Get to know: India pale ale

A pint glass filled with golden India pale ale on a deep blue background.

India pale ales are one of the most in-your-face beer styles, and fans really love them. Here’s everything you need to know about these big, bold, bitter brews

India pale ales (IPAs) are one of the most popular styles of beer. They’re definitely one of the most talked about too.

So why all the fuss? Let’s start with where IPAs come from and how they got their name.

The history

Back in the 19th century, British brewers wanted to sell beer to their compatriots in India. The problem: It had to survive a months-long sea voyage from England without spoiling. Since hops are a natural preservative, brewers got the idea to stuff their pale ales with unheard-of helpings of the green stuff.

Or so the story goes. Another theory says massively hoppy ales became popular in India because they’re real thirst-quenchers — especially when there’s hot weather and flavourful food in the picture.

But maybe the simplest explanation is the best: Some people enjoy beer with a lot of bite. That’s certainly the main reason they’re all the rage in our time.

Today’s IPA

It’s hard to believe now, but IPAs went more or less forgotten for most of the 20th century. Brewers rediscovered them around the 1990s, and today it seems like they’re everywhere you look.

Because beer makers love experimenting with ingredients, India pale ales come in a wider variety of flavours, colours and bitterness levels than ever before. There’s plenty to explore, so here’s your map for navigating this new landscape.

IPA 101: The basics

  • Overall flavour: Often sweet and almost always bitter, with characteristic citrus, tropical fruit and resin-like pine aromas, IPAs can be pretty heady. Fans love them for their sense of adventure and the fact that they can go toe to toe with the spiciest, richest and starchiest meals.

  • The malt: India pale ales are made with a wide variety of malts, from very pale to dark, so they range in colour from milky yellow to deep brown (more on black IPAs below). Whatever the colour, they tend to include lots of malt, which gives them a robust sweetness — they can even remind you of fruit juice or candy in some cases.

  • The hops: The first things you’ll notice about IPAs are their intense bitterness and bold aromas — they’re the brews’ defining features, actually. Both are created by adding bucketloads of hops, which leave behind that famous lip-smacking bitter edge and sharp, fruity notes in the finished beer.

Fun facts to know about hops and IPAs

Because IPAs are all about the hops, brewers list the specific varieties on the label more often than they do on other kinds of beer. Common examples include Citra, Mosaic, Centennial, Chinook and, last but not least, Cascade, which helped propel IPAs back to fame a few decades ago.

Some IPAs are single-hopped, which means they contain just one variety. These beers give you a chance to really learn how, say, Citra tastes different from Mosaic.

India pale ales are often dry-hopped, which means the flavourful little buds are added to the beer late in the brewing process for extra-fresh aromas and tang. You’ll even see the term “double dry-hopped.”

Brewers are also likely to list International Bitterness Units (IBUs) on IPA containers. Between 55 and 70 IBUs is typical, but mouth-puckering numbers as high as 100 are not unheard of.

The three main styles

India pale ales may have originated in England or India, depending on how you look at it, but the west and east coasts of North America are where they were reborn. Lucky for us, Ontario sits comfortably in the middle, making it a kind of neutral ground where brewers make all kinds of different styles — and beer lovers have plenty of choice.

  • English-style IPA: In the early 20th century, taxes on beer ingredients went up, forcing British brewers to dial back their IPAs. So English-style IPAs evolved to become mellower and less bitter, which allowed the sweet malt flavours to come through. Fans sometimes describe English-style IPAs as “full-flavoured.”

  • West Coast IPA: Born on the west coast of North America (from British Columbia down to California), the West Coast IPA is the punchiest, most extreme version of the style. It’s less malty but hoppier than the others.

  • East Coast IPA: Not as in-your-face as West Coast IPA but usually much more bitter than the English style, East Coast IPA is kind of the Goldilocks option in the middle. Created in New England and often fairly pale, East Coast IPA offers up big fruit flavours, thanks to copious dry-hopping. Fans often describe this style as “juicy.”

Other terms and variations

You’ll come across plenty of other interesting terms in your IPA travels. Here’s what some of the key ones mean.

  • Session IPA: This refers to a very refreshing IPA that’s lighter in body and flavour.

  • Hazy IPA: If an East Coast IPA is as hard to see through as Boston fog, brewers will sometimes label it a hazy IPA (or a New England IPA, after the place it originated). What’s going on? Quite often these beers are heavily dry-hopped and/or include high-protein grains like oats, spelt and wheat, which leave behind proteins that block light from travelling directly through the beer.

  • White IPA: Essentially a mashup between Belgian witbier and North American–style IPA, it’s definitely something to try when you’re sitting on a patio.

  • Black IPA: Stout fans, take note! This super dark IPA is a West Coast creation, with sweet flavours of toffee and caramel that come from the addition of dark malt. If you’re looking for an IPA that’s suitable for wintry weather, this is it.

  • Double IPA: Calling a beer a “double IPA” is a brewer’s way of telling you it’s even more intense than their usual recipe.

Classic IPA food pairings

Big beer calls for big food and vice versa. When you’re looking for a brew to pair with something rich, starchy, spicy or fruity — or any combination of those — there’s a good chance an IPA is the best partner. Here are some pairings we love.

  • Spicy foods: If a dish features intense heat or aromas of herbs and spices, think IPAs. They’re great with all the fiery dishes you can handle — whether they’re Thai, Mexican or suicide chicken wings.

  • Fruity flavours: India pale ales are natural matches for fruity foods, thanks to the tropical fruit aromas the hops lend them (such as pineapple, mango and papaya). May we suggest one to go alongside our jerk chicken with peach salsa?

  • Fatty and starchy (at the same time): India pale ales’ powerful bitterness helps clear the palate, no matter what you’re loading up on it. So try them with your most filling meals: poutine, a pile of our sheet pan home fries with IPA aioli or a meaty, spicy pizza.

  • A bit of everything: There’s one dish that brings together all the elements of a great IPA pairing: Mexican street corn gives you spice, tangy citrus, and creamy mayo and cheese. An IPA won’t overwhelm the delicate corn, and the food flavours won’t mask the boldness of the beer. Get a few kernels — and sips — in, and you’ll see why.

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