The ever-evolving IPA and its many variants

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By far, the India Pale Ale is the most popular style of craft beer, and I don’t see its status changing anytime soon. Every so often, another critic claims this hop-craze “trend” will fade, and that it will be replaced by the rising popularity of light lagers or the surge of saisons, but the IPA just continues to grow and spawn new sub-styles, hybrids, and variants.

Part of the reason for IPA’s continued success is that it’s not a stagnant category. Ever since Americans took the traditional English IPA and put their own spin on it, brewers have been continuously pushing it into new realms with creative recipes, new ingredients, new hops, and new techniques and processes. Beer drinkers’ palates also continue to change over time, and some breweries have even reworked their old IPA recipes to reflect these modern tastes.

In short, America’s most beloved craft beer style has evolved immensely, and it continues to change – more now than ever.

Below is a list of the IPA variants we’re seeing today. Some of these sub-styles are still being debated, and some are not formally accepted by various style guidelines or beer competitions (e.g., the BJCP or the Brewers Association / GABF). In addition, parameters of these “styles” can be subjective, and it often comes down to what a brewer decides to call a beer she makes. Although, if it’s labeled incorrectly, it can confuse consumers or score poorly in competitions.

BRITISH-STYLE / ENGLISH-STYLE IPA

This is a classic take on the traditional IPAs of England. This style is more malt-forward than the American-style IPA, it’s brewed with European hops, and it’s fermented with British yeast strains. Hop bitterness is more subdued, and hop flavors and aromas tend to be herbal, floral, and sometimes spicy.

AMERICAN-STYLE IPA

Compared to the English-style IPA, the American-style IPA has a lighter, less-pronounced malt backbone, more alcohol, a drier finish, and a more aggressive hop bitterness. Depending on the variety of American hops used, flavors and aromas can include pine, resin, grass, flowers, spices, citrus and/or tropical fruit elements.

DOUBLE / IMPERIAL IPA

Essentially, Double / Imperial IPAs are just stronger versions of standard IPAs, usually falling in the 8-10% ABV range. To achieve this, the malt bill is increased, which in turn increases alcohol content, and hop additions are also increased to keep up with the additional malt. Brewers must limit caramel/crystal malts and employ mashing techniques that reduce residual sweetness, otherwise the beer can become too sweet.

TRIPLE IPA

Some say Triple IPAs are essentially strong Double IPAs, but others believe that if you push an IPA above 10% ABV coupled with extra heavy hop additions, then it’s a Triple IPA. The major challenge in making this beer is that the high alcohol can contribute to sweetness, and high alcohol and sweetness can both obscure hop character. To make up for this imbalance, large amounts of hops are used, and oftentimes multiple dry-hop additions are made.  

SESSION IPA

Some argue that Session IPAs are really just Pale Ales, but I believe they are distinctly different in a number of ways. Compared to IPAs and Pale Ales, Session IPAs are lighter in body, lower in alcohol (typically ranging from the mid 3s to high 4s ABV), and drier, plus they have less residual sweetness. Due to the beer’s low gravity and light malt flavors, hop bitterness can be perceived as sharper, even when compared to a Pale Ale with the same number of IBUs.

WEST COAST IPA

The West Coast IPA takes the American-style IPA and turns things up a notch. These beers are often drier and more alcoholic with bold hop additions, and they’re made with little – or no – crystal/caramel malts.

NORTHWEST IPA

There are many opinions about what makes a Northwest IPA, but I describe them as being maltier (i.e., slightly toasty/roasty with some residual sweetness) than your typical American-style IPA, plus they have a healthy dose of hop bitterness to boot. Hop flavors often feature notes of pine, grass, and rind. Northwest IPAs are usually fermented with yeast strains such as Pacman or Northwest Ale, which produce malty and slightly fruity beers (as opposed to California Ale yeast, which produces drier and cleaner beers).

NEW ENGLAND-STYLE IPA / NORTHEAST IPA / HAZY IPA

This style is all the rage these days, and you can find many versions of it from coast to coast, including in Bellingham. Appearance-wise, these IPAs have a signature cloudiness, and many are completely opaque. This haziness is caused by a combination of ingredients (wheat, oats), low-flocculent yeast, heavy late-addition hops, heavy dry hopping, and the unfiltered nature of the beer. IBU levels are often much lower than typical IPAs; sometimes they’re even in the single digits. Fruit-forward hops such as Citra and Mosaic are often used, creating a beer with lots of citrus and tropical fruit flavors and aromas, complemented by a subtle sweetness and light, wheaty-oaty-doughy malt flavors.

BLACK IPA / CASCADIAN DARK ALE (CDA) / AMERICAN BLACK ALE

Hoppy dark ales – such as hop-forward porters and stouts – are nothing new, but the Black IPA is distinctly different from those beers. It has a similar appearance, as it ranges in color from brown to pitch black, but it lacks the deep roast and char of porters and stouts. Black IPAs are also snappier, lighter bodied, and drier than porters or stouts.

Black IPAs are typically brewed with a small percentage of dehusked / debittered black malts (e.g., Weyermann’s Carafa specialty malts or Briess’ Blackprinz malt), which do not contribute as much malt-based bitterness or astringency as other black/chocolate malts. This creates a dark beer with pleasant notes of dark chocolate and coffee, and only a mild amount of soft roastiness, if any at all.

