IPA is the world’s greatest craft beer style, the one with the most storied history, the one most misunderstood and most widely brewed has been changing for the last three centuries.
And it continues to change and evolve faster than it ever has before.
Historically it was India Pale Ale. Beers brewed in England and shipped to the sub-continent, their romance is in the journey, the way they were almost mythically strong and well-hopped, and in how we’ll never know what they actually tasted like. India Pale Ale is a beer from the past – and it’s extinct. IPA is what we drink today but defining what an IPA actually is has become a challenge.
Arguably the closest we can get is to say that IPA is a beer that’s pale in colour with hops as the dominate flavour characteristic. We’ve even got to a place where IPA is a synonym for simply ‘hoppy’ and we require a prefix to tell us more accurately what to expect – Double, Session, English, and so on.
If we take IPA to mean the typical American-styled IPA then it’s likely going to be 5.5%-7% ABV, straw-to-copper in colour, hop-bitter and aromatic with US and new world (Australia and New Zealand) hops – and that’s a very broad general description which doesn’t tell us anything specific about the flavours or subtleties (it’s like saying a cheeseburger is a meat patty topped with cheese between a sliced bread roll, but it mentions nothing of the finer details).
One approach is to break down American IPAs into some broad geographic types, or ones linked to particular periods of time, which I attempted in my book, The Best Beer in the World:
I wrote that in early 2015 as a way for me to try and distinguish the IPAs I’d drunk around America and sub-categorise them, though of course brewers from all over the world brew all different kinds of IPAs, so this is more of a way to think about the parents in the style’s ever-growing family tree (see an IPA in Britain and it could be anything in between any of those sub-styles). Somewhere between finishing the writing and the book being published, another sub-style properly jumped forward and it’s become the must-drink IPA right now.
This new IPA can be described as Tropical Fruit IPA though you’re more likely to see ‘New England IPA’ or ‘NE IPA’, which tells you of its origin – and the original is The Alchemist’s Heady Topper.
These IPAs are unfiltered (sometimes just hazy, sometimes properly cloudy like orange juice) and very pale in colour. The intensity bitterness is low and character malts are non-existent. The time of them being super-dry and very bitter has shifted towards softer, rounder bodies with some residual sweetness, though you might not immediately notice that texture because the hop aroma is so dominant, so powerfully wowing, with the aroma sticking to the subtle sweetness in the beer, and giving the unmistakable qualities of fresh tropical fruit juice – pineapple, mango, peaches, melon, papaya, lychee.
With these new qualities comes a new focus on freshness to capture those aromas at their very juicy best: two weeks old is becoming too old (don’t underestimate this: the draft-only, local-only – perhaps brewery-bar-only – hyper fresh IPA is here).
And notice that the classic qualities of American C-hops (Cascade, Columbus, Centennial, etc), like pine resin, florals and grapefruit, are missing from the flavour profile of these IPAs. And that’s relevant because these juicy IPAs are all using newer hop varieties.
Citra was first released in 2007 but it took a couple of years before it was grown and brewed-with in larger volumes. The flavours in Citra (tropical, citrus, soft fleshy fruits) are different to those famous C-hop staples; they aren’t tangy, pithy, resinous or floral. They’re juicy.
At a similar time we got to try more Australian and New Zealand hops with their exotic tropical fruity aromas. Then came the next big hop releases from 2012 onwards: Mosaic (the A-list hop right now), Equinox, Tahoma, Azzaco, Polaris, and more, plus newer European varieties. These take that juiciness further and give even more tropical fruits plus melon and fragrant stone fruit. These new hops have changed the way IPAs taste because once we know it’s possible to make a beer smell like Um Bongo we crave more of its freshness. Bitterness, pine and grapefruit are old-school – it needs juice now.
But one thing this change is doing is re-focusing on the American IPA. In the last five years we’ve seen the IPA-ification of all beers (Black IPA, Belgian IPA, White IPA, Brett IPA, Fruited IPA, and so on) and we’re now seeing many of those sub-categories reduce. In their place are new IPAs. There’s IPAs using these new hops in new combinations, IPAs brewed with new hopping techniques from emerging research on hops, there are SMASH IPAs (Single Malt and Single Hop), hop burst IPAs, and more. It’s interesting that while the broader sub-categories seem to be disappearing, the Session IPA and Double IPA are taking over. And with these beers we’re seeing some of the best uses of these new hops and techniques.
It’s definitely worth noting that some of the juicy NE IPAs are trying to imitate the legitimately good ones and what you’re actually drinking is some kind of hop sludge milkshake. The best are genuinely delicious but we drink with our eyes and seeing a soup, flat, thick orange liquid isn’t necessarily a good thing. In the UK, if you want to try some of the better versions of these beers then look for Cloudwater’s DIPA and some of the new Brew By Numbers Pale Ales and DIPA.
IPAs currently account for around 27% of the US craft beer market, or seven million barrels of gloriously hoppy beers. In 2010 it was only around 12% of the market. That’s incredible growth, even more so when you consider that the craft beer segment is also growing exponentially – IPA is growing within a fast-growing category. In the UK, we’re surely seeing a similar growth pattern, though not a quarter of the market.
As well as growing up and out, IPA is still changing. It’s always changing; it’s been changing for 300 years, a liquid snapshot of brewing. These tropical fruit juicebomb IPAs are not like West Coast IPAs from five years ago. They’re not like the now-classic examples from 10-20 years ago like Lagunitas IPA, Racer 5 and Odell IPA. These are today’s IPA where the never-ending search for newness and freshness continues to change what IPA is. And tomorrow’sIPA? Surely it can – somehow – only get juicier. Until it changes again.