What’s the Deal with IPAs, Anyway?

Thomas Hartman, Innovation Brewer at ZX Ventures, sat down with us to chat about IPAs.

Photograph Courtesy of The Muse

Photograph Courtesy of The Muse

Let’s talk about the history of IPAs to get started.

The IPA, or India Pale Ale, was one of the first real bastions of American craft beer. At its beginning, craft beer was a revolution against “big beer” and “lite beer.” IPAs allowed budding craft brewers to produce intense flavors in a light-colored beer instead of a traditional heavy stout. In a typical enthusiastic all-or-nothing fashion, the craft beer pendulum swung rapidly toward over-the-top bitterness.

What’s the flavor profile of an IPA? How do we get there?

Craft brewers seeking to highlight American ingredients—and to differentiate themselves from macro breweries—put as many hops and as much flavor in their beers as they could manage. (Note that while hops have distinct flavors besides bitterness, hops are the easiest way to enhance a brew’s bitterness.) These styles evolved over time to showcase the intense flavors of local and specialty ingredients. Using different hop varieties, adding hops at multiple brewing stages, experimenting with lupulin powder (purified resins and aromatics from hop flowers), and dry-hopping are all methods to enhance the hop flavor and bitterness of IPAs.

Speaking of bitterness: a beer’s bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. The higher the number, the more bitter the beer. It’s widely believed that most drinkers’ palates cannot differentiate bitterness beyond a certain point, somewhere around 80 IBUs. Therefore, an imperial or double IPA logging 100 IBUs is probably overachieving, delivering more bitterness than most drinkers will detect (much less appreciate).

How do you see the IPA trends evolving over time?

I’m really glad to hear that the trend in IPAs today is toward lower ABVs and lower IBUs—less bitter beers with a more balanced flavor profile. Another great development in IPAs focuses on local hops or single-hop varieties. I’m particularly excited about rotating-hop recipes. For these, a single beer recipe is produced repeatedly, each time using a single hop variety but changing that variety from batch to batch. Each time the recipe is reproduced and a new hop is cycled in, the variations in flavor and mouthfeel reflect the hop used. For instance, Cascade hops bring a floral, citrusy flavor, emphasizing grapefruit. The same recipe brewed with Mosaic hops will tend to be more tropical and floral, whereas a third cycle using Simcoe hops will have more of a piney flavor. New hop varieties are in development all over the world today, including some that are truly out there! Perhaps there’s a hop variety that will appeal more to you.

Believe it or not, there’s an IPA style to suit nearly every beer drinker. If you want to dive back in and give IPAs another try, look for session versions, which are lighter and more palatable (one session IPA I’ve really been enjoying lately is Blue Point’s Mosaic). Avoid the hoppier West Coast styles and especially anything described as an imperial, double, or triple IPA—these are the “bitter is better” styles with double-digit ABVs and extreme IBUs. Also, consider trying some regional IPAs or specialty styles. From cloudy New England IPAs to roasty black IPAs, where the hops are most evident in the finish, to fruity or flavored IPAs, there’s something for everyone.