To complement the beer’s malt side, the best Black IPAs (IMO) have a robust bitterness along with citrusy hop flavors and aromas reminiscent of tangerine/orange and grapefruit, which pair well with the dark chocolate flavors.

BROWN IPA

Similar to Black IPAs, Brown IPAs are aggressively hopped dark ales, but they start with a Brown Ale base. Malt flavors tend to be nutty, caramelly, toasty, biscuity and bready, and they’re not as coffee-like as Black IPAs. Brown IPAs also have more of a milk-chocolate flavor, rather than a dark-chocolate flavor. Some even have a nip of roast. The better versions I’ve had eschew fruity hops for hops with notes of grass, pine, and herbs, which seem to pair better with the beer’s malt flavors and brown-sugar-like sweetness.

Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale is one of the oldest and most widely available Brown IPAs on the market. This malty-hoppy brew is a cross between an IPA, a Brown Ale, and a Scotch Ale.

WHITE IPA

Take a Belgian-style Wit beer (aka Witbier, a wheat beer that is traditionally seasoned with coriander and orange peel, and sometimes other spices and/or fruits), hop it aggressively, and you’ll get a White IPA. Citrusy hops are preferred, as they mingle well with Wit’s yeast esters and spice/fruit additions.

By the way, wit means white, which refers to the hazy, milky-yellow color of unfiltered wheat beers, which is caused by suspended yeast and proteins. In German, white is weisse, and in French it’s blanche – both of which also refer to wheat-based beers, although they’re entirely different styles.

RED IPA

Red IPAs are basically just aggressively hopped Red Ales (the red hue is created by using a slight amount of roasted barley or dark crystal malts in the malt bill). There are many imperial versions of this sub-style as well, although, if alcohol and residual sweetness isn’t kept in check, these beers can easily slip into Barleywine territory.

BELGIAN IPA / BELGO-STYLE IPA

Heavily hopped Belgian ales (i.e., beers actually from Belgium) are relatively uncommon, though a handful of Belgian breweries do make hop-forward beers, such as Urthel Hop-It (Brouwerij De Lyerth) and XX Bitter (De Ranke). In America, a “Belgian IPA” is usually just an aggressively hopped Belgian-style ale. Or, it can be an American-style IPA (brewed with American or European hops) that is fermented with a strain of Belgian yeast. This fusion of hops, yeast esters, and phenolics can create some wonderful flavors, but it can also result in a muddled and conflicted beer.

Some brewers have taken this sub-style a step further by adding Brettanomyces yeast in the secondary fermentation or in the bottle refermentation.

TROPICAL IPA

You’ll find the term “Tropical” on a number of IPA labels these days, though it’s more of a marketing term than a style. These beers contain tropical fruit notes (some much more than others), which are usually derived from modern hop varieties, such as Citra, Ekuanot, Motueka, and Zythos. Some versions also contain actual tropical fruit.

FRUIT IPA

As its name suggests, this is an IPA made with real fruit, fruit extract, fruit juice, or fruit peel. The idea is that the fruit flavors will intertwine with the fruity hop notes. Some of these beers are great; unfortunately, many are not – in my opinion. Increasingly, I’m finding that many fruit flavors just don’t carry through to the finished beer like you’d expect or hope, leaving you with stark, pithy, and sometimes sour fruit flavors that conflict with the fruit-forward hop flavors. Oddly enough, I think hop-derived terpenes produce better fruit flavors in IPAs than actual fruit. (As an aside, when it comes to sour ales, real fruit is definitely the way to go.) Read more about Fruit IPAs here.

UNCATEGORIZED IPAs

You may think that everything has been done already, but things are really just getting started. New hops and new hop products (e.g., hop powder) are coming on the market all the time, innovative brewers are coming up with new recipes, processes and techniques, and a wide variety of new ingredients are being fused into IPAs, including some “off-kilter” ingredients, all sorts of foraged ingredients, adjuncts, fruits, spices, flowers, you name it. Some IPAs are even being barrel aged in oak barrels previously used for a variety of spirits or wines.

THE EVOLUTION CONTINUES

No beer style remains unchanged. They all change slightly over time, as they come into or out of fashion, as ingredient options change (i.e., improve), as technologies advance, and as palates change. However, few styles have changed as much or as quickly as the IPA. In fact, some IPA variants are changing before even becoming fully established.

Take the NE IPA, for example, which has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity over the last couple years. While there are many spot-on versions being made from coast to coast, I’m already seeing the style being tweaked and reworked by some breweries. Most notably, I’m seeing some high-IBU NE IPAs (Soul Proprietor IPA, the recent bottle shop collaboration beer between Cloudburst Brewing and Elizabeth Station, comes to mind as one example).

Some NE IPA purists might cringe at the thought of this, but if you think about it, it’s fascinating to watch brewers influence and inspire one another, whether they emulate or innovate. Of course, some of these experiments do not work. But many turn out wonderfully, and I can’t wait to taste the next iteration.

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Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado for well over a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on thousands of beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. He is also a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer, and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.

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