When I was asked to write a guide to the many different styles of IPA by MASH and Marble Brewery back in 2020, it came from both a desire for a greater perspective and a sense of frustration. After opening one too many cans labelled “West Coast IPA”, only to pour a beer that was both hazy and juicy, and distinctly lacking in any of the assertive bitterness that defines the style, someone needed to take a stand. Me being me, I self-designated the role of “someone.”
To the educated beer connoisseur — very much a minority, even among beer drinkers themselves — the language of IPA comes instinctively. They know their Citra from their Nelson Sauvin. But to the majority of people, labels like NEIPA, DDH, and the other myriad terms associated with one of beer’s most argued-over styles, are ultimately meaningless. You could even go a step further and suggest they’re a form of gatekeeping; if beer is truly for everyone, why go to such great effort to make it so complicated? IPA used to mean “strong and hoppy”, but now it could pretty much mean anything. Today’s breweries are as comfortable using it to label what is essentially an alcoholic fruit smoothie as they are for a beer that tastes like licking a goat.
This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of people doing their best to educate folks and make IPA in all forms more accessible. But in my experience, as someone who has swung from evangelical to irreverent with regard to my own enthusiasm on the subject, most people don’t know — or care — what “12 grams per litre of dry hopping” means. They just want to drink something tasty and get buzzed in the process.
Even so, I think defining what IPA means in a modern context, along with all of its continually expanding subgenres, is important. An informed drinker is a more mindful, appreciative drinker, after all. And as Brooklyn brewmaster and author of The Oxford Companion to Beer Garrett Oliver once told me: “Style is important. Style is power.”
In this instance, he was referring to how French winemakers have been so effective in defining, marketing and selling their product that they hold all of the cards. When it comes to beer, producers are often powerless in this regard; forever chasing what they think the market needs, rather than taking control and dictating this for themselves.
As a result, IPA as a style has become increasingly perplexing to consumers as it is continually repackaged and redefined to suit the needs of brewery sales and marketing teams all over the world. This guide, now in its second edition, is my attempt to cut through that confusion.
IPA has a complicated history, rooted in a heavily, often uncomfortably romanticised version of Britain’s colonial past. This guide, however, is not a history of the style, but of the many substyles that make up modern IPA as a whole. In fact, it could be argued that “IPA” and “India Pale Ale” are now two completely separate things. This is specifically about the former.
For further historical reading on India Pale Ale I highly recommend Pete Brown’s 2010 book Hops and Glory, and then unpacking its ties to colonialism by a 2021 essay by David Jesudason for Good Beer Hunting. Morally, we probably shouldn’t be calling beer IPA at all, but millions of people all over the world have a vague understanding of what it means in terms of what a beer tastes like, and thus we are stuck with it, for now.
First, I feel we should define what makes a beer an IPA in the first place (from my perspective, anyway). An IPA is a strong beer. It’s about the art of balancing the weight of alcohol and a deliciously rich body, created (in its most basic form) by plenty of malted barley, against a large amount of hops. It’s about a certain intensity of flavour, yes, but it’s also about the most important thing in any beer: balance.
In terms of strength, I believe IPA should start at roughly, but not exclusively, 5.9% ABV. Although, honestly, I like them stronger, from about 6.5% upwards, as the weight of alcohol allows for bolder, richer flavours in the beer. The BJCP guidelines — widely accepted by the industry and often used as a guide in beer competitions — state that IPAs start at 5.5%. However, I feel there’s a grey area here between IPA and stronger pale ales, and with a concise definition being the end goal of this guide, I’m sticking with a higher ABV.
As a result, I do not consider “session IPA” to be a genuine subcategory, because let’s be honest, these are pale or golden ales rebadged to shift units. If style truly is power, then I think it makes sense to be strict with regards to these lower-strength beers.
Other drinks producers seem to have a much better grasp of why alcohol content is so valuable when creating a strong definition. For example, in distilling, you can’t call a 39% grain spirit aged in oak barrels for three or more years whisky. It has to be 40% or above. This is another example of what I believe Garrett Oliver meant when he said style is power, and how influential a true, internationally recognised definition for modern IPA and its expanding catalogue of sub-genres could be. Not just in terms of helping beer nerds make sense of it all, but in terms of everyone else.
