Why Are IPAs So Popular? Let’s Explore the Phenomenon!

IPAs, or India Pale Ales are the current darling of the craft beer market and have become increasingly popular over the last 20 years or so. IPAs are on the shelves of your local supermarket, virtually every taproom in America has at least two IPAs on draught, and even the non-beer nerds out there know to order an IPA.

And it’s not showing any sign of slowing down either. When business analysts try to predict what the next big thing to replace the IPA will be, the answer is normally another IPA!

Tall glass of beer with the inscription "In Hops We Believe"
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Personally, I love an IPA, it’s the beer that epitomizes everything that is great about the American craft beer revolution. They’re a chance to show off our American hops and are just ever so drinkable. But there is a backlash with some of the craft beer community. A recent tweet in April 2022 by a disgruntled beer drinker bemoaning the lack of variety from Microbreweries has so far received over 75.8 K likes and been retweeted 5,679 times.

screenshot of Aaron Celli's tweet "Dear microbreweries, Maybe instead of your 12th double IPA, making a F*cking Pilsner"
Image courtesy of Twitter

The comments section was filled with vitriolic replies, most of which seemed to support this disgruntled IPA-haters view. One meme even suggested IPA actually stands for “if pinecones were alcohol” – LOL!

Love them or hate them, just why are IPAs so popular, and why are they arguably as much a part of mainstream American culture as apple pie? Let’s take a look at this popular style of beer and, who knows, by the end of this post I may even have converted a few of the IPA haters out there into IPA lovers.

What Is an IPA?

Barry Island IPA can near the tall glass of beer on the wooden table
Image by Brett Jordan on Pexels

Let’s keep this brief. I’m sure if you are flicking through this article you are probably aware of what an IPA is. But to fully understand why the classic taste of an IPA is so popular, we need to quickly touch on its origins, how the beer was adopted by the American craft beer scene as our own, and the many different styles of IPA.

Origins of the IPA

The birth of the IPA as a beer style can be traced back to 19th Century England, and not India. I’m sure most of you have heard the story about how during the British Empire’s colonization of India, the soldiers were wanting beer shipped over to India. India’s hotter climate made the pale ales of England the top choice of refreshing beers. Unfortunately, the voyage from England to India could take several weeks or even months and the traditional pale ales would not keep that long, often arriving spoilt.

A simple solution was to up the alcohol content of the beer, but brewers also knew hops would act as a preservative. More hops in the beer could also mask any off-flavors which may develop. So a stronger, more hoppy version of the English Pale Ales was developed which could better withstand the long sea-faring journeys. The higher ABV and more hop-forward flavor are two of the best-known characteristics of any IPA even to this day.

Classic styles of IPA which come from England tend to use English hop varieties such as Fuggles, Goldings, and East Kent Goldings which have a more subtle flavor profile. The English hops were known to be earthy and herbal with a floral taste.

The refreshing taste of an IPA became increasingly popular when expats returned from the sub-continent of India demanding that brewers produced this beer for the home market too. The pale ales drunk in India became abbreviated to India Pale Ales or IPA.

The IPA and America

As the IPA style grew in popularity, it eventually made its way to other countries including the USA, where American brewers would put their own spin on the IPA.

British immigrants to America in the late 19th century brought with them their preference for and knowledge of brewing IPAs, most notably to Newark, New Jersey where Ballantine’s IPA was generously battered and aged in oak casks and is still thought to be one of America’s first examples of the IPA style. First produced in 1878, the beer endured for nearly 120 years until production was halted in 1996. By then the rebirth of the IPA to become known as an American IPA was in full swing.

What Makes an IPA American?

Green hops spill out of a glass on a white wooden surface
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Ballantine IPA may have been one of the first IPAs produced commercially on our shores, but it bears little resemblance to the big, bold, citrussy IPA flavors we love these days.

Ballantine maintained traditional brewing methods such as dry-hopping and aging the beer in oak barrels, as well as adding distilled extract from whole Bullion hops for conditioning the beer and a more hop-forward taste. In its heyday, Ballantine’s IPA boasted an IBU of 60 and a reasonably high Alcohol by Volume of 7.5%. During its lifetime, the beer commanded a premium price (around $5 a six-pack in the late 70s).

Over the years, and as the brewing of Ballantine’s IPA moved from different sites, aging times were reduced and the hop bitterness diminished. The oak barrels it was aged in gave way to lined Cyprus wood and finally to stainless steel tanks. The alcohol strength was also reduced to 6.7%.

