Regional differences among IPAs in America

By |2018-10-18T13:23:57+00:00November 30th, 2015|

When the craft beer movement was gaining momentum in the late 1990s, there seemed to be a clear distinction between your average West Coast IPA and your average East Coast IPA. In the West, IPAs tended to be more boldly hopped (with high-alpha, Northwest-grown hops), drier, lighter in color, and more aromatic, with bright notes of citrus, flowers and pine. On the other hand, IPAs in the East tended to have more of a British-style slant, with sweeter and more malt-forward profiles, a more subdued hop bitterness, and herbal, earthy and spicy hop notes derived from European hops. East Coast IPAs also seemed to favor British yeast strains, whereas West Coast IPAs favored the cleaner and more attenuative American Ale yeast (such as Wyeast’s 1056).

During that time, I lived in North Carolina and Virginia, and I traveled to California often, so I had many opportunities to compare fresh versions from both coasts. And even after I moved to Colorado in 2002, noticeable differences between IPAs in the West versus the East continued to prevail.

Nowadays, IPAs are much more convoluted, and you can find all sorts of variations across the country. But even though regional differences are less evident, some pockets continue to exist.

Washington and Oregon, for example, are filled with boldly hopped “Northwest-style” IPAs, which, in my opinion, tend to be fuller bodied and have bigger malt backbones than the drier, less malty and less sweet West Coast-style IPAs. Boundary Bay’s IPA (Inside Passage Ale) is a quintessential example of a Northwest IPA.

By the late ’90s, most breweries in America brewed an IPA, and by the turn of the century the hops race (i.e., IBU race) was in full swing with hop bombs dropping everywhere. The craft beer movement started in the West – specifically in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado – so it was no surprise that this region led the charge with these hopped-up, “American-style” IPAs. Meanwhile, the East Coast seemed to cling on to its more traditional, English-style IPAs for a bit longer.

After things calmed down a bit, there was an explosion of IPA sub-styles, including White IPAs, Belgian-style IPAs, Brett IPAs, Spiced/Herb IPAs, Rye IPAs, Red IPAs, Session IPAs and Black IPAs. All of these sub-styles didn’t seem to have any regional ties, although the Black IPA did get its start in Vermont (traced to Greg Noonan), and it later gained popularity in the Pacific Northwest under the Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA) moniker.

In modern times, it’s really uncommon for a brewer to actually invent a new beer style, though American brewers are among the best in the world at taking traditional styles and either pushing them to the extreme or giving them new twists to the point where new style categories have to be created (i.e., American-style Black Ale, Imperial/Double IPA, Session IPA, etc.). Most of these sub-styles are legitimate, as consumers rely on them to know what they’re buying and beer competitions need them so that apples are judged against apples (the 2015 Great American Beer Festival had a whopping 161 entries alone for the “Session IPA” category, for example).

These days, wider distribution networks and more idea sharing between brewers at beer festivals, conferences, internet forums and classes all help to bridge the gaps between regional differences. Information and ideas are also disseminated by a wide variety of publications online and in books and magazines.

As I mentioned, however, some regional variations still exist, and I think it’s a good thing.

Earlier this summer, a friend of mine from Massachusetts sent me some highly rated IPAs from his area, including HeadyTopperthe elusive Heady Topper from The Alchemist Pub & Brewery (VT), Julius from Tree House Brewing (MA), and Santilli from Night Shift Brewing (MA). I found all three of these IPAs to be exceptionally delicious, even though they all featured curious characteristics that were very different from your typical IPA. (For lack of a better term, I’ll call these beers Northeast IPAs for this article.)

Generally speaking, they all had low levels of carbonation with creamy, milky and chewy textures. They all had doughy and cakey malt flavors, along with noticeable yeast flavors. And they all had relatively low levels of hop bitterness coupled with huge amounts of citrusy hop flavors and aromas, which are no doubt the result of hop bursting and/or heavy-handed late-addition hopping techniques.

Appearance-wise, all of these beers were either very cloudy or completely opaque – most likely from the late-addition hops and dry hops, lingering proteins (possibly from the use of wheat malt), the particular yeast strains used, and the unfiltered nature of these beers.

In recent times, I have come across many online debates over how much haziness/cloudiness is acceptable in an IPA, if any at all, and opinions are all over the board. Some brewers I have spoken with do not seem to mind the cloudiness, and they argue that filtering strips away some of the flavors and aromas. But other brewers I have spoken with think cloudy IPAs are unfinished, and they’re the result of either lazy or inexperienced brewers.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on the issue. I don’t mind some cloudiness, but I definitely do not like yeast floaties or protein chunks in my beer.

Regardless of their appearances, I do believe these Northeast IPAs are unique enough that they deserve a sub-style designation.

Author Michael Tonsmeire (aka, The Mad Fermentationist) even wrote a blog about brewing one of these IPAs. In it, he wrote:

Alchemist and Hill Farmstead started the trend, but newer breweries brewing wonderfully hoppy things include: TrilliumTree HouseTired HandsOther Half, and Fiddlehead. What unites them is a bit more yeast character than indistinct Cal/American ale, a wonderfully juicy / fruity / saturated aroma, soft / creamy mouthfeel, balanced bitterness, and less than spectacular clarity.

Tonsmeire’s post inspired me to attempt my own Northeast IPA. But, as I discovered, getting that right balance of mellow carbonation, doughy malt flavors, wafting hop aromas and a mild-to-moderate hop bitterness is not as HomebrewNE_IPAeasy as I thought. Some people may not like these IPAs because of their appearance, mouthfeel and/or flavor, but I don’t think you can fairly call brewers of these beers lazy or inexperienced.

zeelander.pngI welcome this new sub-style of IPA and, as more and more beer lovers and brewers get exposed to it, I can only see it spreading to new areas of the country. In fact, while beer hunting in Minnesota, I tasted ZeeLander IPA from Toppling Goliath Brewing out of Iowa, and I think it would fit right in with the aforementioned Northeast IPAs.

That said, I hope this sub-style doesn’t spread too far. I actually prefer regional differences that feature unique characteristics and flavors. These are the things that richen local cultures, plus they make traveling much more fun. Just think how unfortunate it would be if the music and food of New Orleans sounded and tasted exactly like the music and food of Chicago.

Similarly, if American brewers from coast to coast interpreted the IPA the same way, we wouldn’t have the rich diversity and innovation that we enjoy today.

About the Author:

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.