American IPA – The flagship American craft beer

What more can be said about American IPA? Everyone knows what it is, and everyone has tried it. It continues to be the most popular style of craft beer by sales, and it tends to dominate beer competitions (both homebrew and commercial). Yet, if you haven’t been drinking and brewing these beers for years, you may not realize how much change it has undergone and how many different ways you can make it.

The modern American IPA has many different control points that brewers can experiment with in order to make their own signature beer. Grist composition, water profile, hop varieties, and hopping techniques are but a few that we will explore in this article. There is no one right answer; IPA is a very broad style family, and it continues to evolve and be the subject of new experimentation. It all really comes down to the vision of the brewer – what kind of beer do you want to make?

IPA History

IPA as a style of beer originated in England in the late 1700s as a pale ale that was prepared for shipment to India. Although not called India pale ale at the time, it gained this name as its popularity grew. Many fanciful stories and wild speculation have surrounded this type of beer ever since. The one thing known for certain is that it was a heavily hopped and well-attenuated beer so as to survive the sea journey and temperature changes and arrive in good condition.

IPAs were brewed in America, as were many styles originating in Europe. One of the most long-lived and well-regarded examples was Ballantine IPA, which was oak-aged and made using an old English recipe. Although it is now owned by Pabst and can be occasionally seen as a relaunched craft beer, it’s not the same beer from Newark, New Jersey that is often described as an influence for modern American craft beer. Although not confirmed, it is widely believed that the yeast from Ballantine is what became the “Chico” yeast used at Sierra Nevada.

The style known as American IPA in the modern craft era traces its roots to Anchor Liberty Ale, first brewed in San Francisco in 1975. While the style has moved beyond this original example, it certainly set the standard for years. Featuring whole Cascade hops (the signature hop for many original craft beers), the beer was pale, dry, bitter, crisp, and hoppy. It wasn’t excessively strong — at 5.9% it seems more like a pale ale today — but it was dry-hopped and used a base of pale 2-row malt.

Other early influential examples included Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, which was darker and used more crystal malts, and Bert Grant’s IPA – the first of the new craft beers to actually be called an IPA on the label, according to Michael Jackson. More experimentation ensued, and the style continued to change and evolve over time. What began as an English style took on an American character when the base malts and yeast became more neutral, and the hops became more citrusy.

Regional variations became more popular, as those brewed in the Eastern US tended to have more of a malty backbone, as exemplified by Harpoon IPA, and those in the Western US tended to be paler, drier, stronger, and more hop-forward. Double IPAs split off, and showed that a stronger hoppy beer didn’t have to be a barleywine. More recent variants have played with the water profile to emphasize a drier or wetter finish, and the huge influx of new hop varieties have given brewers even more toys for their playground.

My how times have changed . . .

Now it seems like every other beer on the shelf is labeled “IPA,” and it has spawned countless variants in a rainbow of colors, variety of strengths, and (more dubiously) a plethora of clarities. The beer-consuming public certainly identifies “IPA” with “craft beer,” and anything called an IPA seems to sell. I sometimes wonder how many people today know what IPA actually means, since none of these beers ever went to India, many aren’t pale, and some aren’t even ales. IPA has moved beyond an acronym for India pale ale, and has become its own word.

In all this change, however, let us not forget what an IPA is, and has always been: A pale, clear, dry, bitter, hoppy beer. If you build variants upon IPA, so be it; but the basic understanding is that the core beer should have these attributes, especially hoppiness.

Sensory Profile

Nowadays there are many variants of IPA, let’s just talk about the original craft beer – the American IPA, BJCP Style 21A. The BJCP Style Guidelines describe this style as, “a decidedly hoppy and bitter, moderately strong American pale ale, showcasing modern American or New World hop varieties. The balance is hop-forward, with a clean fermentation profile, dry-ish finish, and clean, supporting malt allowing a creative range of hop character to shine through.”

