What is an IPA?

During the month of April Happy Hour City will be celebrating all things beer related. Each week we will educate you on the different types of beer, we will also show you how to make beer centered cocktails/drinks, and we will be giving you the inside scoop on some of the best beer bars & breweries around LA. 

Alright kids grab a pen, paper, and an IPA. Today, we are learning all about the infamous India Pale Ale. A Pale Ale is a subcategory of an Ale, making India Pale Ales a subcategory of a subcategory, however, India Pale Ales have their own set of categories as well. Each one with a distinctive taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. We’re here to break it down for you as simply as possibly can, it is Beer month after all.

You could say the IPA was the O.G. hipster beers, if all your friends suddenly became beer experts after drinking an IPA, it’s for a good reason. It takes some learning and talent to be able to detect the difference between many IPAs, your friends aren’t trying to be beer-know-it-alls, they’re just well versed! Now, you can be too. In this article, we are covering English IPAs, American IPAs, and Imperial IPAs! 



Overall, IPAs are defined as a more hoppy beer, Pale Ales are brewed from Pale malts, and yes India Pale Ales are tied into the country of India, but more on that later. The one characteristic that’s similar throughout the three is the clearness of the colors. Look for a clear view through the liquid, like putting on gold-colored sunglasses. If you spot an IPA that’s a bit on the hazier side, it’s an unfiltered dry-hopped version. We’ll begin with defining an English IPA.

Doctor Ale

Doctor Ale

-English IPA:

An English IPA is the British version of the hoppy brew. Overall, this kind is a moderately strong pale ale. Coming from the UK the English malts, hops, and yeast is what characterizes it as an English IPA. Compared to what America has across the pond, an English IPA has less hop character (flavor is medium to high) and a more pronounced malt flavor.

When drinking an English IPA you should taste be tasting a moderate to assertive hop bitterness. The hop flavor is also meant to be reflected in the aroma, for English IPAs those taste notes include floral, earthy, fruity, and/or slightly grassy). 

As for the malt flavor, an English malt is characterized to be medium-low to medium-high, but should be noticeable, pleasant, and support the hop aspect. If you think the malt tastes a little grain-like, you’re not wrong! It should be somewhat bready, almost biscuit-like, toasty, or toffee-like and/or caramelly. It’s a complex malt!

However, despite the dominant hop character typical of English IPAs, the sufficient malt flavor, body and complexity are there to support the hops. Together, this kick-ass team of flavors will provide the best balance. In English IPAs only very low levels of diacetyl are acceptable. When you take into consideration the fruitiness from the fermentation or hops, it adds to the overall complexity.

And now for the finish, a medium to dry finish is to be expected. A bitterness may linger on your tongue for a while but it should not be harsh. In the strongest versions of this IPA you’ll be able to taste the clean alcohol. Their ABV ranges anywhere from 4.0-6.5%. As for spotting the difference without having to taste it, the color and look of an English IPA ranges from golden amber to light copper, but most are pale to medium amber with an orange-ish tint. 

Gear Patrol

Gear Patrol

-American IPA:

The U.S.A also has its own style of IPA, not terribly different from an English one though. Overall, it is decidedly hoppy and bitter, but it is a moderately strong ale. What makes it American is the hop flavor, which is medium to high, and it exudes a character of citrus, floral, resinous, piney or fruity aspects. Taste notes that are also in the aroma of this IPA.

As for the bitterness of said hops, it should be a medium-high to very high level, if you think that’s a little too much, no worries there. The hops are well balanced out by the backbone of the malt. It supports the strong hop presence there for cutting into the bitterness. The malt flavor in an American IPA should be low to medium, it’s only acting as the backbone not. It’s generally a cleaner malt with a sweet hint of caramel or even some toasty flavors in low leveled American IPAs.

The bitterness of the hops may linger into the aftertaste but it should not be harsh. The finish is a medium-dry style and, like the English IPA, some clean alcohol level is noted in the stronger versions. American IPAs are stronger than their English cousins, ranging in between 6.3-7.5% ABV. As for their appearance, the color should range from a medium gold to medium reddish copper; some versions can have an orange-ish tint as well. 

Beer ratings and reviews

Beer ratings and reviews

-Imperial India Pale Ale:

The one IPA to rule them all, this intensely hoppy, very strong pale ale omits the big maltiness of the other two. Despite being so strongly hopped, it is clean, lacks harshness, and overall brewed to pay a special tribute to the historic IPA from the 1700s. It’s most important characteristic is its drinkability. However, don’t let the strong hops scare you!

An Imperial should not be a heavy, “sipping” beer. It should also not have much residual sweetness or a heavy character grain profile. Now that you’re not terrified of it anymore, the flavor profile is as follows. 

The strength of the hops is a complex sensation, you wouldn’t be wrong to confuse it for an American or English IPA. Imperials can at times reflect the use of American, English and/or other noble hop varieties. You’ll know it’s an Imperial due to the high to absurdly high hop bitterness. But the malt’s backbone also shows up to save the day here and balance out those absurdly high hops.

