Anatomy of an IPA (Indian Pale Ale)

  • Posted on 13th February 2017

IPA stands for India Pale Ale: a close cousin of our pale ales and a beer with a history that spans more than two centuries. In the first of a series looking at what defines different styles of beer, we take a closer look at the story and the alchemy of this pale golden nectar.

IPAs were originally made in England and sent to quench the thirst of the British Army in India in the 17th century. After being largely overshadowed by larger in the intervening period, it’s recently seen an astronomic revival in recent years owing to the growth in the craft beer market


India Pale Ale was born from Britain’s industrial revolution and world-straddling empire expansion. The first casks were brewed in East London in the 1790’s. As beer goes, that’s a relative newcomer. But what made if different from previous ales was it was the first time hops were added to the traditional beery holy trinity of grain, water and yeast.

Pre-IPA, the 3 to 5 month trip to the sub-continent was playing havoc with the quality of porter and ale being shipped. Even when it was stored on the cool lower decks of the ships it was arriving at its destination musty, flat and sour. The tropical climate of India made brewing there nigh on impossible so London’s brewers hit on the twin solution of adding hops to the barrel in transit and raising the alcohol content. Both acted as preservatives for the beer. The recipe has been refined since then but this is where the IPA was born.

What makes it an IPA?

The difference between a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale is generally a greater quantity of hops and higher alcohol content. Hops are added at various points when the wort is being boiled – early additions give bitterness and later ones add flavour and aroma. The higher alcohol content comes from fermenting the IPA at a higher temperature that other pale ales.

Look, smell and taste

IPAs range from medium gold to copper and most are clear. They usually have a higher than average ABV that occurs naturally during the brewing process. Nose-wise you should be able to smell the hops aroma a mile off. Behind that you’ll find sweet malt and citrusy, pine or fruity scents. If you’re IPA’s dry-hopped you might even get a sniff of grassiness.

IPA flavours are complex and varied, depending on the type of hops and the alchemy of brewing these with the other beer ingredients but the presence of hops will always make for a distinctive bitter, crisp and refreshing flavour.

Sub brands

Although there are certain alleged high-hop sub-brands like black IPAs, red IPAs and New England IPAs, there are three officially recognised IPA styles designated in major beer competitions.

English Pale Ale — like a very British handshake this is a beer that’s moderate and not too harsh on the palate. Typically has a medium hoppy aftertaste, earthy/ floral aroma and a fruity or biscuit flavour. Serve in a Nonic or English pint glass to show off the rich colour and frothy head.

American IPA — like most things American, this is a big, gutsy beer. Packs a palate punch with intense American hops and potent citrus and herbal flavours and aromas. Usually deep gold to reddish amber in colour and with more fizz. Serve in a standard pint glass to allow the beer to breathe

Double or Imperial IPA — the granddaddy of IPAs. Strong and very bitter with an intense flavour profile, hoppy taste and aroma created through dry hopping. American invention. Drink from a brandy glass to truly appreciate the aroma and appearance (and best consumed at a sedate speed…)

What’s your favourite IPA?

Do you love the subtlety of English Pale Ale like our Lushingtons or Porthleven beers? Or have you tried an IPA from across the pond that’s really knocked your socks off? We’re always keen to hear about great beer so share your favourite IPAs using #bestIPAS — we can’t wait to create our own sampling list.