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Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Alpine Beer Company's Shawn McIlhenney is known world wide for his use of hops 
GUEST BLOG—By Sam Tierney, columnist West Coaster Craft Beer magazine & website,

Language is in a constant state of flux. Words are created and forgotten as the inevitable march of time tramples those that lose their necessity, while simultaneously constructing new combinations of sounds that cater to modern life. Even words that persist in physical form invariably drift in meaning. Pull back your perspective enough, and change is the only true constant.
This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition
of West Coaster craft beer magazine

Such is the reality of the way we communicate about everything, including beer. Even a beer style that has persisted in name for centuries, like mild ale, has meant many different things over its lifespan. Mild ale has been dark, pale, hoppy, malty, strong, and weak. Pick a combination of those and there was a beer like it called mild ale at some point in time.

India pale ale has likewise had a large spectrum of meaning since the first usage of the term almost two centuries ago. From a very pale, dry, hoppy beer aged for long periods in barrels before consumption, to a session-strength ale not unlike any common bitter in the UK, India pale ale has persisted. 

In the United States, India pale ale has taken hold as one of the most popular and captivating styles of beer. And why wouldn’t it? Americans love hops, and hop growers continue to feed that desire with more and more new varieties of hops showcasing all manners of intriguing and exotic fruity aromas. 

India pale ale has become a celebration of hops from start to finish, especially in our familiar local examples, where malt is often treated like a blank canvas, adding little more than a surface on which to paint in the dynamic colors and shapes that modern hops allow.

Yet while some words or terms fade away or lose their meaning because they are no longer useful or relevant, India pale ale has fallen victim to its own success. Our appetite for hops has grown so insatiable that brewers have struggled with the loss in popularity of other beer styles. 

The solution, it seems, is to turn those less popular styles into India pale ales. But first you have to shorten “India pale ale” to “IPA,” lest we are reminded that this is supposed to be a pale ale we are drinking. The term IPA is catchy, takes up little precious space on a tap handle or chalkboard, and is currently used to denote a hoppy beer that could be almost anything after that initial criteria has been met. 

White IPA, brown IPA, red IPA, Belgian IPA, wheat IPA, and the infamous black IPA all combine the hop levels of an American India pale ale with another style of beer. I sometimes wonder when every beer style will be called some derivative of IPA.

Session IPA seems to be picking up steam right now, with two big local breweries, Stone and Pizza Port, releasing Go To IPA and Ponto respectively. Rough Draft’s Weekday IPA is another; although it doesn’t use the word “session,” its 4.8% ABV content, as well as the name, imply an easy drinker. 

The popularity of predecessors in the style, like Ballast Point Even Keel (coming soon in cans), Lagunitas Day Time (a “fractional IPA”), and Alpha Session by Drake’s is also on the rise. These beers deliver IPA-level hop aroma and flavor with sub-5% alcohol levels and a typically scaled back bitterness that avoids overpowering the lighter body and malt profile.

In a way, session IPAs are the logical conclusion to the vague, transient usage of “IPA” over the last few years. Mating what are now the two most popular beer styles in the country, light beer and IPA, session IPAs simply deliver what many drinkers want: low calories, drinkability, and hops. 

Session IPA also has a very good claim to the term, as low-alcohol India pale ales have been brewed continuously in the UK since the early 20th century. It has only been the more modern, American usage of the name that has led to the belief that India pale ales should be higher in alcohol than a normal pale ale. 

During the style’s original surge in popularity in the 19th century, it was only differentiated from other pale ales by longer aging times and higher hop levels. If session IPA sticks around as a popular style (and I’m betting that it will), we will likely see the “India” modifier shift back toward being an indicator of an emphasis on hops, and less as an indicator of alcohol content.
Stone Go To IPA case was released this week to the public. Image courtesy of West Coaster craft beer magazine via Stone Brewing Co., and John Schulz Photography.

About the Author:

Sam Tierney is West Coaster craft beer magazine’s monthly “Into the Brew” columnist.  He is a graduate of the Siebel Institute and Doemens World Beer Academy brewing technology diploma program.  He currently works as a brewer at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. and has most recently passed the “Certified Cicerone” exam.  He geeks out on all things related to brewing, beer styles and beer history.

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