The modern American boom of the IPA can be traced back to two beers: Anchor’s Liberty Ale in 1975, and Bert Grant’s India Pale Ale in 1982. Although both used the cascade hop with its bold American flavors, Liberty Ale didn’t actually carry the moniker IPA.

During the 1990s, the IPA revolution continued with the introduction of Lagunitas IPA (the best-selling IPA today) and Stone IPA. The 90s were when American craft beer drinkers fell in love with the IPA and craft brewers stepped up production and the sheer numbers of different IPAs to meet the demands of beer lovers across the US.

What’s the Difference Between an English IPA and American IPA?

When we talk about the popularity of the IPA, we are really talking about American-style IPAs and the many sub-categories. Although English-style IPAs may have been popular in the past, they often lack that big flavor punch American craft beer lovers are looking for.

If you could sum up the difference in one word, and why we love IPAs so much here in the US, it would be the hops. The English hop varieties like Fuggles or Goldings have a much more subtle flavor profile. American hop varieties used in IPAs such as Cascade, Centennial, and Simcoe have a much more pungent flavor profile of citrus, pine, and resinous notes rather than the subtle earthy and flowery taste.

The malts used in both styles of IPA can also make a difference in the flavor. An IPA should be a fine balance between malt and hops, although the English IPAs tend to lean a little bit more towards the malt side with traditional English pale ale malt and specialty malts such as crystal and biscuit often lending the beer a maltier taste. Here in America, we use a broader range of malts including American pale ale malt, wheat, and rye.

The yeast used also differs, with English IPAs using an English ale yeast which contributes to a beer’s fruity esters and can add to the flavor profile of the finished ale. American IPAs will use a more neutral yeast strain which allows for the hops to shine through more.

Flavorwise, an American IPA is a hophead’s dream come true. The American IPAs are known for their intense hop flavors and aromas with pungent citrus, pine, or resinous character. By comparison, English IPA can often taste quite bland, or perhaps more subtle would be a better way of describing them. They have a more balanced flavor profile with a noticeable hop bitterness which is not as overpowering.

Although the two beer styles can be popular with craft beer lovers, most of the popularity of the IPA can be put down to the bold, hop-forward flavor profile of the American IPAs here in the USA. In many other parts of the world such as South East Asia and Australasia, the American style IPA is more common, and even back in old Blighty itself, the American IPA is brewed by many of the indie breweries of the UK craft community.

blue can of Brewdog Punk IPA on black background
Photo by Elliott Collins on Unsplash

Why Does the IPA Style Appeal to Americans So Much?

The popularity of this bitter, hoppy beer style known as the American IPA can be linked to a much larger factor – the ever-changing taste buds of Americans.

American consumers are growing increasingly fond of more bitter tastes in food and drink, including in their beer. Craft beer lovers are no longer happy to settle for bland lager-style beers, or dark malty beers that are just bitter and sweet. They want a crisp and refreshing flavorful style like the IPA.

Mitch Steel, the brewmaster at Stone Brewing Company and author of the book “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale”, gives an analogy of tasting coffee to describe this change in our taste buds.

IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale
  • Steele, Mitch (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 350 Pages - 10/16/2012 (Publication Date) - Brewers Publications (Publisher)

“It’s a lot like coffee I think”, Mitch says, “If you don’t like coffee the first time you taste it, which most people don’t, then you get used to it. It becomes an acquired taste, and then you start enjoying some of the bitter components and things that you find”.

For people who have been brought up on domestic adjunct lagers, an IPA can be challenging at first. But as your tastebuds get accustomed to the hoppy flavor of an IPA you start seeking out other more bitter, hop-forward flavors in your beer.

Obviously, Mitch is an IPA fan himself, just look at the beers Stone has produced over the years. For Mitch, like many others, it’s the hops that give him the taste, “which is not the case for other American beers that are much flatter”, Mitch goes on to explain.

A true innovator of the American craft beer revolution, the IPA is the ideal showcase for our bold and beautiful American hops. Hop breeding programs in established places like the University Of Washington, the Yakima Valley, and even California means the American hop industry is larger than ever before.

The US is currently the second biggest hop producer in the world (after China, of course – they’re the biggest producer of everything, it seems) and American hops dominate the craft beer scene globally.

