No craft beer style is more popular than IPAs. Yet no craft beer style is more diverse, fragmented, and perhaps bewildering than IPAs. Order an IPA and you could be handed a pint of brilliantly clear, caramel-hued liquid—or a pint of a completely opaque liquid that looks like orange juice. An IPA could deliver flavors as varied as pine, grapefruit, orange, mango, mint, chives, strawberry, green tea, or white wine, depending on the ingredients used to brew it.
Safe to say, IPAs are a beer universe unto themselves. Brewers are continuing to push the limits of what this style can encompass, both in terms of the ingredients and the techniques used to brew them.
But there is one unifying factor to IPAs: hops. Hops, a species of flowering plant in the hemp family, are one of the four ingredients that make beer, joining malt, water, and yeast. Like wine grapes, hop varieties share basic genetics in common, but there are more than 100 varieties with a kaleidoscopic range of characteristics.
In no style do hops take top billing more than they do in IPAs. IPAs are a hop showcase, where the contributions of beer’s other ingredients play only a supporting role. As brewing chemists learn more about the organic compounds that contribute to hops’ flavor and aroma—and how those compounds are chemically transformed when they come into contact with yeast during the brewing process—brewers are unlocking new ways to harness hops’ full spectrum of aromas and flavors.
There’s never been a better time to be an IPA drinker in America, yet the category has never been more crowded. Ahead, we’ll demystify what makes an IPA and explore the most common substyles that fall under its umbrella. Provided you enjoy some type of hops, there’s an IPA destined to be your next favorite beer.