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.

What are hops? An introduction for the curious

Posted on June 17th, 2009

370px-Hopfendolde-mit-hopfengartenIf you’re like most people in America you probably know that hops are a major ingredient in beer, but that’s probably all you know. So what the hell are hops? You’re about to find out.

Hops are a vine-like plant known as Humulus lupulus (technically a ‘bine’ which I’ve never heard of either.) Hops happen to be a close cousin to cannabis, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to smoke them. The female variety of the plant produces small, green pine cone kinda things.

These hop cones produce a powder called lupulin, which contain certain acids which provide much needed flavor and balance to beer. In beer’s 4000 year history hops are a relatively recent invention, having only been used significantly for maybe the last 500 years. Prior to hops people used all sorts of spices and fruits to balance beer’s flavor but nothing has the flavor versatility and variety as hops.They also act as a natural preservative, something important in the days before sanitation as we know it.

In fact the IPA (or India Pale Ale) was born out of this unique quality of hops. During the British occupation of India brewers in England would overload their beers with hops to preserve them for the long ship ride to India. The folks in England took a shinning to the style too and the IPA was born.

Much like wine grapes, the flavor and aroma of hops vary considerably based on where they are grown and frequently a country’s beer style is strongly related to the hops that are native to it. The strong, citrusy hops which grow on America’s West Coast gave rise to the area’s intensely hoppy IPAs and Double IPAs. Regardless of where a hop is from though it can be counted on to give beer some spice and balance out the sweetness of the malt.

Of course some places are too cold to grow hops, like Scotland, and this is reflected in their beer style as well. Scottish ales are famous for their sweet and malty qualities, a result of the lack of hops available for brewing in the area. Try a Belhaven next time you’re out to get a taste of Scottish flavor.

Measuring Hops
The hoppiness of a beer is measured in IBUs or International Bitterness Units.

A General IBU Guide

This is of course just a brief overview of how IBU varies by style; there are plenty of exceptions to these guidelines, but it should give you a good idea of how relatively hoppy your favorite beer may or may not be.