In the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, the American IPA style assumed American hops were used, and that American hops had a fairly restricted range (citrus, pine, resin, floral, fruit). But then the style had problems when newer hops were introduced with different characteristics. The 2015 guidelines solves this problem by defining the hops by modern American or New World hops, which allows new characteristics to be included as hop varieties continue to be introduced.

The newer guidelines explicitly adds “spicy, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, melon, etc.” to that list of IPA characteristics, and the New World hops mention Australian and New Zealand hops that can add tropical fruit, white grape, and other interesting aromatics. So the style can evolve as the hops available to brewers changes. Basically anything modern that isn’t the classic Saazer or noble-type hops, or traditional English or other continental hops is likely in play.

So while the hop aromatics and flavors are widely variable (especially when combinations of hops are considered), the intensity is moderate to very high, but always prominent in the balance. The hops can also have a fresh character if dry hopping is used, but that technique shouldn’t make the beer excessively grassy.

The malt aroma and flavor tends to be neutral and clean, with a low to medium-low intensity. There can be a little graininess, very light bready notes, or a little caramel sweetness present, but the malt needs to support the hops not compete with it. Any caramel character is light and lower in color as more intense and dark versions tend to clash with the hops.

The bitterness level tends to be medium-high to very high, but it should finish clean and dry without a harsh bitterness. The hops should be noticeable in the aftertaste, but a light maltiness can be present as well. The fermentation character is typically neutral, although a very light fruitiness is acceptable, particularly if it complements the hop varieties used.

The body is medium-light to medium; a heavy beer is harder to drink. Medium to medium-high carbonation helps keep it lively, and any alcohol character should be restrained. Stronger versions may have noticeable alcohol, but the beer should not burn. The beer is typically well-attenuated, although the impression of dryness may be affected by the water profile (higher sulfates increase dryness, while chlorides add more of a rounded mouthfeel).

Modern American IPAs tend to be fairly pale, gold or lighter in color. Some can be a bit darker, adding a light reddish-amber color, but care should be taken not to veer into the Red IPA style. With color comes flavor, and the darker colors tend to add flavors that are undesirable in American IPA. Most IPAs are clear, although a light hop haze is acceptable in unfiltered versions. A well-formed white head that persists is typical.

The IPA should be hoppy and bitter, clean and fresh, with malt in support. A wide range of hop character is allowable, and lets the brewer express their own creativity. Since there is a stronger Double IPA available as a style, the American IPA shouldn’t be overly strong. Between the 6% and 7% range is fairly common. It should be hoppier in balance than an American Pale Ale and a bit stronger, but otherwise fairly similar.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

Hops, and lots of them. Next question? OK, there’s more to it than that. Let’s save the hops for last since that will be most of the discussion.

The grist can be as simple as all North American two-row pale malt, but I often like to mix it up a bit. You can use some more flavorful base malts such as Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich, but don’t go overboard. If the maltiness is too rich, the beer won’t taste right. Similarly, if English type malts (such as Maris Otter) are used, the beer can be too bready and biscuity, which can clash with the hops as well. So I like to keep it simple, often a mix of two-row and German Pilsner malt.

A little bit of crystal malt can be used, as long as it isn’t too dark and too high a percentage. Something 40 °L or lower would be fine (I like to use crystal-type malts in the 20 °L range), and I’d limit it to less than 10% of the grist (something around 5% is fine). Often I will use Munich malt instead of crystal malt (“Munich is the new Crystal”, as I like to say). This will give an extra maltiness to the beer without adding sweetness.

Depending on the mash program, some brewers like to add some dextrin-type malts for body, but I think crystal and Munich malts can give some of that body too. On the other hand, some brewers will add white sugar or corn sugar to lighten the body (again, less than 10%) but I think of this as more appropriate for the higher strength Double IPAs.

