Enough with the "it's too hoppy" or "it's too boozy." This mega-popular craft beer style is way more complex than you assume. 

By Chris Malloy
August 04, 2020
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Beer styles like the madly popular IPA aren’t set in stone. Brewers are always exploring them, expanding into sub-styles, and taking beer to new places. Haven’t had an IPA in a while? Think you don’t like them? Take a fresh taste and maybe you’ll see how beer can change.

The IPA began its modern transformation with West Coast-style IPA. A decade ago, these bitter bombs were all the rage as the American craft brewing movement became mainstream. Lately, though, IPAs have become more varied, measured, and even refreshing.

How different can two IPAs be? (Worlds!) How can you find the IPA for you? (First, you must know the styles!) A quick rundown will prep you for this eye-opening beer style.

IPAs are defined by hops. By the 1700s, the British were shipping beer across their empire, and needed a preservative to do so. With hops, a natural preservative, an ale could survive a journey across the Atlantic or Indian Ocean. The India Pale Ale was born.

Though the IPA has English origins, modern movement in the style has been driven by American craft breweries, starting with the West Coast IPA.

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Hops are the flower of the hop plant. Each of the many kinds has its own personality. There are also many ways to combine hops with other hops—they can be added in many different forms, and they can join the brewing at many different stages.

So what? With a smart approach to hops, a brewer can imbue their best qualities into beer. An IPA features hops so centrally that it can be grassy and bright, herbaceous and juicy, piney and floral, or citrusy and super refreshing. 

We’ve mentioned that the West Coast IPA embraces hopping to the point of bitterness (and beyond). The New England IPA (aka, the hazy IPA), which has gained steam more recently, seeks to express the nuances of its hops.

With less bitterness, the subtle qualities of hops can shine. When done right, the New England IPA is simply one of the lushest beer styles around.

At a beer store or craft brewery, you’ll see other IPA descriptions. “Session” indicates a lower-alcohol IPA, one good for longer drinking sessions. “Double” means higher alcohol and, often, greater hops to offset the stronger ABV. Same for “triple,” only the ABV bar raises even more, often above 10 percent.

Black and milkshake are two rarer IPA styles. You’ll probably only come across them at small, innovative craft breweries. Black IPA is dark and sweet, from its darker malts.

Milkshake IPA is deeply hazy, opaque almost like a milkshake. It has a tiny milky sweetness, built through milk sugars (like lactose). These sugars also create creamy mouthfeel. Brewers often make milkshake IPAs with tropical fruit, creating a whole new palette of flavors and vibrant colors.

Many solid examples of IPA styles can be purchased widely across the country. These include Founder’s All Day IPA (a session), Ballast Point Sculpin series (West Coast IPA, some with fruit infusions), Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing (New England IPA), and Victory Dirtwolf (double IPA).

For the absolute best IPA you can drink, look to small, funky, creative local craft breweries. Why are the small guys mightiest? IPAs are like peaches, crepes, or mozzarella. Meaning they’re best fresh—right off the canning line, or cold and foamy from the tap. So to fall for IPA or renew your love, drink as local as you can.