In many of my “Top 5’s,” I’ve made it a point to express how American breweries have taken an old-world style and put their own unique twist on it, in a number of ways. Arguably no beer style applies to this “application” moreso than American IPA, or India Pale Ale. Our owner Dave asked me a week ago; what are the top three most popular styles of beer hombrewers focus on? Based on what I’ve seen entered in the 6 competitions I’ve judged, American IPA is definitely in the top 3. I’ve lost count of the number of beer geek friends I have that choose this style as their favorite session beer, so let’s get down to why people zero in so much on this stuff.
History of American IPA
I don’t want to get into a full-on history of IPA, since I’d like to save that for when I cover my Top 5 English IPAs, but here’s the low-down in a nutshell: originating in England in the early 1800’s, IPA was brewed to survive the voyage to the troops all around the world where many were stationed in India, where the hot climate wasn’t conducive to brewing. The beer was brewed strong and hoppy to prevent spoilage during the long trip, and the extreme temperature changes combined with the rolling of the seas resulted in a highly attenuated beer upon arrival. The soldiers, and eventually the general public, fell in love with this highly hopped, strong, bold beer and IPA was proudly handed its place in the brewing world. Consequently, American breweries have found a way to up the ante with indigenous hop varietals and treatments to keep the seekers of this bitter beer happy and endlessly intrigued.
American IPA Characteristics
The aroma of American IPA is unmistakable. A prominent to intense hop aroma with a citrusy, floral, perfumy, resinous, piney, and fruity character is there due to those American hops. Numerous versions are dry-hopped and that will provide an additional grassy aroma. Look for a clean malty sweetness, but it will be at a lower level than what you’ll get in its English cousins. Also present are some fruity esters, again from the hops, along with a touch of alcohol in stronger versions. The color you can expect in this style will range from medium gold to medium copper, with a reddish or even orange-ish tint. Most will be clear with a white or off-white sticky head, although unfiltered or dry-hopped versions may be cloudy and hazy. Hop flavor is medium to high, and the citrusy, floral, piney, and fruity aspects from the American hops should be present. Malty flavors should provide enough backbone to be able to balance out the bitterness, but they should be clean with maybe a touch of caramel or toast. The hoppy bitterness may linger into the swallow and aftertaste, but minus that harshness that comes with some lesser examples you may encounter. While bitter, American IPA should be smooth, with a medium-bodied mouthfeel without the hop-derived astringency – especially the ones that are high-carbonated rendering a dry sensation. Finally, there may be some alcohol notes in stronger versions, but they shouldn’t be overpowering or hot.
American IPA Food Pairings
When pairing cuisine with American IPA, it’s best to remember that the spicy hops will inflate the spice in your dish. To some people, this is a good thing, and a reason why it goes well with Thai, Indian, Mexican, and especially anything with curry. But it’s great with basically any type of meat with a spicy preparation, including seafood, poultry, pork, and beef. The hops in American IPA provide scrubbing power that will slice through the spice in any dish. Cheese is a superstar with American IPA, not only with flavors that will line up well, but the creaminess of certain cheeses will blunt that attack of hops on your palate. Try pairing with a milder blue such as Gorgonzola or Cambozola, but a sharp, aged cheddar will be dynamite with these beers because certain versions tend to be a little acidic.
Anyone that knows me well enough knows I’m anything but a hophead; I’m a malt guy through and through, and the only time I’ll grab an IPA is when I’m simply craving a hop fix. It admittedly falls near the bottom of my list for a favorite. However, I still had trouble picking a top 5 – only because thankfully it’s a style that is flooded with quality commercial examples, and even though it’s in many cases a flagship for a lot of breweries, there are as many great ones as there are mediocre ones.
Photo credit: buzzonbeer on Flickr
To me, it’s all about balance – I don’t mind a flurry of hops, but I still like to have that malt there to keep things drinkable. And the balance I like is here in my top 5 – although I strongly encourage you to chime in with your favorite example. Cheers!
[techtags:IPA, AMERICAN IPA, INDIA PALE ALE, BEER REVIEWS, IPA CHARACTERISTICS, IPA HISTORY, IPA FOOD PAIRING]