For years, beer writers and podcasters have forecasted the coming end of IPA’s reign as a favourite beer style. Last year it was sour that would take its place. This year it’s light, crisp lagers. Despite those frequent pronouncements, IPA is here to stay.
It continues to be one of the most common styles on taps in Halifax and across North America. Of the 10 highest-rated beers on Untappd (an app for reviewing and rating beer), five are IPAs. On Beer Advocate (the world’s largest online beer community), 25% of the top 100 Nova Scotian beers are IPAs.
This style started as a matter of necessity. Beer, like other high-sugar foods, is susceptible to mould and bacteria. Shipping beer from Britain to the colonies often took months, leading to spoilage. Hops have anti-bacterial properties, so hoppier beers were more likely to reach their destinations untainted.
We measure bitterness using IBUs, or international bittering units. The higher the IBU, the more bitter the beer. The simplified brewing process is: steep grain, boil the resulting liquid, and add hops at various points in the boil to impart bitterness, flavour, and aroma, add yeast, and ferment.
Beer’s bitterness comes from hop oils released during boiling. By using different hop varieties, brewers can create an array of flavours. Even using the same three hops at different times in the brewing process can create dramatically different beers.
When the rise of craft beer’s popularity started 20 years ago, aficionados saw appreciating a bitterly-hopped beer as a right of passage. If you can drink this, you are officially a craft-beer drinker.
About five years ago, was a hop arms race. To put it in perspective, an Alexander Keith’s IPA is 20 IBU and a Guinness is 60. The arms race pushed us to and beyond 100 IBU (what most experts agree is the limit that our tastebuds can register). To handle the sheer quantity of hops, many brewers made stronger beer to balance the bitterness. The more grain you put in a beer, the more sugar. The more sugar, the higher the alcohol content.
The response to the hops arms race was the introduction of session IPAs (under 5% ABV) and New England IPAs, hopped with varieties featuring lower alpha acids that impart fruitier flavours to the finished product.
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Stephen Beaumont, one of the world’s most renowned beer writers, says he considers IPA more “a concept than a style.” As brewers shift toward sweeter IPAs, like the New England style that’s packed with floral and citrus aroma, they move farther from the bitterness that defined the style.
“Some will argue that these are just evolutionary interpretations of the India pale ale, much as the American IPA was to the British IPA,” says Beaumont. “When you change the fundamental character of a beer, aren’t you really creating a whole new style rather than an interpretation of an existing one?”
There are many theories about why IPAs are so enduringly popular. Mine is that the style offers such a variety of tastes, from bitter pine to sweet citrus, that there truly is something in the category for everyone.
Innovations in hop styles are driving a shift toward IPAs that are lower in bitterness and big on fruit flavour and aroma. In 2018, Canada’s first native hop, Sasquatch, was developed in British Columbia. You’ll find it in Propeller’s beer by the same name, re-released in March.
We can expect the thirst for new hops to continue, says Crystal Luxmore, an Advanced Cicerone and Prud’homme Beer Sommelier based in Toronto. She writes about beer and teaches beer tasting courses.
“These new hop flavours mean that brewers can constantly change their recipes and offer drinkers brand new aromas,” she says. “Right now we’re bananas for aromas of tropical fruit, or even fresh green onion, but in future, some hop varietals could taste oaky and vanilla, or like lychee and jasmine.”
Unfiltered Brewing on North Street is known locally as the spot to go for a bitter, American-style IPAs. Most of brewer Greg Nash’s beers are IPAs scoring high on the IBU scale. He also brews a silk smooth stout, but as you’d expect, that’s heavy on the hops too.
For Nash, there’ll always be room for bitter IPAs. Late last year, Unfiltered released Edgy, an IPA hopped only with Centennial. (You may not know the name, but if you’ve been drinking IPAs for long, you’ll recognize the Centennial taste). “We were getting a giggle out of the name,” he says. “It’s just so ‘edgy’. We’re using your grandfather’s hop.”
Nash says beer drinkers who want to understand what they’re tasting should seek out single-hop beers. “It’s like when you’re cooking food,” he says. “You’re chopping everything up. You grab a bite of this, a bite of that. You can’t really do that when you’re making beer. I compare it to carrots. Similarly, when you cook a hop, it completely changes the flavour and the aromatics.”
To find an IPA that suits your tastes, consider what beers you already enjoy. If you’re a fan of lighter beers, start easy with something low ABV, like Lunn’s Mill Beer Company’s First Cut (5.7%). It’s bright and citrusy, and goes down easy. If fruit beers are your go-to, try an IPA that’s big on hops like Topaz, Galaxy, and Vic Secret hops. (They lend passionfruit, melon, and pineapple flavours to Garrison Brewing’s Southern Hemisphere IPA.)
If you’re ready for something big and bitter, and itching to take Nash’s advice, head over to Unfiltered this month to try his newest release, Satisfaction. It’s built on the same grain base as Double Orange Ale, but hopped with Sabro hops, known for its tangerine, coconut, tropical fruit, and stone fruit aromas. He has another coming soon, hopped with Chinook.
Must-try beers: IPA edition
Boxing Rock Brewing Co.
Shelburne, Nova Scotia
Boxing Rock’s April 1 can release confused a lot of people given the brewery’s firm stance that beer is better in bottles, but let’s ignore that for now. This simply named beer is a lower ABV sibling to Vicar’s Cross. It’s dank and bitter, but with a big malty backbone to carry it off. It’s hopped with Summit, Cascade, Nelson Sauvin, Waimea, and Simcoe. Order it here.
Li’l Creature (New England IPA)
Good Robot Brewing Co.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Keeping with the theme, this is also a beer with a elder sibling. Like the original, Creature Feature, this session NEIPA is a biotransformation IPA meaning during fermentation, yeast cells transform hop components into new, massively aromatic compounds. Look for aromas of peach and melon in this little sipper.