Hophead Novice: An Introduction to IPAs With Our Picks

Branching out from the selection of college beer choices can be intimidating if you don’t know where to look. We’ll get you started with India Pale Ales and offer a few brews to try first.

If there's one beer style that symbolizes the surge in craft beer popularity, it's the India Pale Ale, or IPA for short.

Beer styles are often defined by one of their ingredients that takes center stage. In Scotch ales it's malt, in Hefeweizens it's yeast, and in IPAs it's hops. Lots and lots of hops.

But what are hops?

Unless you've visited a hop farm or you brew your own beer, you probably haven't seen a hop in person. It's a little green flower that is shaped like a cone and grows on a vine. If you give them enough room, these little buggers can shoot up to 40 feet tall.

In brewing, I like to think of hops as the spice in the beer. Like a chef seasons a dish with oregano, a brewer uses hops.

You've probably seen the Sam Adams commercial where the brewers are walking in the hop field and stop to rub them between their hands. They then stick their face in their hands and take a huge inhale. Do the same thing if you get a chance. Hops are extremely pungent and this technique will give you a good idea of the aroma that the hop will lend to the beer.

Just don't eat them. Hops taste horribly bitter and it's near impossible to scrub the taste out of your mouth. Instead, trick your friends into eating them and laugh as they grimace in disgust. It's fun stuff.

There are hundreds of varieties of hops and they all taste different. They can be grassy, citrusy, piney, floral, or herbal. As you probably guessed, this means that IPAs taste different depending on which hops are used.

IPAs also owe their bitterness to the hops. Bitter beer doesn't sound very appetizing, but once you acquire the taste you become like a brain-eating zombie, never quite quenching your thirst. Hop heads out there know what I'm talking about.

The love for IPAs has given birth to all different interpretations of the style. If brewers are anything, they're experimenters. No ingredient is off-limits in the world of craft beer.

You'll find an endless variety of IPAs on the market, but most fit into one of these 5 groups:

American IPA

Also commonly referred to as a West Coast IPA, this is the standard IPA that you'll find at the beer store. It's basically a higher alcohol, more heavily hopped version of a pale ale. There is flavor from the malt, but make no mistake, these beers are dominated by hops.

On a seesaw where bitterness is on one end and sweetness is on the other, the bitterness side is digging into the ground.

They usually have a citrus or pine flavor from the American hops that are used. Cascade hops are the most popular variety, but hops are trendy. For example a hop called Citra is all the rage these days with its delicious tropical fruit flavors. You can taste it in Sierra Nevada's Torpedo IPA.

Other good examples of American IPAs are Green Flash's West Coast IPA, Bell's Two Hearted Ale, and Cigar City's Jai Alai.

English IPA

Though not as common as the others, English IPAs must be mentioned. These are the IPAs that started it all.

The English version defined the style until us Americans came in with our “more is better” attitude, taking the bitterness and alcohol to epic heights. English IPAs are more balanced than American varieties so the malt plays a bigger role. You'll find more sweetness and a retrained bitterness compared.

Sadly, there are not many traditional English IPAs available anymore. Your best bet for finding one is the widely available Samuel Smith's India Pale Ale. Good American interpretations are Left Hand's 400 lb Monkey and Brooklyn Brewery's East India Pale Ale.

Here's a fun fact you can sprinkle into a barstool conversation. The name India Pale Ale comes not from where the beer was produced, but where it was first consumed. English brewers created the style and began exporting it to India in the 18th century, although it wasn't called India Pale Ale until the mid 1800's.

Double/Imperial IPA

These are the heavyweights of IPAs. The big boys.

Take everything you find in an American IPA and amplify it. There are more hops, more alcohol, and more bitterness. They start at around 8% abv and some approach the range of spirits, like Dogfish Head's 18% 120 minute IPA.

If you're a true hop head and like beer that pushes the limits of your palate, these are for you. I recommend Russian River's Pliny the Elder if you can find it. It's widely regarded as the king of Double IPAs.

There are a ton of other great ones though like, Three Floyds Deadnaught, Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA, and Stone's Ruination IPA.

