Friday, July 5, 2013

The Session No. 77 – What’s the Big Deal about IPA?

As part of the monthly Session, a roundtable discussion of beer by beer writers, Justin from Justin’s Brew Review asks:

I'm just wondering, why all the hype? What is it about an IPA that makes craft beer enthusiasts (CBE) go wild? Is it because CBEs want to differentiate craft beer from crap beer? 

While fellow Montana beer blogger, Alan McCormick of Growler Fills: Craft Beer Enthusiasm, sums it up nicely that “it’s tasty,” the IPA deserves a little credit for both its historical context and creative use of one of its main ingredients: hops.

The IPA is an expansion of the broader beer category, Pale Ale, and it was first brewed in the early 19th century by the English. As far as marketing is concerned, the term “India pale ale” first appeared in print in 1829 in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser.

The India Pale Ale came out of beer that was transported to…you guessed it, India. The beer was well received there and quickly preferred by merchants and customers in that country. Hops are a preservative, and these highly-hopped beers aided in keeping the beer stable during long voyages. (Note: there is some controversy about the true origins of the IPA. You can read more about that here.)

Ironically, highly hopped beers were first created specifically for beers that would be sitting a long time before they were consumed. Today, however, only the youngest and freshest of IPAs are typically sought out by the CRE (Craft Beer Enthusiast, as Justin terms it above). It’s “bad” to have an old IPA.

Hops is big business these days for brewers. According to, in 2011 U.S. Commercial Hop Production was around 30,000 acres in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and these states were growing commercial hops since 1850. Today, over 80 different hop varieties are in commercial use around the world, with many more developmental varietals on their way. Grains have pretty much stayed the same for a long time. There’s only so many ways you can roast two-row or six-row barley.

But why can’t brewers use hops in similar ways they do specialty grains to show off their skills? In fact, as hops can be used for bittering, aroma, and flavor in beers, one could argue that hops provide more depth in a beer than just barley, but I’ll leave that to more experienced brewers to hash that out.

What I do know is that brewers in Montana use hops in varying degrees and with varying successes.

Wildwood Brewing doesn’t brew an IPA because founder, Jim Leuders, has said hops can be used to cover other flaws in a beer so he leads with a malt-forward beer profile (and produces many fine organic beers!).

Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton, Montana, was the first brewery to produce an IPA in the state, back in the late-1990s. When they were going to release it, many other brewers in the state said it would never take off; it would be too hoppy for the locals’ palates. That beer has never been out of production for them.

Todd Scott at Bozeman Brewing waited six years before he brewed his first IPA, Hopzone (in 2007). Now it outsells his other beer two-to-one.

So why IPA? Sure, it’s about taste. But I would say that the IPA is nothing new. In fact, it’s something old that feels new again. But now with our ability to seek out and consume “fresh” IPAs that challenge more of our senses, it’s a new thrill for the “old” beer drinker. It’s a way for a brewer to distinguish him/herself from the other 2,400 craft breweries in the U.S. (not just the other “crap beer”). And, at least for those living in the Northwest, it’s local. 


  1. Alcohol content aside, IPAs appeal to the sensory addicts, but in a very American over the top way. This is obvious in the names (e.g. Hop Stoopid). But the wave has created we are entering the post-IPA fallout in the craft beer market in the US. The last thing we need is another hastily thrown together “Hop Bukkake” that seems de rigueur for new breweries.
    But I love ‘em. The way I am always looking for that distinct single malt or single estate coffee that offers a novel variation that I haven’t met yet. The diversity and judicious use of hop varieties makes each one have the potential for something unique. Like single malt, there are a sea of OK IPAs (over hopping is easy). But the rare ones with balance keep me searching. Even still, if I could by Pliny or Heady Topper here, it would still get old after a while.
    A nice side effect is now my boredom with standard IPA has let me, and lots of brewers/drinkers to seek the second levels tastes imparted by the yeasts. This level of chemical diversity goes a bit beyond varying the alpha acids, and I welcome a new landscape of wild ales to complement the IPA offerings.

    1. jezus I need to learn to spell check


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