A Week to Celebrate Craft Beer

An Ancient Beer Style Becomes a Summer Favorite

By Julie Johnson

Many myths have attached to India pale ale, the beer style credited with refreshing British troops in colonial India. But the undisputed triumph of India pale ale has been here in the United States; IPA passed its smaller sibling, pale ale, as the most popular craft beer style several years ago, and is well on its way to comprising one-third of craft sales.

In the hands of American brewers, IPAs are characterized by higher alcohol levels than the pale lagers they supplanted, as well as pronounced hop character. As craft beer grew in popularity, American fans seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for rising levels of strength and bitterness (the quality most associated with hops).

The beers grew bigger and, frankly, more out of whack for the traditional style parameters, until the first IPA “spin-off” was born in the mid-nineties: imperial or double IPA (DIPA). Many North Carolina brewers offer their take on these huge beers, the best of which are rich sippers that share qualities with barleywine. Seeing Double IPA from Foothills in Winston-Salem is a great example that balances assertive bitterness with deep citrus flavors and intense pine.

The infatuation with ever-stronger beer led to the logical reaction: low alcohol, or “session beer,” meant to be consumed in greater quantity over a long evening. But isn’t a session IPA just a good old fashioned pale ale with a marketing makeover? Not, it seems, if the hop qualities retain IPA-like intensity. At under 5% alcohol, Highland’s Daycation is an exercise in pale ale-like balance; while Aviator’s Chop Shop Session IPA delivers a whole flower shop of hop aroma.

Sometime in the past 10 years, the restless inventiveness of American craft brewers encountered the marketing allure of India pale ale, and suddenly, the style had birthed a dozen crazy offspring. If a beer could be tagged “Something-IPA,” the reasoning went, sales would get a boost. As long as the beer retained a loose association with hops and their myriad flavors, it could be an IPA.

Many of the spin-offs are hybrids, including a number that should be called the oxymoronic IPAs. Ignoring the fact that the “P” stands for “pale,” brewers now present us with black IPA, an opaque, roasty style that evokes porter or stout (look for Black Hop Down from Gizmo in Raleigh, or Deep River’s Back Country Black IPA). There’s red IPA, resembling a malty amber, but – you guessed it – bitter (Dead Red IPA, Southern Pines). Finally, there’s white IPA, often a winter seasonal, that marries IPA to a Belgian witbier, a counterintuitive match, given that witbier itself has almost no hop nature.

The infatuation with traditional Belgian styles has touched US beer culture, as well, and cross-fertilization was inevitable. Belgian beer is diverse, but one typical quality can be a spiciness from the yeast strains. Both Belgian and American brewers have experimented with Belgian IPA. When well done, the spice complements qualities present in some hop varieties. Haw River’s Cottonblossom Farmhouse IPA successfully throws in the kitchen sink: this beer is imperial strength at 8.5%, and it is aged in huge wooden barrels known as foeders.

Other Belgian-inspired IPAs go to the funky side, incorporating the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces to produce earthy flavors politely called “barnyard.” Brett IPA from Durham’s Durty Bull manages this balancing act.

The inspiration when hybridizing beer styles or brewing with unusual ingredients often lies in identifying a flavor already present in a traditional style, then accentuating it with new elements. Along with bitterness or pineyness, hops can add fruity qualities. Hints of grapefruit, apricot, or pineapple have been boosted with additions of the real thing to fruit IPAs. One of the most harmonious additions is orange: blood orange, specifically, features in Big Boss’ High Roller IPA.

Rye can accent the dry finish (check Tarboro’s First Ryed Rye IPA); oatmeal can contribute silkiness to the mouthfeel (as in Oatmeal IPA from Mother Earth).

Finally, the regional darling that has craft beer folk divided. With few exceptions, a finished beer should be sparkling clear in the glass; it “drops bright,” as a brewer friend proudly called it. Not so the New England IPA, which is as murky as an Orange Julius. Most often, the flavor is described as “juicy,” referring to the tropical hints of passion fruit, melon, and tangerine from the hops. The hazy appearance can be the result of heavy dry-hopping (late addition of hops), or suspended protein and yeast, which give a creamier texture. Burial’s Surf Wax NE-Style IPA is one North Carolina example.

Style names should give consumers a reasonable idea of what to expect when they select a beer. The anything-goes trend in IPAs has made that process less predictable; it also may deliver some memorable flavors for the adventurous.