Belgian IPA

Remember when I said other ingredients take a back seat to hops in IPAs? Well in Belgian IPAs, another ingredient makes an appearance – yeast.

Instead of the neutral yeast used in American IPAs, Belgian IPAs use Belgian yeast. That's really the major difference.

Belgian yeasts are famous for producing tons of flavor, ranging from clove-like, to peppery, to bubblegum.

Interestingly, there are more American breweries than Belgian breweries making Belgian IPAs. Two great ones to try are Flying Dog's Raging Bitch and Terrapin Beer Company's Monk's Revenge. For a true Belgian IPA, give Piraat Ale a shot.

Black IPA

No beer style has had its name debated more than the Black IPA. It's also been labeled as a Cascadian Dark Ale, American Black Ale, and India Black Ale.

Confusing, eh?

It's an American invention, so the use of “India” seems wrong. Plus using “black” and “pale” in the same name is awkward. The term “Cascadian” comes from the Cascade Mountain Region where many believe the style originated. This is one debate that won't soon be laid to rest.

Regardless of the name, it's a damn good beer style. It tastes similar to an American IPA but with slightly more chocolate, caramel, and roasted flavors.

Be sure to check out Odell Mountain Standard and Victory's Yakima Glory.

It doesn't stop there

Beyond these categories there are IPAs made with fruit, flowers, spices, and are barrel aged in everything from oak to cedar.

Who knows what brewers will come up with next, but trying new things is one of the fun parts of being a beer drinker. Whether you like following the latest innovations or stick to a trusty brand, there is something for everyone when it comes to IPAs.

What's your favorite IPA? Leave a comment and let us know.

Billy Broas is a craft beer lover and homebrewer from Denver, Colorado. You can find him at his beer blog, BillyBrew.com. He also teaches people how to make their own beer over at The Homebrew Academy.


  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Glad to see Dogfish Head represented here.. the 90 Minute is one of my favorites (we have 60 Minute on tap in our kegerator for that wonderful draft taste, and 120 Minute in storage because it ages like a fine wine), but they also have a regionally-available 75 Minute cask-conditioned ale, which is delightful.

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Southern Tier IPA from Lakewood, NY!

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Basically any IPA by Danish Mikkeller is my fav IPA. He’s a hops fetichist like you haven’t seen since Stone breweries.

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Tallgrass Brewing out of Manhattan, KS make a Double IPA called Oasis that recently won CraftCans.com 2011 Reader Survey for best Double IPA. It truly is amazing.

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Great article representing my favourite beer style, and it was great to see Pliny the elder on display. If you enjoy Pliny, give Moylan’s “Hopsickle” or Pizza Port’s “Mongo” a try, both are about as Hoppy as you can get. I’m spoiled for choices living in San Diego, but I’m sure these can be found at BevMo or something similar.

    I can’t wait to see the next article in this series.

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Bell’s Hopslam…but you better start looking now. It just hit SC last week, but is already gone, I believe.

    Ballast Point Sculpin…if you can find that as well.

    Avery, Bear Republic (Racer 5), and Smuttynose also make good representations of the style.

  • Reply February 6, 2012

    Mason Kidd

    The best IPA I’ve ever had is from Snoqualmie Brewery in Snoqualmie, WA. Perfect amount of aroma and bitterness, enough to knock your tastes buds in order, but not too much that you can’t have more than one. If you’re in the Seattle area definitely check it out.

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Depends on *how* bitter I want at that time, but my two most commonly samples are SKA’s Modus Hoperandi and Stone’s Ruination. Took me a while to be able to differentiate >90 IBU, but it was worth the trip!

  • Reply February 6, 2012


    Lake Erie Monster from Great Lakes Brewery. I just wish they would brew it year-round! Same goes for Hop Slam.

  • Reply February 7, 2012


    Yazoo Brewery out of Nashville has a good one in Hop Project and then Victory Brewery out of Pennsylvania has a couple of my favorites Hop Devil and Hop Wallop. And oh how I miss Dogfish Head as they dropped distribution to my area.