Mash for attenuation, so aim for a conversion temperature between 146 °F and 151 °F (63-66 °C). Step mashes aren’t typically used, but I don’t have a problem with mashing this beer like a German altbier or Kölsch — 131 °F, 144 °F, 158 °F (55, 62, 70 °C). In general, I like to mash on the low side for proper attenuation and control the body through grist additions.

I mentioned how the water profile can affect the finished beer. I tend to dislike sulfur flavors in beer, so I usually avoid excessive use of gypsum (calcium sulfate). If I know I’m using a very attenuative mash program, I’ll often use calcium chloride as my calcium source. Otherwise I’ll use a balanced calcium sulfate and calcium chloride addition to the mash. I tend to save all calcium sulfate for English IPAs (this is often called “Burtonizing” the water).

The yeast for this style is American and neutral in character. The classic yeast is Chico yeast (Wyeast 1056, White Labs WLP001, Safale US-05), but I also like using Wyeast 1272 American II (the yeast from Anchor Liberty), which can give a touch of fruitiness. Whatever yeast used should be attenuative and relatively neutral, and should drop bright. I’ve even used some English yeasts, such as the Fuller’s yeast (White Labs WLP002, Wyeast 1968) fermented cool. German alt or Kölsch yeast could also do the trick.

Hop varieties can be anything American or New World, but don’t muddy it by using too many varieties. I think some of the best IPAs I’ve tried have between one and four hop varieties. Amarillo® and Simcoe® are a nice pairing (Alpine Duet, one of my favorite IPAs, uses that mix), and Cascade and Centennial are wonderful together. Some newer varieties can add a great deal of interest but can often be quite pungent if used alone (I’m looking at you, Nelson Sauvin . . .). Newer varieties can give tropical fruit flavors, showing that you can make a “juicy” IPA without making a murky mess.

My recommendation for hops is to choose a theme for the flavor and aroma, and look for either a single hop that you know or pairings of hops that have complementary flavors. If you have a bittering addition, look for a variety with a clean bitterness like Magnum or Warrior. But you can often omit a bittering addition entirely by getting your IBUs from other hop techniques.

First wort hopping can give a smoother bitterness than a traditional 60- to 90-minute addition, and also gives quite a bit of hop flavor. This is my preferred method for adding a large amount of IBUs. Late hop additions (in the last 10 minutes) give more aroma, and also can provide IBUs. Even hops added at knockout will provide IBUs, provided the wort is hotter than around 180 °F (82 °C).

When I’m formulating a recipe for a hop-forward beer, I usually start with the late additions. I think about the quantity of hops to give me the aroma and flavor that I want, then I calculate how many IBUs those provide. Then I make up the remainder of the bitterness with first wort hops. You can, of course, do the classic bitterness, flavor, and aroma additions, but I like how the late additions and first wort additions reduce the harshness in the beer.

Dry hopping is always an option, and can greatly enhance the fresh hop character of the beer. There are two warnings, however, with dry hopping. The first is to be careful in how the hops are added since you don’t want to oxidize the beer, which will kill the wonderful fresh character. The second is to avoid grassiness from dry hopping, which is often a function of time, temperature, and quantity. Limit the contact time of dry hops to three to five days and the chances of grassiness is reduced. If more hop aroma is still needed, perform a second dry hopping after the first one is done.

Homebrew Example

My recipe is a bit old school since I’m not using the latest sexy hop varieties. I’m just using good old Centennial, which was first called a “Super Cascade” when introduced. It has many of the same characteristics, like citrus, grapefruit, and pine. It’s like talking to an old friend.

I’m using first wort hopping, hop bursting, and late whirlpool hops to get the hop character in my beer; no bittering additions and no dry hopping. After the boil is over, I let the beer stand for around 15 minutes to cool off and to improve clarity, then I add the last hop addition. Dry hopping is always an option, but I like this method to improve clarity and to reduce the risk of oxidation. I taste the beer a week before I intend to serve it and decide then if it needs some additional dry hopping.