I love IPA — it was this kind of beer that, over a decade ago, made me excited enough to want to write about it. I don’t know of another beer style that spurs so much debate. It’s almost tribal in how it divides those who drink it, and those who don’t, and this is part of what makes IPA so wonderfully compelling, as well as a sheer joy to drink.
Please enjoy this guide, but try not to take it too seriously.
This is the style that originated on the Californian West Coast in the late 1970s (or possibly even earlier) and sparked a global beer revolution, leaving us with what we now know as “craft beer”.
West Coast IPA should be on the stronger side, from around 5.9% to 7.9% (beyond this, double IPA lies). I prefer my Westies to be crystal clear, or with a very light haze. If they stray too far into translucency, I feel they begin to fall outside the category, because this style is also about defined, punchy flavour, and it’s a fact that clear beers taste cleaner. The best WCIPAs should be as drinkable as a lager, despite being much stronger, such is their mastery of balance and refreshment.
West Coast IPA should showcase classic north-western American hop varieties such as (but not limited to) Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra, with flavours veering towards pithy or candied citrus along with pine resin aromas. Use of speciality malts, such as crystal malt, should be encouraged, as this gives the beer the necessary balance that makes it so tasty. The finish should be bitter, but not too bitter, as this creates its all-important drinkability. Remember, no one outside of beer cares what an IBU is, so there’s little point making a beer so hideously astringent they never want to see the term again.
If West Coast IPAs were the punks blazing modern beer’s trail, then NEIPAs are the post-punks; a new wave of brewers creating gloriously one-note, austerity laden beers, concentrating on one particular factor: juice. Fruit flavours that loop endlessly like a Krautrock beat, creating the impression that they are somehow appealing to many, when actually they are mainly loved by a very hardcore niche that largely exists on Instagram.
Originating in the US states of Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts — forever condemning the style to be pronounced phonetically as “neepahs” in any non-English speaking nation — this style has taken the brewing world by storm. In fact, the way it has blown the IPA genre wide open is arguably the reason why guides like this need to exist.
They are focused on showcasing hop aromatics exclusively, as opposed to hops and malt in harmony. They pour from the slightly translucent to the entirely opaque, with very little speciality malt adding colour or flavour. In addition to barley, oats and wheat are also used to give them a soft, almost pillowy mouthfeel, before being liberally doused with modern hop varieties, notably Mosaic, for a total fruit experience. They should never, ever, taste like I’m chewing aspirin (but I accept they can sometimes veer towards savoury notes of onion and chive, which I often enjoy when it’s not too overwhelming.)
A session IPA is not an IPA. It is a marketing term designed to sell you lower strength beer on the premise of it being as intensely hoppy as its stronger cousins. In reality, these beers are pale, or golden ales. In the past I have been told by brewers that a session IPA is brewed with the same amount of hops as an IPA, but some of those brewers also make beers called DDH pale ales, so which is it? Call it pale, call it golden, call it a hoppy bitter for all I care, but please let’s stop giving these low strength pretenders the credibility of a true IPA.
This is where things begin to get a confusing (if you weren’t confused enough already) because this label could technically apply to any IPAs above or below it on this list.
A lot of modern DIPAs are in fact very strong NEIPAs, but some are WCIPAs. Some brewers still call their beers IIPAs, preferring “imperial” over “double” (as if the original name itself didn’t already have enough colonial undertones.) Now I too am confused.
When an IPA veers into this territory it means that the beer is very strong, typically in the range of around 7.5%, up to about 9.9%. The term “double” generally refers to the fact that these recipes use around twice the hops and malt as regular IPA — which intensifies the flavour, as well as the beer’s strength. Done well, they are very delicious, with gratuitous hopping disguising any alcohol burn, bar a pleasing warmth as it slinks down your throat.
This is IPA in extremis. As with double IPA it can be applied to all sub-genres, but generally applies to West Coast and New England styles that are brewed in excess of 10%. It could be argued that some of these beers are hoppy barleywines, rather than IPA. (In fact, if you leave a can or bottle of one in ambient temperatures for long enough it will soon become one, as the volatile hop-derived compounds in the beer gradually begin to break down).
