The Curious Case Of The American IPA or: How The Beavers Changed Craft Beer

craft beer american IPA on bar

Turning Craft’s mission is to convert the world to craft beer, one drinker at a time.

Forget about East India beer. It’s all about the West Coast.

For more than a decade, it has been the most entered craft beer category in the Great American Beer Festival and the top craft beer for US retailers, as well. The beer style is so popular, in fact, that it has been exported back to the old country. For instance, in Belgium, the Flemish brewery De Proefbrouwerj, brews up an American IPA under the name Viven IPA.

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soldiers who may have been drinking the first IPA

Some armies march on their liver

But what is it? How is the American version different from the classic English IPA or the newer American Pale Ale? Legend has it that the light, hoppy style first exported by the Bow Brewery to India was an immediate hit with the troops, but the fact that Bow offered the East India Company liberal 18-month terms on payment probably had something to do with it.

Regardless, according to Ray Daniels in his book, Designing Great Beers: the Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles, the term “India Pale Ale” was in use by 1840, and commonly used in America by 1900. Anyone who produces a work with a title that pedantic would know.

The American IPA is, in a nutshell, an attempt to recreate the classic English style with domestic ingredients, which goes back well before the founding of the Republic, when brewers were trying to reproduce the porters and ales of the old country. Their success was better than that of their Spanish neighbors to the south, whose attempts to make domestic rum gave us tequila. Those alarming results aren’t really relevant to IPA’s, but I thought you should know.

In America, though, by the 1850’s, English style ales were fighting an uphill battle as waves of German and Eastern European immigrants brought with them the lagers of Germania. They grew to dominate the brewing industry and were the only styles to survive Prohibition. So it really wasn’t even until 1980 that the American Pale Ale was developed.

Like brewing good beer, it is impossible to tell the story of American IPAs without hops.

Variants developed in America – like Cascade, Chinook and Amarillo are what make what make American IPA, well, American. Cascade hops, noted for their citrusy, floral quality, were invented at the Oregon State University in 1971. So… Go Beavers!

Despite American innovations, traditional styles never exactly escape the rumors that surround them. IPAs became associated with the Indian Army troops, and like anything else associated with soldiers, it had a reputation for packing an alcoholic wallop.

That wasn’t exactly true; IPAs didn’t have significantly more alcohol than other pale ales of the day. Still, the rumor persisted. Then in 1994, Vinnie Cilurzo tried to make it “true” by introducing what may have been the first Imperial (Double) IPA at the now shuttered Blind Pig Brewery (both Vinnie’s innovation and W-9 live on at Russian River Brewing). This high gravity style of IPA is, more or less, the American style on steroids. Depending who you ask, the term “Imperial,” from that seat of empire, Santa Rosa, CA, is either a reference to a style brewed for the Russian Imperial Court or an exercise on marketing to the “when men were men” segment (or both).

The Brewer’s Association recognizes three official categories of IPAs:

  • English IPA
  • American IPA
  • Imperial (Double) IPA

But a simple categorical slot fails to get to the wort of the matter.

English IPA’s are fairly uniform wherein the American style varies widely in two main camps that evolved mainly through a simple matter of logistics. East Coast IPAs tend to favor the spicy European hops because if you ship out of the Port of Bordeaux and head west you can’t help but run into America’s East Coast. It’s just sitting there in the way. On the west coast, however, with easy access to the hops fields of the Pacific Northwest, they tend to hop local.

In more centrally located Nashville, TN, the good people at Yazoo Brewing Company have decided to split the difference within the two camps. What’s more, they’ve decided that the difference can be split infinitely and still produce great results. Yazoo’s Hop Project brew is just that, a project. They never make the same two, identical batches. They use a different, but heaping, blend of hops each time. The hopeless beer nerd can go to the company’s website and use the bottle-on date to decode the blend for that particular batch.

In the spirit of the scientific method, I’ve randomly selected several different batches over a period of a couple of years and have never been disappointed. For the less adventurous, Yazoo also produces a consistently refreshing American Pale Ale.

The story of the American IPA, then, is very much the story of America.

A classic from the old country was rendered in colonial flavors, adrift as the Republic’s ethnic profile changed and rediscovered with the new appreciation for craft and where it came from. And here you were, thinking you were just drinking a beer.

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Writer, humorist. Have covered tomfoolery across Hell's half acre and Clarksdale, MS. Former brewer of Murffbrau - then did the world a favor and stopped.

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