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A Regional (& Historical) Guide to American IPAs

May 31, 2017

By Bryan Roth, May 31, 2017

No style may be more responsible for the modern state of craft beer than the India Pale Ale, estimated to account for about a quarter of craft beer sales. From national brands like Stone, Lagunitas, and Ballast Point taking up supermarket space, to the new wave of on-premise-only, hazy, juice monsters led by New England breweries, insatiable interest in the IPA can hardly be quenched.

With IPA’s popularity knowing no bounds, it’s a perfect time for a brief history lesson and primer on the various substyles of this beloved beer. For the purposes of this breakdown, we’ll focus on regional interpretations and variations instead of the different strengths of IPA (Session to Imperial), or its many sub-styles outlined in this great piece.

Malternate Universe

The modern history of IPA can be traced to the West Coast in 1975, with particular attention for Anchor Brewing’s Cascade-hopped Liberty Ale, which helped pave the way in 1980 for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a defining brand in the American beer industry. Groundbreaking as these beers were at the time, neither was technically an India Pale Ale, but would set the stage for the IPA we know today.

It may seem hard to believe now, but by the mid-1990s, few beer lovers were drinking IPA, and the India Pale Ale popular at the time was more “English”: heavier on malt character than today’s versions, deeper in amber color, and certainly with more bitterness. One of the best-known examples of the style was (and still is) Harpoon IPA, which started as a summer seasonal in 1993 and became one of the first widely-available IPAs available on the East Coast.

This sturdier-malt-backbone take on IPA became common across the East Coast, also immortalized in beers like Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPAs – considered extraordinarily hoppy for their time– as well as Flying Dog’s Snake Dog IPA and Brooklyn Brewery’s East India Pale Ale. As West Coast brewers increased focus on aromatics, floral, fruity and piney flavors, and stiffer bitterness, the designation “East Coast IPA” became something of a pejorative among beer enthusiasts.

Good Beer HuntingAn original East Coast IPA, and a sandwich.

I. West Side Story

If Anchor’s Fritz Maytag and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman are the grandfathers of modern-day IPA, Vinnie Cilurzo of Temecula, California’s Russian River, may be its patriarch.

“There was no demand for IPA back when I started Blind Pig in 1994 – not a 92 IBU India Pale Ale like ours was,” Cilurzo told First We Feast in 2015. “And that goes even more so for a Double IPA like our Inaugural Ale that was measured at 120 IBUs. We did find a small market for our IPA, though, and little by little people who were already drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Liberty Ale found our IPA, and it was these customers that kept us afloat.”

Cilurzo went on to develop what many consider to be the first American Double IPA, Pliny the Elder. Laden with Simcoe, Centennial, and Columbus hops, the huge pine character and dry finish of Cilurzo’s 8% alcohol by volume beer is often cited as inspiration for brewers across the country who push boundaries with hops.

Another landmark IPA is Stone’s original Ruination Imperial IPA, the first Double IPA to be available in year-round six-packs following its upgrade from a one-off anniversary recipe in 2002.

October’s West Coast-Style IPA hallmarks:

  • Frequently golden and crystal clear in appearance" 
  • Clean” and crisp body
  • Fruit/resinous/pine-forward flavor
  • Aroma often described as “dank”

Textbook examples of the style:

  • Russian River Pliny the Elder
  • Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
  • Stone Brewing Enjoy By IPA
  • Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA
Two Hearted looks outside of the hops for other characteristics.”

II. They’ll Show You Flyover Country

In 2000, Bell’s Brewery released Two-Hearted Ale, launching what would become one of the country’s favorite India Pale Ales, cited annually atop Zymurgy’s best beers list.

“I think the Midwest has a great finesse for balance in IPAs,” brewery founder Larry Bell said to Paste in 2013. “The West Coast tends to put the bitterness upfront. Two Hearted looks outside of the hops for other characteristics. It’s not just about having the assaulting bitterness on your tongue. I want to be able to drink and IPA and say, ‘I’ll have another one.’”

While Two-Hearted is among the best-known Midwest-style IPA (a title New Holland proudly adds to their Mad Hatter IPA), another brewery has done much to popularize hoppy pale ales in that region: Munster, Indiana’s Three Floyds.

The brewery may lack a beer officially categorized as IPA, but two of its most popular brands are essentially pale ales masquerading as such: Alpha King, regarded for its citrusy punch and balanced malt backbone, and Citra-drenched Zombie Dust, among the most sought-after hoppy pale ales in the country.

Toppling Goliath has also played a role in expanding the Midwest’s IPA palate. The Decorah, Iowa-based brewery is responsible for PseudoSue (and its dry-hopped variants), a pale ale that has push the envelope on traditional flavor profiles for the style.

