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The Big IPA Lie

Opinion

You can’t always trust the IPA stamp on beer labels. Here are some helpful hints for finding authentic hoppy bitterness.

That Hazy IPA you’re drinking -- it’s not really an IPA. With almost no perceivable bitterness and a bunch of wheaty haze, it’s more like a heavily hopped Wheat Beer. That’s not all. At times, Session IPAs, Black IPAs, Belgian IPAs and Sour IPAs all deviate from the true hoppy bitterness of an authentic India Pale Ale.

  • Session IPA - This is really just a Pale Ale! Only occasionally does it have that extra hoppy bite I’d associate with an IPA.
  • Black IPA - Overpowering dark malts make this too different to call it an IPA. The Brewers Association agrees with me and classifies these as American Black Ales. People in the Northwest call them Cascadian Dark Ales, but I reject that idea because the style wasn’t exclusively brewed just in the Northwest at any point.
  • Belgian IPA and Farmhouse IPA - If you go to Belgium, you can find Belgian Ales made with American Hops and they taste just like these American made “IPAs.” The added fruitiness of Belgian yeast is super distinct and should make it so these beers are all called Belgian Ales.
  • Sour IPA - Is an oxymoron. This is a dry-hopped Sour Ale. As a rule, Sour Ale makers avoid putting bitterness in their beers. The Berliner Weisse has one of the lowest IBUs of any beer with hops in it. Why? Strong bitter + strong sour = a real caustic situation in your mouth. So when brewers make Sour IPAs they add far fewer hops than they would for an IPA. By necessity, “Sour IPAs” cannot be anything like standard IPAs.

All of this to say, it doesn’t really matter what style you call a beer -- if you can’t figure out what it tastes like from its description, you'll end up drinking a lot of beers you don’t like and missing out on ones you might have liked. If a beer is in one hybrid style, it’s confusing enough -- you’ll have no clue what to make of a Belgian-style Session Sour Black IPA.

So, I see an “IPA” and want to get it, but how do I know what it’s like?

  1. Phone a friend
    First, ask for help. Get tasting notes from someone who’s tried the beer. This can be a bartender, a friend, or a helpful beer blogger (wink wink). They’ll be able to tell you way more about the beer than you’ll find on a label or a taproom wall. Just remember, their tasting experience is subjective and may be different from your own.

  2. Find the IBUs
    You can get quantitative bitterness information by looking up the beer’s IBUs (International Bitterness Units). And yet, according to the Brewers Association, Hazy IPAs and regular IPAs have the same IBU range but the perceived bitter of Hazy IPAs - the amount of bitterness you actually taste - can vary wildly.

  3. Malts Matter
    If you’re looking for classic IPA qualities, Malts can also be an indicator. It’s not just about hops -- caramel a.k.a. crystal malts are a key part of that big backbone that makes IPAs formidable brews. Ask or search to find out the malt bill.

  4. Look for keywords
    In the case of the Hazy IPA, hoppier options will sometimes call themselves West-Coast style Hazy IPAs or indicate that they’re somehow a hybrid between New England and West Coast IPAs. As with any hybrid though, these are highly variable.

  5. For the love of IPA -- drink something else!
    Another solution is to buy hoppy styles that aren’t IPAs to send a message to breweries that you’re not going to encourage their overuse of the IPA label. A strongly hopped Amber Ale will occasionally hit the spot. You might not expect it but Farmhouse Ales/Saisons and Russian Imperial Stouts can also be assertively hoppy.

The IPA label in the American craft beer scene is shifting -- it's starting to no longer indicate the classic bitter hoppy flavors it used to represent. Now it’s used as shorthand for a general sense of intensity and quality. So, when the style isn’t clear, we as beer drinkers need other flavor descriptors to help us pick beers we will like!

Written by Neal Yurick

Featured image by @chuttersnap on unsplash.com

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