Demystifying Craft Beer: What's An IPA?
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If you’re familiar with craft beer, you’ve probably heard of the IPA – or India Pale Ale. But what is an IPA, and what makes it different from other forms of craft beer? Since its emergence as a simple, hoppy beer in the 1800s, IPA has evolved, and it now comes in a wide variety of styles. But let’s not go there just yet – we’re demystifying craft beer, not clouding the waters even further. Let’s start with the basics.
What is an IPA? What makes it different from other forms of craft beer?
What is an IPA or India Pale Ale?
Well, the first thing to know about the IPA is this: it’s not Indian. It was first brewed in England in the early 1800s. But the English did colonise India, and the settlers were thirsty for beer from home.
As apocryphal history has it, merchants worried that their beer wouldn’t last the long journey and India’s tropical climate, so they added more hops – a preservative as well as a flavour booster.
The much zestier drink went down a treat with its audience in the Indian Subcontinent, and so the story goes, the IPA was truly born. Whether or not the story is totally true, there in does lie the detail that sets the IPA apart: It’s got more hops.
But what on earth do hops do anyway? Well, Las Vegas craft beer site Hooked on Hops explains it best. Hops were “added to beer in the first place to balance out the sweetness from any residual grain sugars that were not fermented into alcohol.” In short, hops add bitterness and in a lot of cases, a more citrus taste.
How is an India Pale Ale different from a pale ale?
Pale ale is the IPA’s older brother. It emerged in England in the early 1700s. According to Vinepair, pale ales were made using coke-roasted malt. This is important because coke (kind of like coal but with more purity) doesn’t produce a lot of smoke. As a result, the malt was lighter in colour when roasted, and the beer it went into turned paler than its peers. This malt also had a lighter flavour, and so the hop profile was more pronounced. They grew popular over time and became commonly known as “bitters”.
Compared to regular pale ale, IPA contains more hops, giving it a more bitter taste.
As we talked about above, the IPA had way more hops added to it, and so that bitter, or sometimes fruity taste, is just much more obvious most of the time. Essentially, the simple answer is that the IPA is pale ale with bonus hop factor.
What is the taste profile of a standard India Pale Ale?
The IPA isn’t just more bitter than the average beer. It’s considered to be one of the most versatile branches of craft beer because of how experimental brewers can get with their hop selections.
The IPA has a diverse flavour profile that varies according to regional tastes and preferences.
In the US for example, a West Coast IPA is revered for its dry, hop-heavy edge, while on the East Coast, New England IPAs are famous for having much a more maltier, sweeter taste. Traditional English hops are still common enough, although one of the most the most popular ingredients of modern IPA’s is the Cascade hop, known for its citrusy bite. As a rule of thumb, most IPA’s are somewhere between amber and gold in colour, and the hops give it a strong, often fruity aroma. As for flavour, there is so much variety with modern day IPAs, but usually there is enough sweetness in the malt to stand up to the bite of the hops.
Body & Specs of IPA
When breaking down the specifications, or specs of a beer, the two main things to look at are alcohol by volume (ABV), and International Bitterness Units (IBUs). The first informs you of how strong the drink is in terms of alcohol content. Most commercial beers like Heineken, Tiger and Budweiser are around 5% ABV, a fairly light measure. The ABV will usually be printed on the bottle or the menu, so make sure to check before you choose, or you could get very drunk very fast, or not drunk enough, depending on your mood.
Most IPAs weigh in between around 5.5% and 7.5% – neither very mild nor very strong. Be aware that in the cases of Double IPAs, sometimes known as Imperial IPA, or even Triple IPAs, the ABV will be much higher.
Most IPAs weigh in between 5.5% and 7.5% ABV and 40 to 60 IBUs.
As for IBUs, this is a number between 1 and 100+ which signifies how bitter the beer tastes. The closer the number is to 100, the more bitter it will be. IPA usually ranks a moderate 40-60 IBUs. As a point of reference, Tiger beer has a rating of 0, while Heineken is just 6.
Finally, when we talk about the body of a beer, we’re talking about thickness or weight of it. Again, you’re standard commercial beer is light bodied, almost watery. While a stout, like Guiness, is full-bodied. IPA is usually described as medium-bodied – it’s fuller and creamier than Tiger or Heineken, but far less weighty than stout.
Standard IPA Specs:
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%
Famous IPAs to try in Ho Chi Minh City
Heart of Darkness Brewery – Kurtz’s Insane IPA
A big, bitter IPA laced with pine and grapefruit notes. Seven different hops help this beer “launch an assault on your taste buds.” An ideal beer for IPA enthusiasts who like to push the boundaries.
East West Brewing Brewing Company – Far East IPA
A full-bodied, orange hued IPA, with overtones of lemon, gooseberry and grapefruit, and a citrus and pine aroma.
LAC Brewing Co. – Mango IPA
Remarkably low on the IBU scale for an IPA, it’s a great happy medium for IPA newbies as well as experienced hop-head. The flavour is all in the name, with a strong, sweet mango profile, which is balanced out by a subtle hop-fuelled bitterness.
BiaCraft Artisan Ales – Xau Ma Chanh (Ugly But Vain) IPA
Grapefruit and passionfruit give BiaCraft’s IPA offering a tropical kick, followed up by a moderate hop bitterness to balance it all out.
Pasteur Street Brewing Co. – Jasmine IPA
Pasteur Street Brewing Co.’s best seller is a perfectly balanced, citrus tinged IPA, with a strong floral aroma provided by adding Vietnamese jasmine to the boil.
TeTe Beer – Electric IPA
TeTe have a knack for doing things a little bit differently from the rest, and their easy drinking, citrus forward Electric IPA follows suit, with notably low bitterness and ABV.
Rooster Beers – Rooster IPA
Another highly drinkable IPA tailor made for newcomers, Rooster Beers use “the friendliest hops found,” Mosaic, Amarillo and Citra to give it a bitter, but far from overbearing kick.