India Pale Ale, commonly known as IPA, is one of the most misunderstood styles of beer. Adding more hops to pale ale does not make it an IPA. Making a beer more bitter definitely does not make it an IPA. Why is American style IPA the most popular craft beer style in the U.S.A.? Why is IPA in other emerging “craft beer” savvy countries not as popular; the style struggling to get a foothold as a beer drinker’s favorite. Before I tackle these two questions, let’s first understand the origins and the types of IPA.
Back in the 18th and 19th century when England was colonizing other parts of the world, colonists far from their homeland missed their English ales. The beers that were shipped from England around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to India usually arrived in very poor condition. Brewers learned that by increasing the alcohol content and adding more hops they could help preserve some of the qualities of their pale ales. So they made more hop bitter strong ales. They were shipped to India with the idea of diluting them once they arrived.
Of course someone tasted how good these beers were in their extra strength version and a style was born, India Pale Ale.
In 20th century England, the style was disappearing until the popularity of this style took off in the U.S. A. with the addition of new and innovative character. The style experienced a small revival in England. English-style IPA has an alcohol content usually in the lower range of 5 to 7% abv and the perceived hop bitterness is in the lower range of medium to medium-high. Perceived floral hop aroma and flavor is usually at the lower end of medium to high.
In the U.S.A. craft brewers have developed a love affair with their floral, citrus and herbal accented American (and from other countries) newer breeds of hops. The American-style of IPA alcohol range is usually at the higher end of 6.3-7.5%, hop bitterness is perceived diversely in the range from medium-high to very high; hop flavor and aroma are described as full and strong.
What happened between the 19th century and present day craft brews in the 21st century?
There are two primary reasons why hoppy American craft beers such as IPA have become popular. The first reason is that hops are now being bred and cultivated to yield higher bitterness as well as high aroma and flavor. The availability of bitter power is abundant.
When hops are boiled with malt for a period of time, up to about 1 ½ hours, hop resins called “alpha” contribute to the perception of hop bitterness. Hop oils are another component of hops very different than hop resins. Hop oils are very volatile. In other words they are evaporated and driven off by boiling and are not stable in their package with the stress that time and warm temperatures introduce. To infuse hop aroma and flavor into a beer, fresh, quality hops need to be added for short periods at the end of the boil or added during the final stages of fermentation or aging. This is a relatively new and American technique.
The second reason why hoppy beers have become popular in the USA is that successful American craft brewers have learned how to use new, modern and innovative techniques to extract the complex characters of American hops. These techniques are many and varied.
Not until the last decade of the 20th century did American craft brewers really perfect their methods to infuse maximum and varied hop character into their beer. Simply adding more hops does not always lend itself to an enjoyable beer, especially not an enjoyable IPA. The skill required to create a balanced IPA is one that demands much attention, knowledge and skill by the brewer.
Some of the perceived character that can be extracted from hops and infused into IPA are: Grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, lime, rose, honey, nectar-floral, bergamot, passion fruit, red and black currant, gooseberry, banana, wine-grape bouquet, piney, woody, melon, lychee, geranium, apricot, peach, mango, mint, strawberry, blueberry, pineapple, water melon, peppery.
The brewer skillfully makes choices that involve: water, temperature, fermentation, aging, circulation, yeast, malt, alcohol and many other factors in order to infuse the desired balance of hop flavor, aroma with a balanced perception of bitterness.
You can begin to imagine the art and science involved in formulating and producing a balanced IPA; the kinds that are popular in the USA.
My opinion is that American made IPAs are popular in the USA because they have a high degree of floral and/or fruity character. When these characters are emphasized and malt flavors and body are added in balance, the perception of bitterness is softened.
A woman who visited my home once asked if I had any wine. I asked her if she wanted to try a beer. “I really don’t like beer too much, especially bitter beers,” was her reply. I told her I’d like her to try a special beer I had. I served her a hoppy award winning American IPA without telling her anything about it. She tried it and was very confused. She tried it again, smiled and replied, “I like this but I don’t know why.”
This American IPA was bitter, but the emphasis was on a balance of sweet, gentle malt and big on hop flavors and aromas with fruity notes of apricot and passion fruit.
There are hundreds of variations of American-style IPAs brewed in the United States. The ones that are most popular are smooth malt-bitter balanced and high on pleasant fruity hop aromas and flavors. The most popular ones do not emphasize aggressive hop bitterness.
A big problem
A big problem with these popular brands of American IPA is that they do not stay fresh a long time. Consequently American IPAs exported into European or other foreign markets are often stored and locally transported in non-refrigerated conditions. With warm aging American IPAs quickly lose all their original malt balance as well as their fruity, floral, herbal hop flavor and aroma. What remains is the aggressive and more stable hop bitterness that lingers longer than the lost aromatic hop oil freshness.
In summary, American IPAs have very good reason to be the most popular beer style in the U.S.A. When they are fresh they are super well balanced and delicious. When they are more than 3 months old or shipped or stored in non refrigerated conditions they can quickly lose their appealing character, taking on harsh, undesirable and unbalanced character.
If American-style IPAs are to gain popularity in foreign countries, local small brewers will need to learn how to skillfully brew these beers. Perhaps even more importantly, beer distributors and people who sell beer at retail will need to learn how to care for these types of beers by storing craft beers at cool or cold temperatures. Otherwise beer drinkers will forever be denied the pleasure of the most popular craft beer style in America – fresh well-balanced American-style IPA.