“IPA” seems to be on everyone’s lips these days (and rightfully so—they are delicious, after all). Some of us saw this craze coming: we’ve been brewing our Commodore Perry IPA since 1991. When our English-inspired IPA won its first medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1992, there were far less IPAs of any kind entered in competition (not that Perry’s showed signs of giving up the ship—in 2017 it earned a Gold Medal in the World Beer Championships). Now it seems there’s an IPA everywhere you look, including our year-round family of beers which now includes the new Great Lakes IPA alongside our classic Commodore Perry IPA.
The recent proliferation of everyone’s newest favorite style have practically made “IPA” and “craft beer” synonymous in some minds. But like other beer styles, IPA is a larger ever-evolving category that holds complexities and nuances within.
To talk English India Pale Ale, American India Pale Ale, American Pale Ale, and a few other styles known for making “hoppy” a household word, we sat down with GLBC Education Rep, Certified Cicerone, and bona fide beer geek Michael Williams.
Let’s start things off pretty easy. What makes an IPA?
In the contemporary context, an India Pale Ale is a hop-forward beer of moderate gravity with an ale yeast fermentation generally of a gold-to-amber color. What’s beautiful about modern IPA is that “hop forward” could mean anything from aggressive bitterness to juicy grapefruity flavor to bursting bright berry aroma. It all depends on the hop varietal used (English hops are earthy and woodsy, while American hops range from citrusy and piney to tropical and stone fruit) and how they’re used – “early addition” hops will produce more bitterness in the boil, while “late addition” and dry hops will create the aromatic quality that is now signature of IPA.
We often describe our Commodore Perry IPA as an English-style IPA. Can you describe what makes an English-style IPA? What might it pair with?
Although the predominant style in the States today, IPA was originally a 19th century English brewing brand. IPA was certainly hop forward – any British beer brewed for export was, not just IPA – but this hop character tended to be more balanced with a toasty, biscuity malt backbone, compared to the American tendency to lean decidedly towards hops. English IPA might also have more fruity fermentation characteristics from British yeast, compared to the clean, neutral fermentation profile of American yeast. It might sound too easy, but I’d pair up a classic English IPA with good ole’ fish and chips – our brewpub has a nifty Alaskan cod version battered in Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (another classic British style).
Our new Great Lakes IPA takes more of an inspiration from American IPAs. What makes it American? How might that be different than the English style, and which occasions do you think each beer is best suited for?
We Americans LOVE our hops. And we love experimentation in beer (thank you, homebrewing forefathers). Once the original craft brewers in the 80’s and 90’s started brewing IPA, the style quickly moved from a distinct malt-hop balance to deep explorations in the wide, wonderful world of American hops. Malt merely provided the “canvas” upon which to paint this hoppy goodness. We’ve gone through a few movements in IPA development, and the current one is all about fresh, stunning, smell-it-across-the-room aromatics, with International Bitterness Units (the measurement of a beer’s bitterness) taking a back seat.
Great Lakes IPA hits the nail on the head – its complex bill of modern American hops, including Simcoe, Lemondrop, Azacca, and Mosaic, is complemented by a touch of lemon peel for a bright, citrusy aroma that really pops. Tellingly, there’s only one malt in this beer, our pale two-row base malt. This one’s all about the hops. Additionally, it’s a very “sessionable” (by American standards, at least) 6.5% ABV – extremely drinkable and truly suited for any craft beer occasion, though my preference might be at the ballpark or at this summer’s upcoming Phish show.
Let’s talk Pale Ale now, like our Burning River. Maybe not as popular as its cousin the IPA, but it packs some similar characteristics, doesn’t it?
Yep! Pale Ale is basically the granddaddy of the contemporary IPA – our forefathers in craft brewing all made one, and heck, we started brewing one in 1992. As brewers (and consumers) wanted to push the hop and ABV envelopes more and more, pale ale proper began to fall a bit by the wayside – though it wasn’t until 2002 that IPA overtook pale ale as the most entered category at the Great American Beer Festival. I love IPA, but sometimes you just need a hop-forward beer that’s a little “quieter” in ABV and IBU, which is essentially what pale ale is. Shift beer time at the brewpub, hanging out with my GLBC family members, is probably my go-to occasion for sipping on a (particularly fresh) Burning River and marveling on how darn good it still is!
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. The Double IPA or Imperial IPA like our Chillwave or Lake Erie Monster. What should people look for in this style?
As the name suggests, a Double/Imperial IPA (the adjectives are interchangeable, though both I and the Beer Judge Certification Program prefer “Double”) is a big, big version of a typical IPA, though not literally double of a brewer’s standard IPA. Hop flavor and aroma will be extremely intense, and malt character should still be relatively restrained, despite alcohol content for this style creeping up towards 9-10% ABV (yeast creates alcohol and CO2 by metabolizing sugars from malt, so more malt = more ABV) – it’s still a deceptively drinkable beer. Double/Imperial IPA is a bit more of a special occasion type of beer, part of the reason these beers are almost always seasonal or limited releases. Get ‘em while you can and savor with good people!
Some of our hoppy beers use similar ingredients. Mosaic and Simcoe hops, for instance. And yet each of our hoppy beers has its own distinct aroma, flavor, and feel. Can you explain why that might be?
Something that’s just plain cool about American hops is that each varietal seems to hone in on a few distinct flavor sensations. Simcoe, which is a relatively older hop (first released in 2000), focuses on pine, citrus, and a bit of earthiness. Mosaic, a descendant of Simcoe, actually (via selective hop breeding), came out in 2012 and reflects the fruit-forward aromatics desired in current brewing, showcasing blueberry, tangerine, and papaya. So the hops taste and smell very distinct on their own – and the flavor possibilities are endless once you start combining different hop varietals in a recipe. Definitely an aspect of brewing to nerd out on big time.
Finally, what should people know about IPAs? Any common misconceptions?
Loaded question. The first thing I’ll say is, hoppiness does NOT equal bitterness. People are starting to learn more and more what a hoppy beer really is, but there are still many who think they won’t like an IPA because it’ll be “too bitter.” As mentioned above, the trend in IPA right now is actually very low bitterness – in fact, I’ve seen some of the hot hazy/juicy IPAs out there suggested at 5 IBU or lower! If you like citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, or melon flavors (yeah, any of those!), you can find an IPA you like, especially with all the options out there (though I’d suggest you try ours first, wink wink).
I’m a history nerd, so I have to mention this as well: let’s say that the story you’ve all been told on the origin of IPA – that it was brewed for the British soldiers on their journey to India, since they were complaining that it kept spoiling on the journey – well, that story MIGHT not exactly be true. Want to find out the real story? You will have to attend our Hop College: Style Analysis class on April 25 where I’ll tell you the true story, in addition to studying the suggested flavor guidelines for the style. Oh, and we’ll taste some IPAs as well, of course!