In tandem with the flowering of the North American craft-brewing industry over the past couple of decades, the India Pale Ale (IPA) has become the "it" beer of brew aficionados. It is by far the largest category at festivals, and is by leaps and bounds the industry's most popular style. According to the Brewers Association's 2014 Craft Beer U.S. Market Review, sales of session IPAs were up 450 percent from the previous year. Additionally, more than 100 new brands were introduced, and imperial IPAs outnumbered amber ales.
Well, what are IPAs, and how did they become so popular? Their origin dates back to the 18th century, and to the occupation of India by British colonists. Then, as now, the Brits loved their ales. Attempts were made to ship British ales to expatriates and colonists in India and elsewhere. However, delicate English ales didn't fare well in casks on the open seas or in hot climates. After months at sea, the ales would usually arrive at their destination flat and sour.
After many attempts by the British navy at various methods of storing and shipping beer to the colonies, a solution was found. Surprisingly, it came in the form of a beer recipe, not new technology for shipping or storage. In the 1790s, a London brewer named George Hodgson surmised that by adding extra hops and extra alcohol to his standard pale ale, it might better withstand the difficult voyage to India. It worked. The additional hops and higher alcohol levels helped stabilize the brews during their long journeys to the colonies, and thus became known as India Pale Ale.
In recent years, I've detected an aspect of machismo among some IPA drinkers and producers. It's somewhat akin to hot-wing-eating contests, where the goal is to find how incendiary you can go. There seems to be no limit on the amount of hops some brewers are willing to put into their IPAs, sometimes forgetting that good beer—like good food—is all about balance, not about how much you can handle.
Thanks to the IPA's hops, it's an intentionally bitter beer and anything but bland. Here in Utah, there are plenty of excellent IPAs being made. Due to its relatively high alcohol content—usually around 5.5-7.5 percent alcohol by volume—it's often sold in large-bottle format. Here are some worth seeking out:
Uinta Brewing Co. Hop Nosh IPA is a good example of the American IPA style, with a cloudy amber color and a sturdy white head. This unfiltered beer is rich with sweet-smelling hops, malts and grains, and citrus notes on the back end of a sip.
With an alcohol level of 8 percent, Red Rock Brewing Co. Elephino is an intense double IPA that is double dry-hopped on whole leaf Amarillo hops—a well-balanced and beautiful brew.
Epic Brewing Hopulent IPA is part of the brewery's "Elevated" series at 8.4 percent ABV. The first impression has grassy hop and grapefruit aromas followed by herb and dough flavors on the palate. It's a big, complex beer with a pleasant malt-to-hops ratio.
A good example of a relaxed, easy-drinking session IPA is Squatters Off Duty IPA at 6.5 percent ABV. Classic citrus and piney flavors are present, along with subtle malt sweetness. I like the restraint of this IPA; it's not one that smacks the drinker upside the head with hops.
Dozens more IPAs are being made here by local craft brewers. Get out and try 'em all.