Being such a high strength often means that these beers have a high finishing gravity, providing a sticky, sweet platform for ridiculously high hopping rates. Most of these beers are kind of ridiculous but can be a lot of fun. There are also quadrupel IPAs if you’d believe it (and if you’re reading this guide you probably would), but let’s be honest with ourselves here, who really wants to drink a 15% beer? Some people pretend drinking several of these in one sitting is an enjoyable experience, presumably right before blacking out in a pool of their own chunder.
A fresh, wet, or green-hop IPA is simply one that has been made using fresh, whole cone hops which have been recently harvested and not dried, kilned or processed in any way. Typically, around four-times the volume of hops is required when used this way, making it hugely inefficient and expensive. However, it also produces some remarkable, and often delicious flavours, leading to some very special beers.
Hop harvest, usually beginning in early March, is one of the most glorious times of the year. Standing in a field of towering hop bines packed with juicy cones ready for picking is an intoxicating experience, both literally and figuratively, as hops contain essential oils that when fresh, make you drowsy.
We have strayed so far from the light. In terms of India Pale Ale — a beer allegedly brewed in Burton-upon-Trent before being shipped off to colonial India to be enjoyed by the British Raj — this is where the concept supposedly began. Today’s English IPAs are strong, showcasing the richness of British barley varieties like Maris Otter and Golden Promise, shored with sackfuls of herbaceous, fruity, bitter, and resinous English hop varieties. They are often criminally underrated when compared to their American and Antipodean counterparts.
I was in two minds about including this as its own style but have decided to do so because New Zealand hops have such a unique character, giving IPAs hopped with them a distinctive taste of their own. The flavour is a sublime blend of herbal characteristics alongside vinous, white grape and tropical fruit notes. In terms of appearance an NZIPA shares the bright finish of its West Coast sibling, its colour veering towards the caramel end of the spectrum. Be careful not to confuse this style with the New Zealand Institute of Patent Attorneys, which utilises the same acronym.
Thinking along the same lines, you could also have Australian IPA, and South African IPA, as these hop-growing nations also produce varieties with a distinctive terroir of their own. However, Kiwi brewers really seem to have taken strong ownership of this style, to the point where it feels different enough to other existing kinds of IPA, that it deserves to be properly defined.
If the Czechs are defined by anything, it’s that they’re resolute when it comes to their brewing traditions. Beer is life within the Czech Republic, which is probably why they drink more of it per capita than any other nation on the planet. While craft breweries have slowly emerged here, the nation is still defined largely by pale and golden lagers, brewed using a triple decoction method with Moravian barley and Saaz hops, and some of the softest brewing water in the world.
What happens then, if you follow these brewing traditions to the note, but shoot for a slightly higher ABV, and use hops imported from the Pacific Northwest? You get the Bohemian IPA, of course! Combining the round, sweet mouthfeel of a good Světlý Ležák with the aromatic, dry, and bitter finish Czech golden lagers are treasured for, plus the booming, citrus and tropical aromatics of North American hops, you somehow end up with an experience that’s the best of both worlds. Especially when it’s served from a Lukr side pour tap, and capped with a mountain of delicious, hop-rich foam.
This is a category I just made up. See how easy it is? But just as certain hazy styles emerged just under a decade ago in the northeastern United States, so too were they being created under railway arches in Bermondsey, South London. If you drink a beer from The Kernel, who pioneered this style, you will probably agree that it doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories listed above. It’s hopped like a modern IPA, yes, it’s a little hazy but not super opaque, and it has a certain bitter tang without the resinous quality of a proper West Coast IPA. If we’re going to have Mountain IPA, Desert IPA and Middle-of-the-Arctic-Tundra IPA, then I’m sure as hell here for London IPA; evidence that regionality in British beer is still very much alive and well. To put a beer from The Kernel in any of the other categories listed in this guide is difficult.
While it might be a little lazy to lump these three very delicious IPA styles into one category, I believe their defining characteristics are similar enough to allow it. This trio runs close to the West Coast IPA in terms of hop profile — leaning towards citrus and pine — but have a much darker appearance and sweeter taste, usually with a slightly more rounded mouthfeel.
Brown IPAs might veer a little more to the roasty side, reds often have a wonderful caramel quality, while rye IPAs have a kick of white pepper spice imbued by this very delicious grain. But all three can share characteristics of their next of kin. Often overlooked because of their darker appearance, some of the absolute best IPAs out there fall into this category.
