We all have that one friend. He’s the 20th level homebrew nerd who just can’t wait to tell you how much he knows about beer. You can’t sit down for a drink without hearing about phenols and esters or hearing him wonder whether the bar has cleaned their beer lines lately. It’s cool when you’ve got the taste buds for that, but sometimes you just wanna have a beer in peace. No one wants to be that guy. But sometimes you wanna be able to say a little bit more than that. You get something great, and you turn to your friend,
"You gotta try this!"
"What's it like?"
Awkward, right? Well, we got your back. Here are some great ways to simply describe what you’re tasting. And don’t worry. There’s no “It’s like a cool summer breeze over the grainfields of Deutschland.” Snooty guys invented descriptions like that so they can get published in wine journals. This is beer. It tastes like beer, and here are some ways to describe it.
Basic Beer Ingredients
First, you need to know the basic ingredients in beer. They produce all the flavors and textures you’re trying to describe (of course). Seem simple? That’s because it is.
Malt is grain, usually barley, wheat, or rye, that has sprouted for a short time and heated to kill the sprouts and create different flavors. We’ll get to those later.
Yeast is the tiny critter that eats sugar and spits out alcohol. Different kinds of yeast are bred like dog breeds to make different flavors in the beer.
Hops are flowers of the hop plant that make the beer bitter and also can give it flavor and aroma ranging from earthy to fruity.
Adjuncts are a catch-all term for anything that adds sugars to the beer that isn’t malt. It can be unmalted grains (oats, corn, or rice), sugars, syrups, or fruit.
MaltAfter grain has sprouted, each kind of malt (there are tons!) is heated in precise ways to produce a crap ton of different flavors. How they’re heated makes the dark roastiness you taste in a stout or the light sweetness in a pilsner.
Grain: What a surprise! Grain makes beer taste like grain. If you’ve ever had Grapenuts cereal (Disgusting for breakfast but great for beer), that’s “grain.” Most Common style: Pilsner, Lagers Biscuit: like the round bread you eat with fried chicken. Mmmm...fried chicken. Now I’m hungry. Most Common Styles: English Beers like ESB, Bitter, or English IPA Bread: Baked bread flavor. Lots of iterations, Brown bread, White bread, Rye Bread, Toast, etc. You may have heard about it, especially the sliced variety. Most Common Styles: Pale Ales, IPA’s, Wheat Beers Honey: You’ve had honey before, right? Most Common styles: Honey Blonde, Wheat Wine, Kolsch Caramel: sweet, delicious candy that’s easy to notice once you start looking for it. Most Common Styles: Amber Ales, Vienna Lager, Brown Ales, ESB, Wee Heavy Chocolate: Common in dark beers. Look for variations from Milk Chocolate to Dark Chocolate. Most Common Styles: Stouts, Doppelbock Coffee: Your morning pick-me up. Most Common Styles: Stouts, Dark Lagers Roast: Like burnt toast, but delicious. Stouts must have this flavor Most Common Style: Stout, Black IPA Smoke: Comes from introducing smoke to the malt when it’s being kilned Most Common Style: Rauchbier Cereal: Comes usually from the use of adjuncts (corn usually) in creating “Light” beers. Certain big brands definitely have a very “corny” flavors from them. Think Corn Flakes. Most Common Style: American Adjunct Lager, Cream Ale
While the popularization of the IPA is largely credited to George Hodgson of the famous Bow Brewery, we don't know who actually brewed the first IPA.
Double IPA, an American treat!
The Double IPA was developed by Vinnie Cilurzo at Blind Pig Brewery in the early 90's. He then went on to open the world famous Russian River Brewing
An Anchor for IPA
Liberty Ale was the first American IPA, brewed back in 1975 by Anchor Brewing Co. The beer hasn't changed much today, except for the package.
What Makes an IPA an IPA?
If you go to the guys who are in charge of defining beer styles for competitions, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), you’ll get a pretty broad definition. IPA’s are light in color from straw colored to light brown. They range from 5.5 percent ABV to 7.5 percent ABV. Ultra hoppy, they also can be balanced with malt flavors or even let the malt almost disappear behind a Jet-Li hops kick to the mouth.
Most breweries make a variety of beer styles called IPAs. You can find examples of an IPA that’s lower in alcohol or IPAs that are so dark you’d confuse them for a stout until you stuck one under your nose to get a snout full of hops aroma (SO GOOD!).
