Style Profile: The India Pale Ale (IPA)

Posted on July 20th, 2009

In the first of our Style Profile series we’re going to look briefly at the India Pale Ale or IPA. This is a classic style that anyone who’s interested in beer should try out, even if it’s not for everyone. The highlight of any IPA are the hops, the small, green plants which give beer much of its spice and flavor. Although the yeast, water and grains used in an IPA are important as they are in any beer, these other ingredients really take a back seat to showcasing the beer’s hop flavor.

The spicy flavor of hops isn’t the only benefit they provide beer. Hops are also a natural preservative, a quality which lead directly to the creation of the IPA style. During Great Britain’s occupation of India in the 19th century beer would be shipped from England all the way to India for British soldiers stationed there. To ensure the beer survived the long and perilous sea voyage brewers loaded the beers with extra hops, resulting in the hoppy taste that was a hit in India as much as it was at home in the UK and a style was born.

Hops are grown in many regions throughout the world and come in dozens of different varieties which fluctuate in their bitterness, flavor and aroma. Regardless of which hops an IPA features, it can be counted on to feature the spicy bitterness which are a hallmark of the style. Many hops grown in England such as Kent Goldings have a mellow, spicy quality to them, which is reflected in the pale ales of England such as Samuel Smith’s India Ale.

On the West Coast, where most American hops are grown, Cascade is by far the most dominant variety; it’s a style famous for its strong floral and citrus-like qualities. West Coast Brewers, such as Stone, Rogue and Sierra Nevada have experimented with the these hops creating a unique take on the IPA tradition that’s American through and through- the Double or Imperial India Pale Ale.

In craft beer the terms ‘double’ or ‘imperial’ generally refer to a extra strong version of a more traditional (and timid) style. ‘Double’ simply denotes twice as much of something (such as hops) as been used, while ‘imperial’ refers to the Imperial Russian Stout, a particularly strong stout brewed for Catherine the Great (but that’s for another style profile.)

As you might guess, the Double India Pale Ale is a much stronger version of the IPA, both in terms of hops and alcohol (typically ranging around 8-9% alc./volume while a standard IPA is just 5-6%) Rather than simply being a more intensified version of the IPA the DIPA takes on unique qualities all its own.

Serving Suggestions:

Glass: IPAs do well in your standard pint glass, while I would recommend a snifter for DIPAs to take advantage of the intense hop aromas.

Food Pairings: The spicy flavors of IPAs and DIPAs pair great with spicy cuisines such as Cajun, Mexican and Indian. Alternatively, a the sharp hop flavors can provide a nice counterpoint to more savory flavors such as barbecue chicken or pork.

  • beantownbrews

    Ah – the ubiquitous IPA. It is as if after the long duration of lack luster pale American lagers, Americans have gone hog-wild for that hoppity goodness.

    I like mine mild; all these double IPAs tend to be a bit to face-suckingly bitter for my taste.

  • paulmob

    Hey man, cool website… I'm glad to see you mentioning the beers of the west coast. I feel like the beers here (and especially in the Pacific Northwest) really are a notch above what's available on the east coast. Way better than just Sam Adams, I mean don't get me wrong there are definitely some favorites on the east coast, just I feel like the culture out here is more about people who consume and appreciate good beer. Thus most bars and restaurants tend to have a large variety on tap and many local favorites.
    You should definitely visit out here (Seattle) if you haven't been yet, there are many great breweries. Also Portland is home to many too.

    Personally i'm not a big fan of the bitterness in IPAs, but there certainly are plenty out here.

  • paulmob

    Hey man, cool website… I'm glad to see you mentioning the beers of the west coast. I feel like the beers here (and especially in the Pacific Northwest) really are a notch above what's available on the east coast. Way better than just Sam Adams, I mean don't get me wrong there are definitely some favorites on the east coast, just I feel like the culture out here is more about people who consume and appreciate good beer. Thus most bars and restaurants tend to have a large variety on tap and many local favorites.
    You should definitely visit out here (Seattle) if you haven't been yet, there are many great breweries. Also Portland is home to many too.

    Personally i'm not a big fan of the bitterness in IPAs, but there certainly are plenty out here.

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