The source of much hubris (it was once described by the venerable Roger Protz as “an insult to history”, although I believe Roger has since relinquished these views) the black IPA is an enigmatic style with a hardcore fanbase, which I proudly count myself among. Black IPA is sometimes referred to as a Cascadian Dark Ale, which — let’s be honest — is even more confusing than its more frequently used oxymoronic moniker. Despite its black or dark brown appearance, what it shares with paler IPAs are qualities of strength and a well-defined hop character.
There is some debate as to how these beers should present themselves. Some think they require a healthy dose of roasted malt amid the hops, while others believe that this brings the style too close to hoppy stout territory and that they should befuddle the senses with overt citrus and pine hop character. For the sake of placating both camps, I will say it can fall anywhere on this spectrum, but with it being an IPA it should have focused hop flavour. Basically, if you’re served one blind and you think it’s an IPA, not a stout, then it’s definitely a black IPA.
Alas, what became of the White IPA? Allegedly, this hybrid between the West Coast IPA and Belgian witbier emerged when American drinkers looking for a hoppy hit in a mellower package were ordering half an IPA cut with half a wit.
I saw this once myself, and was mildly horrified when, while in Colorado, I witnessed someone order an “Easy Elephant” — a custom blend of Odell IPA and the same brewery’s sessionable wheat beer, Easy Street. From this emerged a hazy, hoppy take on both the Belgian wit and the German hefeweizen styles. Not quite as funky or yeast driven as the Belgian IPA, but with definite yeast derived flavour characteristics in the mix. It could even be argued that these were a precursor to New England IPAs, as brewers sought to dial down ester profiles, keep the pillowy mouthfeel, and increase juice levels to infinity.
A decade ago, Mountain IPA meant something very different to me. It described a beer that was deeply malt driven and righteously bitter, as was the predominant style being brewed in Colorado at the time. I remember the first time I drank Dale’s Pale Ale (which at 6.5% I’ve always considered an IPA, despite its name) and feeling like the enamel was being stripped from my teeth. It was a good time.
Now however, this has changed. It is currently the most popular in an interchangeable set of terms that indicates that this is neither aligned to the East nor West Coast, instead being a hybrid of both. I have also heard these referred to as no-coast IPAs, which is a term I prefer, but admit is far less romantic. The issue I have with this genre is that the spectrum is incredibly wide — almost too large to properly define — with some beers leaning almost wholly towards the bitter snap of the West, and some unquestionably just hazy IPAs using another term.
I believe terms like “Mountain” and “no-coast” can be useful, but only if they are properly defined and have guidelines applied to them. Until then, they can mean whatever the brewer wants them to, which is a problem.
When the late Roger Ryman of St Austell brewery used an enzyme called amyloglucosidase (AMG) to produce a strong American-style IPA with a bone dry finish called Big Job in 2012, he perhaps unwittingly invented the Brut IPA. However, the style will likely go down in history as the creation of Kim Sturdavant, formerly of San Francisco’s Social Kitchen and Brewery. Kim not only used AMG but served his “Brut” IPA under increased pressure on draft, creating champagne-like fizz and mousse-y foam.
If you travel to the San Francisco Bay Area the Brut IPA style is something of a local artefact, and is quite special, but the way it spread across the brewing world via online exchanges caused it to lose something. I’d argue that, while many beers released under this moniker had low finishing gravities and were unquestionably dry, they lacked the spritz and vibrancy possessed by those I tried on tap in Northern California in spring 2019. Because it was spread by word of mouth, rather than experiencing the beer in person, I feel the qualities that made it unique were lost in translation. Bar a few key exponents of the style like Kim, it will likely be confined to the history books as something that never quite caught on.
I remember when fruited IPA meant beers like Grapefruit Sculpin and New Belgium Citradelic; a dose of fruit added to enhance the hop characteristics already present within West Coast IPAs. Looking back, this was an earlier example of brewers trying to create softer, juicier beers. Then, as things often do when it comes to IPA, we jumped the shark. Habanero IPA anyone? Hey how about we just dump in a load of unpasteurised fruit and can it? It’s fine, we’ll sell it quickly anyway, and when they start exploding due to secondary fermentation in the can we can just tell our customers it’s their fault for not storing it correctly. Problem solved.
