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.