The grist is mostly North American two-row, with some Vienna malt to provide a richer backbone and some 10-20 °L crystal type malts for a touch of sweetness and flavor. This is just to show that not all crystal malt is evil, and it can be used judiciously in an IPA.

I’m using the balanced water profile I described, with equal parts of calcium chloride and calcium sulfate to give around 50 ppm of calcium in the mash. As always, I’m using reverse osmosis water because my water is full of chalk and produces horrible hoppy beers.

The yeast I’m using is Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II), which always seems to make great IPAs for me. It’s a personal favorite, and an homage to the original Anchor Liberty Ale. I keep fermentation temperatures restrained to help control ester production.

I’m targeting a beer of about 6.8% ABV and a final gravity of 1.011, which should be dry but not bone dry. The IBU estimate is 56, which is in my preferred range of 50-60. The interaction between FG, IBUs, and sulfate content of the water profile is how these beers are best fine-tuned in my opinion. Subtle changes can affect the balance quite a bit.

If some of these choices sound familiar to you, I’m also trying to make a beer in the general style of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, one of my favorite IPAs from when I just started to brew. It’s not meant to be a clone; I prefer the term “tribute.”

American IPA by the numbers

OG: 1.056–1.070
FG: 1.008–1.014
SRM: 6–14
IBU: 40–70
ABV: 5.5–7.5%


Gordon Strong’s American IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.061  FG = 1.011
IBU = 56  SRM = 6  ABV = 6.5%

10 lbs. (4.5 kg) North American 2-row malt
2 lbs. (907 g) Vienna malt
8 oz. (227 g) Caravienne or caramel malt (20 °L)
4 oz. (113 g) Carahell® malt or crystal malt (10 °L)
7.7 AAU Centennial hops (first wort hop) (0.75 oz./21 g at 10.3% alphaacid)
10.3 AAU Centennial hops (15 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10.3% alpha acid)
10.3 AAU Centennial hops (5 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10.3% alpha acid)
1 oz. (28 g) Centennial hops (1 min.)
2 oz. (57 g) Centennial hops (hop stand or dry hops)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 0.5 tsp. calcium chloride and 0.5 tsp. calcium sulfate to the mash.

Mash in base malts (2-row and Vienna) at 147 °F (64 °C) and rest for 60 minutes. Add crystal malts and raise to 168 °F (76 °C) for 15 minutes, recirculating the wort. Fly sparge with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. First wort hops are added directly to the boil kettle before lautering and sparging. The whirlpool hops are added after heat has been turned off and the wort has rested 15 minutes. Stir the hops in and rest an additional 15 minutes.

Chill the wort to 65 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. Rack the beer. If desired, add the dry hops for 3 days at room temperature. Rack and package the beer, or rack and clarify the beer if desired with finings before packaging (prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate).

Gordon Strong’s American IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.061 FG = 1.011
IBU = 56 SRM = 6 ABV = 6.5%

7.8 lbs. (3.5 kg) pale liquid malt extract
8 oz. (227 g) Caravienne or caramel malt (20 °L)
4 oz. (113 g) Carahell® malt or crystal malt (10 °L)
7.7 AAU Centennial hops (first wort hop) (0.75 oz./21 g at 10.3% alpha acid)
10.3 AAU Centennial hops (15 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10.3% alpha acid)
10.3 AAU Centennial hops (5 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10.3% alpha acid)
1 oz. (28 g) Centennial hops (1 min.)
2 oz. (57 g) Centennial hops (hop stand or dry hop)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Use 6 gallons (23 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C). Steep the crystal malts for 30 minutes, then remove.

Turn off the heat. Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. You do not want to feel liquid extract at the bottom of the kettle when stirring with your spoon. Turn the heat back on, add the first wort hops, and bring to a boil.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding remaining hops at the times indicated. Follow the all-grain step by step for remaining post-boil and fermentation directions.

Issue: September 2018