But I digress. There have since been a lot of very delicious IPAs made by the addition of whole or pureed fruit. Has it gotten out of hand? Maybe. But if people are buying and enjoying these beers I can’t see the problem. Until someone loses an eye to a can-launched shuriken, that is.
I deliberately chose to separate sour and fruited IPAs, even though there are many beers that technically fall into both categories. There are out and out soured IPAs, using bacteria such as lactobacillus to add spritzy, citric acidity, and then there are IPAs that use fruit to create the impression of tartness. Then there are those that do all of that, then add lactose to create sour, fruited, milkshake IPA. This alone is demonstrative of how bonkers the IPA category is, and why it’s so important to take control of these definitions so that they can be used to accurately describe how a beer tastes to consumers. People don’t want to pay $11 for a beer and end up with a product not as advertised, so if your IPA is sour, please put it in very big letters on the can.
The farmhouse IPA exists as a separate category to sour IPA because Brettanomyces does not make beer sour. These could also fall into the “Belgian IPA” category but Brettanomyces literally translates to “British yeast” so that doesn’t work either. We could call them Brett IPAs I guess, but given that most people have no idea who, or what Brett is, that would be even more confusing.
This is a questionable subgenre of IPA for me because Brett loves to eat, and that includes hop bitterness and aroma, instead replacing it with funky, sometimes fruity (e.g. pineapple) notes as it goes about its business. It’s perhaps a good way of selling heavily-hopped saisons to folks that don’t know what a saison is, which is probably a lot of people. I’m not sure the term works for me, but to be fair, many very tasty beverages fall into this category.
Get behind me Satan I beseech thee. Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme — all beer is valid after all — but for me the IPA is an expression of malt and hops; of sweet barley sugars balanced with the resinous hit of fruity hops followed by a dry, bitter finish. The milkshake IPA is antithesis to this; a cloying hit of sugar that doesn’t provide the refreshment I require when taking a sip of beer. However, I get it; people vape.
A milkshake IPA is a subgenre of NEIPA that uses lactose, or milk sugar, to add body and sweetness in the same way a brewer would when making a milk stout. Despite not being my thing personally, I have been impressed with some, so called “vegan” milkshake IPAs, which substitute lactose for whole vanilla, adding a perplexingly sweet hit without an overwhelmingly rich hit of juice. This also showcases the inherent problem with using an animal product in a beer recipe, as it immediately makes it less accessible to a larger number of would-be drinkers.
There is a further subcategory of “ice cream” IPAs, made to taste like — would you believe it — popular flavours of ice cream. For brevity I have included them within these guidelines.
Cold IPA is the latest addition to the constantly (exhaustingly) expanding list of IPA substyles. However, despite repeated objections, this is not simply a rebadged IPL. Nor is it the latest in a cynical stream of marketing ploys to get us to buy more beer (OK, there’s maybe a little bit of that, but only a little.) In fact, the Cold IPA, pioneered by Wayfinder Beer of Portland, Oregon, has its origins rooted in pre-prohibition US brewing traditions, and historic styles such as cream ale. This influence manifests itself in the grain bill, where an adjunct of either rice or corn is used alongside barley. The beer is then fermented using a bottom-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures (not unlike a California common, or steam beer), with the combination producing a beer that is drier, and more crisp than a traditional IPA, but which is not really a lager, and therefore not an IPL.
Once I had dusted off my own cynicism and tried some, I found myself getting excited, because they’re really, really good. I love crispy, refreshing beers that make me want to order them again and again — especially when they’re packed full of enthralling, citrusy hop character. Cold IPA is proof to me that IPA itself still has plenty of potential, even if adding another term to so many others is going to continue to confuse the majority of people in bars and bottle shops.
Honestly, the only thing that should really matter is that the beer in your hand tastes great, and Cold IPA absolutely does. But I worry that the further the genre expands and attempts to pigeonhole itself, the more craft beer looks like a hobby for a select number of enthusiasts with the money to do so, and not as an accessible beverage that can be easily appreciated by anyone, as beer should be.
This story is provided courtesy of Pellicle Magazine.