India Pale Ale’s Popularity and Its Wide Reach

Many different tin cans and plastic bottles of IPA on a wooden counter
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Ten of the top 20 beers in the Beer Advocate’s Top 250 are IPAs or some rendition of the style. The popularity of the IPA has seen many sub-categories appear such as the West Coast IPA, the East Coast IPA, the Hazy IPA, the Imperial IPA, and even a Black IPA (isn’t the “p” in IPA supposed to stand for pale?).

All the styles are hop-forward beers and can be incredibly bitter, especially some of the Double or Triple Imperial IPAs. At one time it seemed like every craft brewer was trying to “out hop” each other in an attempt to make the IPAs more bitter. Beers such as Stones Arrogant Bastard Ale or Ruination and the Alchemist Heady Topper Imperial IPA could be a challenge to drink with IBU levels reaching close to 100 IBUs.

Incidentally, IBU stands for International Bitterness Unit and is the way the bitterness of a beer is measured. More specifically, IBUs measure the parts per million of isohumulone from hops in a beer, which gives beer bitterness. The upper limit of IBUs, which some IPAs get close to, is 120 IBU. After that, the human taste buds can’t really taste the difference, many claim.

Session IPAs have recently become one of the more popular IPAs for craft beer lovers who don’t quite want the eye-watering bitterness of a regular or Imperial IPA and also want a lower ABV beer. It almost seems like a contradiction of the base style which is supposed to be higher in alcohol and hop dominated, but many of the citrus or piney flavors and aromas can carry through without too high a bitterness for a much more drinkable beer for the masses.

IPA’s Dominance of the US Craft Beer Market

The growing popularity of IPA is closely tied to the rise of the craft beer movement. Craft breweries, with their emphasis on quality, innovation, and experimentation, have played a crucial role in popularizing IPA.

These small, independent breweries have been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of beer styles, often showcasing IPAs as their flagship offerings. The craft beer movement has created a culture of exploration and appreciation for diverse and bold flavors, making IPAs an attractive choice for beer enthusiasts seeking new taste experiences.

The sheer variety of IPA styles and the number of craft brewers producing them means IPA now holds a nearly 40% share of the craft beer market, making them the most popular style of craft beer. They even have their own “IPA Day”, normally the first Thursday of August.

Every time an IPA “burnout” is threatened, a new style seems to come along which bolsters the category. In recent years hazy or New England IPAs have come to dominate the category. Currently, it’s the Session IPA which seems most popular, but there are also new varieties like the Fruit IPA, which add to the citrussy flavors with fresh fruit, and the Belgian IPA for fans of Belgian-style beers.

The Craft Brewers Love IPAs Too

From the perspective of the Craft beer industry, IPAs certainly have their merits. Compared to many other styles of beer, especially lagers with their longer layering processes, IPAs have a relatively quick brew-to-bottle time. The extra hops in the IPA are notoriously forgiving about off-flavors, which makes them an ideal choice for novice brewers, both professional and homebrew enthusiasts.

In fact, the Imperial IPA was actually created by a brewer who was worried about the dilapidated state of his brewing equipment likely to cause off-flavors in his beer, so he added more hops to mask any unwanted tastes, and Pliny the Elder was born.

Can the Love Affair With IPAs Last? – Final Thoughts

Almost definitely. It will be a very sad day when I come to write an obituary for the IPA style.

Although many critics of IPAs argue they are just the latest fad, they’ve certainly been a long fad, going back to the start of the American craft beer revolution and coming to dominance in the last 20 years or so. For beer drinkers who are not accustomed to craft beers, they can be a great introduction to the craft beer universe.

Independent craft brewers often treat the IPA like a blank canvas which they decorate with different styles of hops, different hopping methods, and new flavor profiles. IPAs can be some of the most flavorsome beers out there, with their citrusy, piney, and often dank or resinous tastes. And the fact that every craft brewery and bar in America has at least one IPA will ensure their popularity continues.

As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of the IPA and a devoted hophead. Hopefully, I have converted a few of the IPA-haters out there to give the IPA another chance.

Whether you are a hop aficionado or a casual beer drinker looking for an adventure in taste, IPAs offer a rich and immersive experience that continues to captivate beer lovers worldwide. So, next time you find yourself at a brewery or beer store, don’t hesitate to dive into the world of IPAs and explore the multitude of flavors this popular beer style has to offer.

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