India Pale Ale, in the chaos of beer styles

Beer styles, what a craze it has been these past few years. Microbreweries all over the world are experimenting with aromas in order to create new and innovative beers. However, with all these different beer styles an overview could come in handy to say the least. A lot of people ask me how to keep track of all these styles.

For starters, I’m going to shed some light on the IPA style and all of its subcategories. If you’re a beer lover you’ll definitely know this beer style, since it has been on a revival trip ever since the American craft brew scene started to experiment with IPA and aroma hops.

For all readers who don’t know what an IPA is, here’s a short explanation. IPA or India Pale Ale is a beer style “invented” by the British. In Colonial times the British wanted to transport beer for their soldiers to their colony India. However, the beer didn’t survive the long boat trip to India and was rather undrinkable by the time it arrived. By adding extra hops (which has an anti-bacteriological aspect) the beer was able to survive the long journey.  Et voila a new style was born, the India Pale Ale. 

However, a few side notes with this story... The Pale Ale beer that was shipped was already a storage beer that was extra hopped, so another extra hopping wouldn't do much towards preservation. Also, in that time sailors/troops mostly drank Porters instead of IPA's. Oh, and...Pale Ale was already shipped towards India for 120 years before the type IPA was "invented'... But hey, still is a nice myth right ;-)

Now, fast forward to today, as I already said we have a lot of breweries experimenting with the IPA series. In all honesty this new style IPA has little or nothing in common with its ancestral beer style.

Now IPA beers are mostly made with aroma hops which give these beers a nice and refreshing aroma with tones of exotic fruit and flowers. These fleeting aromas however don’t last very long. If I can give you one tip, drink these beers within a year. They won’t go bad after a year, but they’ll lose a lot of their flavor…

Knowing that this is the basis of an IPA beer a lot of different varieties have popped up over the years. What I tried to do is to put all these subcategories in a more understandable framework.

Hop IPA’s:
Double IPA/Imperial IPA - West Coast IPA – East Coast IPA – Session IPA

The most common subcategory is probably the Double IPA (also called Imperial IPA). The name says it all actually, it’s a “double” in all its aspects. The nice things about Double IPA’s is the fact that they push to the limits in order to see how much hops can still create a balance in the beer. Always packing a punch, but never disappointing. You want to go one step further? Try the Triple IPA’s aka hop explosions (for the true hop lover).

A more subtle style is the session IPA. Where the Imperial IPA is all bravado this one is a lot more toned down. These IPA’s have a lot of hoppy flavors but are a lot less in ABV making it more accessible.

The West Coast and East Coast IPA’s are somewhere in between these two styles. Whilst the East Coast style has more citrus and pine aromas the West Coast version is even more hoppy and has more exotic hop flavors.

Yeast IPA’s:
Belgian Style IPA – Wild IPA

Belgian Style IPA has little to do with Belgium and more with the yeast we Belgians use.
The IPA gets a carbonation on bottle besides that making it a very all-round beer. This could be called a pure Belgian-American hybrid.

The Wild IPA is an IPA with a lot of brett (brettanomyces = wild yeast). It’s a mixed style beer combining an IPA with an American Wild Ale. It has a very hoppy aroma with a well-known “funky” barn smell.

Agro IPA’s:
Black IPA – White IPA – Rye IPA – Spiced IPA – Farmhouse IPA

These IPA’s are beers where other grains or spices are added to one beer, creating Superman or Frankenstein in the process... The best known one is the Black IPA. Most of the black IPA’s are pitch black thanks to the heavy roast malts the brewers add to this beer. It’s a bomb of coffee an chocolate mixed with hops. Think of this as a very light stout with serious hop issues ;-)

The White IPA is a close brother to the black IPA. In this beer they use wheat and coriander making it a sort of white beer with an extra layer of sharp citrus aroma hops.

Rye and Spiced IPA’s are more in line with the white IPA but have an even more intense flavor. The IPA beers get more Rye or Spices in the beer which creates a hoppy but highly aromatic beer. The combination can be a perfect harmony of flavors, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case…

Finally we have the Farmhouse IPA in this range. Which is a mix between a farmhouse (Saison) beer and an IPA. Great combination of a spicy beer with that aroma hop addition.

Special Finish IPA’s:
Coffee IPA – Wet hop IPA – Wood-aged IPA – Red IPA - Fruit IPA

Coffee and beer it’s a match that definitely works if you see that other craze going on (cfr. Stout and Porters). Some breweries go so far as to use local coffee in their beers. This style is close to the black IPA style, but where a black IPA is more a combination of flavors this coffee IPA is just as it says, coffee (and a shit load of hops).

Wet hop IPA is the just in time variant of IPA. It uses fresh hops (no pellets) in its beer making it even more aromatic, hence why it’s sometimes called fresh hop IPA.

Wood aging, what can I say, I’m a fan. I love the quirky elements barrel or wood aging can bring to a beer. Nice how a brewer can play with the type of wood or even type of barrel to create a whole different finish. This type is one of my favorites. Hoppy as hell but with that nice soft wood finish, epic!

Red IPA’s and Fruit IPA’s are closely aligned. The Red IPA beers have rich caramel malts and a sweet body added with fruit hops. Fruit IPA’s go one step further and use actual fruit or even lemonade to make a balanced beer. Best known variant is of course the Grapefruit IPA, balancing aromatic hops with grapefruit (feels a bit like cheating but still delicious!).

Of course there are a lot of breweries that already started to make combinations of these styles. Creating Imperial Red IPA’s or Wood Aged Imperial IPA’s for example. Bringing a whole new dimension to the craft.

Come to think it’s quite bizarre that a beer style that is so pronounced in bitterness fares so well all over the world. Bitter is a flavor we inherently dislike (cause bitter flavors used to mean poison to our ancestors). Since more people get accustomed to bitterness it must mean a shift in flavor is starting to grow…

As you can see it’s a beer style that is growing fast and does have a big fan base as well. I’m a fan of this type of beer since it has a nice hoppy punch which I do love in a beer. But I can imagine that a lot of people are overwhelmed by all these styles. Not knowing what’s the difference here, hope this helps you out!

What do you think about the growing category of sub styles within brewing? You still following?

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