So that awesome malt backbone actually does not have a strong flavor, it is overpowered by the hops and comes in a low to medium range. Generally, it’s clean and at lower levels, you will get that delicious caramel or toasty flavors. With Imperials do expect a long lingering bitterness in the aftertaste but, don’t worry it shouldn’t be too harsh. Like the other two, the Imperial has a medium-dry finish, but unlike the other two, a very clean and smooth alcohol flavor is most certainly present. That’s due to the fact, Imperial ABVs range from 7.6-10.6% ABV! To detect an Imperial outside of it’s bottled container, look for a color that’s a golden amber, or a medium reddish copper; some versions can have an orange-ish tint, essentially it will just look more saturated than an English or American IPA. 

A Brief History:

When brewing began in England, one of the first brewers to export beer to their new regime in India was a man named George Hodgson. He owned a brewery named Bow Brewery, near the Middlesex-Essex border. Due to its convenient location, in the 18th century, the East India Company traders would enjoy Hodgson’s brew and his liberal credit line of 18 months.

It’s safe to say, Mr. George Hodgson knew what he was doing, he used his connections to the East India Co. to dominate the export market to the new colony. Among one of his first exports of beer, Hodgson exported a strong pale ale. Historians claim it was probably brewed with extra additions of hops and at higher alcohol levels, both of which act as preservatives. This was so the beer would arrive in good shape to India. The long journey around the Atlantic and Indian Oceans transformed the beer into a wonderful drink. After successfully bringing beer to India, George’s son inherited Bow Brewery came in the early 19th century. However, his business practices were far from the ones his father had and thus alienated their customers.

 Because of Hodgson overreaching, the door of opportunity was opened to the brewers of Burton-on-Trent, in the English Midlands. The crowds in India claimed the pale ale coming from the Trent valley tasted far better than London brews. This was, perhaps, due to their brighter ale, which was produced thanks to their use of hard water. It also made the beer more pleasant and with a refreshing hop character. One of the most successful Burton brewmasters was Samuel Allsop, his pale ale had an exceptional quality. Eventually, it displaced the London beers, and it quickly became the preferred export to the New World, AKA the English colonies, AKA America. This is the beer that came to be called India pale ale, or IPA.


Entering the 19th century, the focus shifted as fashionable continental pale lagers stole the spotlight from pale ales in English Pubs. This was mostly due to the fact that the first wave of immigrants from Britain brought over the same change. It was happening in Britain but on a much larger scale. As lagers took over Europe, ale production decreased.

By the time the Volstead Act initiated Prohibition, beer didn’t stand a chance, the law essentially wiped out breweries of any type of beer. Of course, you know people found their way around this with bootleggers, but the quality and variety of beers was no longer the focus. Luckily, we changed that messed up law right around, and beer was the first thing to be legalized after Prohibition. Thanks, President Roosevelt! 

It wasn’t until the 1970s that microbreweries started operating in the U.S. and ale styles that had been left in the past and forgotten found their home again. As people tasted beer for the first time, the hops and the mix of American ingredients, got everyone excited about the future of beers. One of the first breweries to leap to the business venture of American craft brewing was New Albion Brewing in Sonoma, CA. They only made it a few years, but they most certainly helped lay the groundwork for breweries in the years to come.  In the 1960s San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery was rescued from closure.

In 1975, it released what is now known as Liberty Ale, originally calling it “Our Special Ale.” It was an instant classic. It qualifies as the first modern American India Pale Ale due to the use of American ingredients. IPAs were pretty popular and eventually became the best-selling craft beer style.

During the 80’s and 90’s Americans acted as if they had forgotten all about the boring bland lagers they had for years before. The enthusiasm for aromatic, strong IPAs was never ending and rolled into the ‘90s. IPAs remained strong through the years in the United States, primarily in the Pacific Northwest, where hops grow the most in a greater variety. As we explained before, American hops can be anything from soft and citrusy, to rough and resiny and even fruity.

Mix them the right way and they can make an IPA with an incredibly high hop profile. That’s what people have done in the latest years, accomplishing what we know today as: double and imperial IPA beer styles. Essentially, this new beer style is representing of the rebel and independent nature of American microbreweries. Since then, it has influenced the brewing style of other beers “imperializing” them and therefore radicalizing the beer world. 

Random Beer Fact:

While Australia is not the first place to brew an IPA, they were the first place to call it one. The name East India Pale Ale appeared in an 1829 ad printed in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser but the ad didn’t mention the brewery that was making it.

We hope this has helped you finally understand the difference between the broad sub-subcategory of India Pale Ales. 

As history has proven, the beer world has never stopped expanding. So who knows what’s to come next! But we will be here for it. Thanks for reading, and as always…

Cheers from,
Happy Hour City

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