The acronym IPA stands for India Pale Ale. This style of beer has become extremely popular around the world in the last decade or so, beloved for its intense but pleasing bitterness and strength of character. The main factor that differentiates IPAs from other styles of ale (an IPA is an ale) is the addition of a large amount of hops. Hops are the flowering bodies of the hops plant. When added to beer, they have a strong preservative property, as well as adding bitterness to the flavor profile.
Hops have been being added to beer since the Middle Ages in Europe. But what we know as a modern IPA began in the Victorian Age in England. At that time, England was occupying India as a colony. Ale sent from England to British troops on the subcontinent often spoiled on the long sea journey. So brewers began adding hops as a preservative so that the ale would last all the way to India. The trend stuck, thus popularizing the style of beer that so many of us enjoy today. In fact, it is difficult to find a US craft brewer that does not brew at least one IPA offering.
So in a world of so many IPA choices, how can a craft beer drinker know which ones to choose? Luckily for you, dear reader, I have taken on the burden of trying dozens of IPAs in order to whittle down the range to five that I believe are certainly among the best, and worth trying. As for what IPA fans tend to look for in their ales, well, it starts with a good solid base ale to begin with, something with high-quality roasted, malted grains. Then it adds any number of good hops varieties. IPA drinkers also tend to prize multifaceted beers: not only bitterness, but also elements of citrus, grass, and pine. Finally, IPAs tend to have relatively high alcohol contents. All of the following beers should be available generally in larger US cities, or in specialty beer stores. If you are keen to try one, and you cannot find it in your area, email the brewer and they will be able to point you in the right direction. As a final note: the IPA style is broad in its scope, so I chose five ales that, I believe, represent very well the entire range of India Pale Ale.
1. Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.
This was the first high-quality IPA that I ever tasted, and it is still probably my favorite. Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA (7.5% ABV) is a true India Pale Ale. As such, it is a top-fermented, warm-fermented ale brewed from pale malted grains, with an unusually-large amount of hops included. It has won multiple awards. Here is how Bear Republic describes the beer:
This hoppy American IPA is a full bodied beer brewed with American pale and crystal malts, and heavily hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Columbus and Centennial. There’s a trophy in every glass.
This IPA has a base of caramel malted grains, overlaid with intense hoppy bitterness. But it is not all bitter: there are also distinct elements of citrus, pine, and grass — everything that should be in an IPA. Enjoy Racer 5 chilled and in a wide-mouthed glass to bring out its full potential. The hops in this ale are almost excessive (but delightfully so), so if you have never tried a real, high-quality, full-flavored IPA, take a sip of this one and see what you think: it is perfectly representative of the style.
2. Great Divide Hercules Double IPA.
A double IPA means that, ostensibly, twice the amount of hops have been added as compared to a traditional IPA. There are even triple IPAs out there. Of course, there is no standard unit of measurement for the amount of hops that an IPA should have, so anyone can claim a double or triple IPA. But the point is that a double IPA is supposed to features the hops in large amounts, and Great Divide Hercules Double IPA (10% ABV) does just that. Here is how Great Divide describes it:
HERCULES DOUBLE IPA is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, fit for the gods. HERCULES delivers a huge amount of hops from start to finish. Its hefty backbone of nutty, malty sweetness balances its aggressive hop profile.
It has won several international beer awards.
Hercules is a good example of a very well-balanced IPA. It is extremely strong on the piney, citrus bitterness. But it also has a smooth, malted, caramel, yeasty, grainy element that is very present. This balance is a good demonstration of how an intensely bitter and hoppy IPA can still be based on an excellent ale.
3. Two Roads Road 2 Ruin Double IPA.
This, another double IPA, is a very nice ale. Two Roads make some excellent beers. They describe Road 2 Ruin (8.0% ABV) like this:
A big, hoppy IPA with plenty of bite! Our assertive, hop-centric Double IPA has a lean malt backdrop and is brewed with four American hop varieties – Summit, Palisade, Cascade and Magnum. Piney, citrus, floral, not-for-the-timid!
I chose this IPA in order to show the flavor range that IPAs can have. While they are known for their bitterness, that is certainly not all there is to an India Pale Ale. Two Roads Road 2 Ruin Double IPA is bitter, with citrus and pine elements, to be sure. But this bitterness is strongly balanced with flavors of tropical fruits, and caramel, yeasty grains. It is a lovely, balanced IPA that can be enjoyed chilled, in a hot summer day. If you want to explore a solid, high-quality IPA that is not just a one-trick pony, then this is the ale for you.
4. Odd Side Oh, Me So Hoppy To Wheat You IPA.
Alright, let us get it out of the way first: this beer’s name is ludicrous, and possibly racist. But I digress. It is a very good IPA. I chose it because it a wheat IPA, which is different from most IPAs, which are brewed from barley. Wheat tends to impart a milder flavor to a beer, and it causes the body and mouthfeel to be very smooth and silky.
Oh, Me So Hoppy To Wheat You IPA (5.5% ABV) is a wheat ale with a large amount of added hops. The company describes it as as very wheaty ale with tons of hops. I chose this IPA for this article, because it is a good example of an IPA that favors its grains, rather than its hops. Remember, hops were originally added to beer as a preservative, not as a flavoring agent, so this ale probably better represents Medieval beer, or the original Indian Pale Ales in the Victorian Age, than others do. If you are interested in experiencing an IPA that is closer to the style’s true roots, and seeing what an IPA can be like if it emphasizes the ale part of the beer, then you should try this one.
This IPA features a sweet, caramel, malted grain element. Sweet molasses is in the mix as well. The hops add a nice, grassy bitterness. The hops also impart some pine resin, and floral elements. Overall it is a pleasant ale, if not a bit too sweet, but it should definitely be tasted as a way of experiencing the entire range of the IPA style.
5. Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye.
I chose another selection from this brewry, not because Bear Republic is one of my favorite brewing companies (which it happens to be), but rather to illustrate the IPA style in all of its breadth. I am not sure if rye IPA is truly a recognized style of beer, but beers certainly exist like this. Brewing with rye can add a certain spiciness to a beer (like a good Syrah wine) along with a grainy complexity, and an India Pale Ale is made with a high hops content, so I cannot imagine a better and more creative combination than this. Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye (ABV 8.0%) is described by the company as a high-gravity ale, meaning (in simple terms) that the wort had a high amount of sugar, which was consumed by (usually) different strains of yeast to produce a beer whose alcohol-to-water ratio is fairly high. There is debate in the beer community over whether a beer’s specific gravity ends up meaning anything to the consumer, but at this point, beermakers tend to advertise it for enthusiasts. Also, the rye content in Hop Rod Rye is 18%, meaning that the rye will certainly add its own characteristics, but not overwhelmingly so.
I personally do consider this to be an IPA in style. Some might view it as a rye ale with a large amount of hops, but I look at it in reverse: an IPA with rye. This ale therefore illustrates what an IPA can be with the bitterness of rye. In my opinion, it is a winning combination.
Finally, there is an art to enjoying a high-quality IPA. First, it should be chilled, but not excessively cold: try to enjoy it at a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Heat carries flavor, and if your IPA is too cold, you will not be able to experience its full flavor palate. Second, try to drink it in a serving glass that has a wide mouth: this will ensure that all of the complex elements of the hops can be enjoyed as aromas as well as flavors. Enjoy an IPA with rich or spicy food, as the bitterness will balance out the heat and richness. Finally, enjoy an IPA on a hot summer day, but make sure that you do not have any important appointments, as the relatively-high alcohol content will impair you in a most delightful way!