October’s Midwest IPA hallmarks:

  • Robust, fruit-forward hop character with occasional grassy/earthy undertones
  • Crystal clear
  • Can features a prominent malt backbone compared to West Coast versions

Textbook examples of the style:

  • Surly Furious
  • Bell’s Two-Hearted
  • New Holland Mad Hatter
  • Founders Centennial IPA
Hill’s interpretation of regionality suggests there’s brand value in “Vermont,” as seen in a business dustup over use of the state’s name.”

III. A Vermont Interlude

In 2010 and 2011, Shaun Hill founded Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, Vermont and, separately, John and Jen Kimmich zeroed in on Heady Topper, their (at the time) genre-defying Double IPA.

While Hill doesn’t can his brands – a defining package for the Kimmich’s Alchemist Beer – one thing they have in common is the production of India Pale Ales in a manner that didn’t really exist at the time. The uniqueness of their heavily-hopped, soft, and hazy beers have led many a beer drinker to refer to them as “Vermont-Style” IPAs.

“In my opinion, we are all just doing a different take on a classic style of beer,” Kimmich said last year. “I don’t believe a certain style of IPA is dependent on the region, any more than I believe that quality is dependent on the region.”

Hill’s interpretation of regionality suggests there’s brand value in “Vermont,” as seen in a business dustup over use of the state’s name, as described by Good Beer Hunting:

“It’s more about looking outside the state and seeing people referring to things as ‘Vermont Blonde Ale,’ ‘Vermont IPA,’ ‘Vermont Saison,’ etc. Then, it sort of means, there’s some reason that people are alluding to, and drawing some sort of substantial correlation, and trying to evoke Vermont in the sort of platonic form of the idea of what it is that they’re producing.”

Another player in Vermont’s rise to beer fame is Sean Lawson, owner of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, and creator of Sip of Sunshine Double IPA. Sip is an important brand among today’s hazy, juicy madness because – like Heady Topper and others from Hill Farmstead – can be viewed as a bridge between the West Coast and Northeast-Style.

October’s Vermont-Style IPA hallmarks:

  • Soft, delicate and light-bodied
  • Color tends to be close to light gold or straw, hazy though not necessarily opaque
  • Flavor is citrus-forward with a lingering finish

Textbook examples of the style:

  • The Alchemist Heady Topper
  • Hill Farmstead Double Citra
  • Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine
Tree House enhanced popular characteristics of Vermont-Style IPA, creating the New England-Style IPA.”

IV. The East Coast Strikes Back

In 2012, four friends in Central Massachusetts unknowingly started a revolution and helped create a new substyle of IPA.

When Tree House Brewing began producing beer in Brimfield, they faced the scenario of selling out all their beer on a near-daily basis. What led to this dilemma? Tree House – along with Boston’s Trillium Brewing – enhanced popular characteristics of Vermont-Style IPA, creating the New England-Style IPA.

These hazy and citrusy beers have resulted in one of the most unique weekly rituals among beer enthusiasts: spending hours in line for the opportunity to buy what is frequently a maximum of 12 cans of beer (and maybe a growler fill or two). Tree House typically sells roughly 200 barrels over four days each week.

Trillium has also played a pivotal role in the Northeast/New England-Style IPA movement, bringing the style to national prominence. Launched in 2013, the brewery found a niche with flagship Fort Point, a Citra-focused pale ale. Trillium quickly became one of the more revered producers of IPAs in the country, propelled in part by their hugely hopped (and with some bitterness) single-hop showcase “Street” series and its “Double Dry Hopped” variants, which amp up flavor with heavier hop additions.

While the differences between Vermont-Style and New England-Style IPA can be subtle, one popular flavor descriptor for NE-Style IPAs is “juicy.” It’s an important characteristic of the style based on a perception of intense flavor reminiscent of part of a balanced breakfast.

October’s New England-Style IPA hallmarks:

  • Soft  mouthfeel
  • High levels of tropical fruit flavor
  • Opaque in appearance in a way that can resemble a glass of orange juice
  • Citrusy, punchy-yet-pleasant finish that coats the tongue

Textbook examples of the style:

  • Tree House Julius
  • Trillium Brewing Double Dry Hopped Congress Street IPA
  • Other Half Double Dry Hopped Mylar Bags
  • Bissell Brothers Swish

Epilogue

The runaway success of the New England-Style IPA has – to some – wrested IPA supremacy away from the West Coast and planted the flag of standard-bearer on the East Coast. West Coast-Style IPA isn’t going anywhere, but it’s impossible to deny the impact that both Vermont-Style and New England-Style IPAs have had on the industry, with hazy and “juicy” IPAs appearing across the country.

There’s never been a better time to insatiably seek out hops, and we’re fairly certain that there’s some kind of IPA out there for everyone.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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