  • Reply February 7, 2012

    Beer Soaked Erik

    West Coast IPA’s are my current favorite style of beer right now. Nice to see an article written for the hophead novice. I’ll add another nod to Ballast Point Sculpin and Russian River Pliny the Elder. Also, Firestone Walker Union Jack is a fantastic IPA and worth mentioning.

  • Reply February 7, 2012


    One of my favorites out there is Double Mountain’s IRA…it’s a red ale that’s hopped like an IPA, yielding a smooth, beautiful beer with a great, floral hoppiness. I highly recommend that beer.

    Pliny is great, as is Terminal Gravity, Double Mountain Gravatar. Also Natian Brewery in Portland has some great IPAs, but they usually have more than one to choose from, which can make things complicated.

  • Reply February 7, 2012

    Billy Broas

    There are some really great IPAs listed in the comments here and a bunch I’ve yet (but desperately want) to try.

    A few responses:

    @Jay I love Mikkeller, especially their single hop line of IPAs. Trying those gives you a bunch better idea of what each hop brings to the table. I recommend drinking them side by side if you can.

    @Christopher Mongo is delicious. I had the pleasure of visiting San Diego last summer and stayed 2 blocks away from Pizza Port OB. I think I spent half the trip there ; )

    @Benl Don’t think I’ll get a hold of Hopslam this year but I’ve had it the past two years and it’s one of my all time favorites.

    @Randy Modus FTW! Bonus points for coming in a can.

  • Reply February 8, 2012


    Now I’m not much of a hop head myself, I prefer browns, porters, and hefe weizens. A buddy of mine however, is a huge hop head. He really enjoys great divide’s IPA’s.

  • Reply February 8, 2012


    Lot of good beer ground covered in the article and the comments, but I wanted to give a shoutout to a couple great oak-aged IPA’s.

    Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton is superlative.
    Great Divide’s Rumble is delicious.

  • Reply February 11, 2012


    I really enjoy great divide’s Hercules double ipa. It’s a nice aggressive amount of hops complimented by some good malt flavor.
    The best that I’ve had though is the widmer brothers x-114 ipa, which is one of their rotator series. It was like getting punched in the mouth with a hand full of flowers.

  • Reply February 20, 2012


    before i got real into craft brews i started brewing my own. so my favorite IPA(s) is are the ones i brew. dogfish head has amazing IPAs though.

  • Reply February 24, 2012


    The one ale that introduced me to IPA’s, ans to date is the best one I’ve tasted is Nøgne Ø India Pale Ale, it’s a Norwegian microbrewery, and it’s pretty awesome, probably hard to get by, but if you by chanse find it someplace, for the love of God, tast it!

  • Reply April 30, 2012

    Jay M.

    Coming from Long Island, need to give a shout out to Blue Point’s Hoptical Illusion. Other Favs:
    Founders Centennial IPA
    Sierra Nevada Torpedo
    Sam Adams Latitude 48
    Harpoon IPA
    Stone IPA & Ruination
    Lagunitas Maximus

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  • Reply October 4, 2012


    I can only assume you all left out and Central Oregon IPA’s because most have never been able to experience them.  Bend produces some of the best, right up there with Pliney the Elder and Dogfish Heads 90 Min.  10 Barrel Apocolypse IPA and Boneyard Beer Hop Venom (a double IPA).  Deschutes Red Chair NWPA was just named best beer in the world at the World Beer Awards.  Not just Bend beers though.  Portland’s Hair of the Dog Brewery’s Blue Dot Double IPA is also amazing.  They call us Hop-heads in the PNW for good reason. 

  • Reply January 16, 2013


    Bell’s Two Hearted Ale…all-time favorite brew! Great Lakes Brewing Co Burning River is a solid substitute also.

  • Reply October 18, 2013


    Any Oregon IPA is great, Hop Czar one of my favs

  • Reply June 29, 2014


    Headytopper. Incomparable.

  • Reply November 3, 2014


    Schlaflys T IPA
    Tallgrass Oasis
    Stone enjoy by 10-31-14
    (And believe me I enjoyed it)

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