aroma, although this is not required… Some alcohol may be noted.

APPEARANCE: Color ranges from medium gold to medium reddish copper; some versions can have an orange-ish tint. Should be clear although unfiltered dry-hopped versions may be a bit hazy. Good head stand with white to off-white color should be present.

FLAVOR: Hop flavor is medium to high, and should reflect an American hop character with citrusy, floral, resinous, piney or fruity aspects. Medium-high to very high hop bitterness, although the malt backbone will support the strong hop character and provide the best balance…

MOUTHFEEL: Smooth, medium-light to medium-bodied mouthfeel without hop-derived astringency, although moderate to medium-high carbonation can combine to render an overall dry sensation in the presence of malt sweetness. Some smooth alcohol warming can and should be sensed stronger (but not all) versions…

OVERALL IMPRESSION: A decidedly hoppy and bitter, moderately strong American pale ale.


OG: 1.056 – 1.075

FG: 1.010 – 1.018

IBU: 40 – 70

SRM:  6.0 – 15.0

ABV: 5.5 – 7.5

Unlike the English, Americans usually use Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, Simcoe, Amarillo, Tomahawk, Warrior and Nugget hops. I’ve also seen some dry hopped with Galaxy like at Big Muddy Brewery in Murphysboro, Ill. Simply put, the English have strict style guidelines while the Americans have many strands and varieties to work with.

90 Minute Imperial IPA by Dogfish Head

Let’s take, for example, the Dogfish Head 90-Minute Imperial IPA, advertised as “Perhaps the best IPA in America.” On the nose it is floral with a malty undertone. It has a nice white head with a golden amber color. The first sip is very bitter, but with a nice aromatic hop flavor. It goes down smooth and is a great example of the style.

So why does this well-hopped English style — with “India” right there in the name —the quintessential American style? To begin with, there’s the clear analogy between America’s roots and the style. It was created by the British, but revolutionized by a group of strong-willed Americans. The English had the first recipes: refined and simple. The American craft beer movement, with breweries like Sierra Nevada, took charge of the style and made it completely unique, completely American.

It’s a diverse style, which means that Americans in New York can make IPAs just as well as Americans in Michigan just as well as Americans in California. It can utilize very aromatic hops or especially bitter hops. The IPA can take the form of any number of combination of hops. I’ve had IPAs from Indianapolis that taste extremely of grapefruit, just because of the craftsmanship in hop design. I’ve had IPAs in Kansas that are fresh, floral and light. It’s a style that anyone can make, yet still make it special.

Every small brewery in America seems to make an IPA these days. For many it has become their flagship. The market expects it. In the Scudder Brew Tour, even the malt-centric breweries had a pale ale available. Just look at Snake River Brewery in Jackson, Wy.. They have recently created the Pako’s IPA, and quickly it has become their top seller. Brewer Chris Erickson was originally skeptical of adding it to their already-successful lineup, but now it makes up for a large majority of their off-premise sales. Or the Wyoming State Brewing Company at the Wonder Bar in Casper, Wy., which makes a fine, lightly hopped ale that is marketed as a “pale ale” because, again, the market expects it.

And because the market expects it, the market has become knowledgeable about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a variation of this conversation with a bartender: “Well what kind of beer do you like?” the bartender says. The response is almost always “I really like hoppy beers.” or  “I’m don’t like the beers that are really hoppy.” “Hoppiness” has become the baseline for beers because IPAs have become so ubiquitous. For the most basic drinker beer is either hoppy, or it is not. (The clear exception is the statement of “I don’t like dark beers” or the like, which has become the “Y-Axis” of the casual beer drinker’s decision making grid.)

I shared this thesis of the IPA as the American style with my dear friend and gentleman of the colonies, Mr. Brad Sanders. His response: “I would agree with that wholeheartedly except you miss the sad eventuality, which is macros catch on and it becomes a ubiquitous lawnmower ber in five-years time. Watch it happen. There’s already lazily slapped together IPAs everywhere.”

Mr. Sanders has a fair point, but not a perfect one. Yes, it is true that big market IPAs are surely on the way. AB In-Bev is most definitely making pushes into the craft beer market. In fact their recent acquisition of Goose Island means that the first IPA I ever tried was under their umbrella. Other large craft breweries like the Boston Brewing Company, makers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, talk about their “fresh hops” on commercials to prove that they appeal to the hop-head consumer. The K. Spoetzl Brewery, the Texan lager-makers of Shiner Bock, recently introduced Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale to appeal to the IPA crowd.

But the truth is there is such a variety in style that even if a macro-market producer like Budweiser or Coors created a variety of IPA, the small, quality brewers can still have great success. Exhibit A is Thai Me Up Brewery, — also in Jackson, Wy. — veritably the best maker of IPAs in the country. They have aged IPAs, 100+ IBU IPAs and more; there were four unique IPAs on tap when I visited a few weeks ago. The day after we visited, they won gold out of 124 entries across the continent for their Melvin IPA at the North American Brewers Association. Between breweries like Thai Me Up, Sun King and others across the country that are doing great things with hops in small batches, the IPA isn’t going away for a while.

The IPA is unique enough, diverse enough and strong enough to be the American style to make American brewers a global contender in the beermaking world. It may not be distinctly created here, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it our own.


Zythophile — The first ever reference to IPA

Beer Connoisseur — The Truth About the Origins of IPA

Beer Judge Certification Program — Category 14: India Pale Ale (IPA)

Wikipedia — India Pale Ale

One comment

  1. Pingback: REVIEW: Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale « Bierkultur

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