Author: Lucy Corne
Pictures: Lucy Corne

The 2008 Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines listed three different variants of India Pale Ale – English, American and imperial. Seven years later, when the guidelines were updated, the BJCP added six further substyles of speciality IPA and last year, a seventh variant was added – the equally loved and loathed New England IPA.

Everyone has heard some version of the “how IPA began” story – a tale involving lengthy boat journeys to British colonies, high doses of hops and as much myth and legend as historical fact. But one fact that cannot be disputed is that the majority of IPAs brewed today bear very little resemblance to the ales once shipped from Burton to the Indian subcontinent. IPA got a major facelift when US craft brewers got hold of the style, ramping it up with more booze and more hops, notably pungent aroma hops. And the style has continued to evolve, boasting more changes in appearance than Madonna or Michael Jackson back in their 1980s heyday.

It began with the double, or imperial, IPA back in the 90s – a beer the BJCP describes as being developed to “satisfy the need of hop aficionados for increasingly intense products”. The popularity of the double IPA would grow and see breweries around the world adding the heavily hopped, high-ABV beer to their core range.

Pale in name only…

Around the same time another beer emerged; one that wouldn’t quite grab the long-term attention of the increasingly fickle craft beer drinker. The black IPA – also sometimes known as Cascadian Dark Ale – is the quintessential example of how faddish craft beer can sometimes be. Once upon a time – in the early to mid-2000s to be precise – everyone wanted to try their hand at the style. Today you’d struggle to find one at a beer fest boasting hundreds of taps. Many saw the Black IPA as gimmicky. Designed to offer the same heady hop character as a standard American IPA, but with a colour akin to a porter or stout, the black IPA wasn’t meant to offer up a prominent roasted malt character. Brewers used de-husked dark malts to try and get all of the colour without much of the malt-derived bitterness or burnt, acrid flavours. To some it seemed a pointless act – trying to create something that tasted much like existing IPAs but that simply looked different. And others could not get past the oxymoronic nature of a ‘pale ale’ that was deep, deep brown.

Black IPA quickly found a market, but in an industry where the favourite flavour is ‘new’, drinkers abandoned the dark, hoppy style and by 2016 its candle was all but out. In its wake came a flurry of other IPAs: red, brown, white, Belgian. All would make it into the BJCP guidelines and all would enjoy varying degrees of success. But none would prove quite to be such a game changer as the juicy, fruity, low bitterness version that exploded onto the global beer stage in the mid-2010s.

Most people credit Heady Topper from Vermont based brewery The Alchemist as being the first example of a New England IPA, although the highly sought-after Heady Topper was around long before the term ‘NEIPA’ was being tossed around. Much like the black IPA flouted the very nature of what defined an IPA’s appearance, the New England IPA broke all the rules when it came to bitterness. While the BJCP lists American IPA’s minimum IBUs as around 40, the New England version can be as low as 25. These beers are high in hop aroma but low in one of the things that has always defined an IPA – bitterness. And people love them. Last year, for first time in over a decade and a half, American-style IPA was no longer the top-entered beer style in the Great American Beer Festival, overtaken by hazy IPA. And you’d be hard pushed to find a beer culture anywhere in the world that isn’t dabbling in these ultra-hazy, highly fruity but not-so bitter beers.

High on hops

So if it’s not the history and it’s not the colour and it’s not the bitterness, what exactly is it that people love about the IPA? Could it be the comparatively high ABV perhaps? Not if the so-called “session IPAs” are anything to go by. Brewed to a lower ABV – often around 3.5—4.5% ABV – these “all-day” versions usually boast the bitterness and the hop character, but not the booziness of an American IPA. They’re yet to make it into the BJCP and are often dismissed, even laughed at by some drinkers who point out that a low-ABV IPA is really just a pale ale. But session IPAs do at least tend to offer up headier hop aromas than the average pale ale. In fact the only thing that seems to tie all of the IPA variants together is their heavy handed hopping, often in the latter stages of the brew or post-fermentation.

The evolution – or mutation – of the IPA continues with its latest incarnation, brut. Born in San Francisco in late 2017, the brut IPA is the very antithesis of the NEIPA. Its name refers to the bone-dry champagne style wines that its flavour profile mimics. As thick and juicy as the NEIPA is, the brut IPA is equally thin bodied and dry, thanks to the addition of the enzyme amyloglucosidae. The enzyme breaks down fermentable sugars into smaller chains, allowing the yeast a longer meal and leaving a highly attenuated beer. IBUs are comparatively low but due to the lack of malt character, the perceived bitterness is perhaps everything that a NEIPA-lover loathes.

Time is yet to tell whether the brut IPA will rise to New England levels of popularity or if it will be relegated to the annals of craft beer fad history along with the black IPA, but right now, it is the new “it IPA”, hunted at taprooms and festivals the craft beer world over. And whether you like your IPA red or brown, single-hopped or double dry hopped, bitter, dry, sour or even ever-so-slightly sweet, you can guarantee there is a brewery somewhere brewing exactly what you’re looking for. And if there isn’t, just pop back in a week or two – someone is bound to invent another type of IPA any day now.