Because everyone loves IPA’s, every brewery makes one (or a dozen!). How does a brewery stand out from the crowd? You make one that’s different from everyone else. Why not an IPA that’s got hibiscus leaves in it? How about an IPA that tastes like a juice box? Because so many breweries created so many ways to make an IPA, there are a ton of styles within a style. Here’s what you’re most likely to see.
West Coast IPA's
The west coast IPA is the style that created the word “hop bombs.” They looked at the traditional IPAs and said that there just wasn’t enough flavor or enough bitterness. So they packed the beers so full of it that it would take a week for your taste buds to recover.
- West Coast IPA by Green Flash Brewing Co.
- IPA by AleSmith Brewing Co.
This is the IPA that started it all, the mothership from which the rest descended. The English IPA balances hops and malt, and there’s more body to it than most American varieties. They focus on traditional English hops that are more restrained in flavor, too.
- True Brit IPA by SUmmit Brewing Co.
- Trafalgar IPA by Freeminer Brewery Ltd
The first salvo of the IPA arms race was the Imperial IPA. Why would you settle for a lowly 6.5 percent ABV beer when you could have a soul-crushing, face plant of a beer at 12 percent with a pound of hops in every glass? That’s the Imperial IPA. They tend to have more body and hop flavor than their lower octane siblings. This is IPA turned up to 11.
- Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing Co.
- Resin by Sixpoint Brewery
A session beer is a beer that’s runs between 3 percent ABV and 5 percent ABV. They call it a session, because you can drink a lot (you know, a drinking session) without falling on your face. What makes a session IPA different from a pale ale? Some of it is marketing. IPA’s sell better (They got kids to feed, too). Session IPA’s tend to be dryer and hoppier than their pale ale pals with less malt flavor.
- DayTime by Lagunitas Brewing Co.
- All Day IPA by Founders Brewing Co.
Also known as the Cascadian Dark Ale, the Black IPA is a cross between a stout and an IPA. Some versions have a lot of roasty elements like a stout, and some have just enough to be noticeable. The big thing to look for in these brews is the very complex interplay between aggressive malts and aggressive hops. Black IPAs can be as intense as juggling chainsaws. While defusing a bomb. Surrounded by puppies.
- Back In Black by 21st Amendment Brewery
- Weez by Maine Beer Co.
New England IPA (NEIPA)
The New England IPA may be the most recent addition to the vast array of hoppy of India Pale Ales on the market. These beers are hazy instead of clear (on purpose! really). They also tend to have juicy, citrusy flavors. This doesn’t come from fruit additions. Instead the brewers choose hops (and LOTS of them) that make fruit flavors. It’s all the rage, and beer drinkers can’t get enough.
- Juice Bomb by Sloop Brewing Co.
- Julius by Treehouse Brewing Co.
Examples from Hopsy
Iconic and class, this IPA is brewed with 43 different hops and 65 various malts. Made by Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA.
Hopsy Hazy IPA
A Hopsy Exclusive, Hopsy Hazy is a hazy IPA with a surprisingly soft and pillowy mouthfeel, brimming with ripe, juicy, hops flavors and aromas of tropical-fruit.
Liquid Pale Ale
A West Coast style pale ale at heart with our own little Northeast twist, brewed in collaboration with our friends at Long Island City Beer Project.
Hazy Little Thing IPA
An unfiltered hop bomb by iconic Sierra Nevada in Chico, CA.
2X Imperial IPA
An IPA kicked up a notch to form a true Double IPA: feverishly hoppy with a malty backbone and higher-than-standard alcohol content by Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, NY.
The Future of IPA's
Of course, this list can’t be the end-all-be-all for the vast selection of IPA’s on the market. Brewers can be crazy creative, and they all want to stand out from the crowd. So they’ll keep pushing the boundaries and we’ll keep slamming them back, loving every swig.
Some of the creativity comes from the awesome variety of hops combinations. You hop-heads created demand for new in-your-face hops flavors, and growers are responding. New varieties come out all the time, and brewers race against each other to airlift them straight to your taste buds.
You can expect breweries to experiment not just with new hops combinations but all sorts of additions and variations. Coffee IPA’s, Milkshake IPA’s, sour IPA’s, and the newest bombshell Brut IPA’s are bursting on to the scene, and we’re sure you’ll see new styles soon.
Until then, drink up! We’ll never keep up with all the amazing new IPA brewers put out every year, but we sure can try. It’s a hop head’s paradise out there, and we’re loving it.
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