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No matter what brewery or bar you visit these days, you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one IPA on tap. Over the last decade or so, the IPA has become such a crowd favorite that more than one brewery has named their version “Obligatory IPA” (with perhaps more than a hint of annoyance). But there are dozens of beer styles out there, so what’s so special about the IPA? Part of the answer is simple: IPAs are delicious. But that’s not the whole story. The real secret, I suspect, is the versatility of those three humble letters—the sheer range of flavor profiles to which they can apply.

To see what I mean, let’s go back to the basics for a second. Beer, at its heart, is a beverage with only four ingredients: malted grain (usually barley or wheat), hops, yeast, and water. Different varieties of grain and different malting and drying techniques will give you a huge range of malt flavors, from bread to nut to chocolate. Hop varietals also contribute a wide range of flavors, from pungent tropical fruit and citrus to delicate honey and lavender. As for yeast, Belgian strains showcase clove and pepper, German strains can head toward banana, and English strains tend to produce apple and pear. It’s truly impressive how many different flavors can be produced by such a short list of ingredients, and one way to get a grip on different beer styles is to learn where they fall along these basic flavor dimensions. A pilsner, for example, combines a huge cracker-like malt flavor with a heavy dose of bitterness from hops, but keeps the yeast flavors as neutral as possible. A hefeweizen, on the other hand, will showcase banana and clove flavors from its yeast while keeping the hops in the background.

So where do IPAs fall on this flavor spectrum? Well, their signature move is to showcase hops, but that’s really all you can say for sure about them. There are black IPAs and red IPAs that bring deeper malt flavors into the picture, and there are Belgian IPAs that play up the yeast character. Even if you let the other ingredients recede into the background, there are still different ways that hops can be used in the brewing process, leading to vastly different flavors. Put a lot of them at the beginning of the process and you end up with a high-IBU (i.e., very bitter) IPA. Put them all at the end of the process and you’ll end up with a somewhat sweet and juicy IPA (otherwise known as the “hazy” IPA).

In other words, the acronym “IPA” is not so much a beer style as much as a general category of styles, collecting just about all the ales that are “hop-focused.” The term doesn’t contrast with “hefeweizen” or “pilsner” but rather with the more general categories of “malt-focused” or “yeast-focused.” (Even its original designation—the beer originally called India Pale Ale, which was shipped to India from Britain starting in the 18th century—was distinguished primarily by its large quantity of hops, which helped to preserve the beer on its journey east.) What that means is that there’s basically an IPA out there for everyone, no matter whether your taste buds prefer bitter, sweet, or sour.

So, the solution to the mystery of the IPA’s popularity turns out to be a bit anticlimactic. IPAs are all over the place because they aren’t just one style of beer; rather, they are dozens of styles that all fly the same hop-emblazoned flag. Here at home, you can get a good sense of the IPA umbrella by comparing Boundary Bay’s IPA with Wander’s Right Here Right Now Hazy IPA with Kulshan’s Black Peak IPA. Each different, all delicious.

For more content like this, check out our Wine, Spirits and Brew section here.

"The real secret, I suspect, is the versatility of those three humble letters—the sheer range of flavor profiles to which they can apply."