Ah, spring time: One week you find yourself whistling while you stroll along a sidewalk, warmed by the sun, birds chirping behind you. The next week, you’re huddled under a winter coat, feet soaked by sleet, and your car once again covered in that liquid salt they spray on the road.
For most of the United States, spring is a season of tumultuous beauty, a time when brief glimpses of summer are given and then taken away. The trees are starting to bloom, and slowly—but surely—everyone is emerging from the grumpy cocoon of protection they’ve put themselves in all winter.
Springtime is a time of transition, and for that reason, spring is also my favorite time of year for IPAs. IPAs (India Pale Ales) are a great transitional beer—they’re crisp and refreshing enough to work perfectly on a warm April day, but robust and bracingly bitter enough to warm the cockles of your heart during a May blizzard. But where did this beer come from? And how did it come to be the most widely-known craft beer option?
A Brief History of British Colonialism
Back in the 18th century, the East India Company and eventually the British government proper in the 19th century colonized the Indian subcontinent. They did lots of really awful things to the indigenous population! Like, really awful. That fact cannot, and must not, be overstated. India didn’t become an independent nation until 1947, and like any colonial nation, Great Britain has plenty of blood on its hands and a mixed record of apologizing for it.
One of the less human rights atrocity-ish things to come out of Britain’s time in India: India Pale Ale.
Imagine an ordinary British person, settling in India in the 19th century. They surely missed the comforts of home—including beer. British beer in the early-to-mid 17th century was mostly pale ale and porter, and who wants to drink a porter that close to the Equator? The problem was that beer was hard to brew in India, and it was even harder for pale ale to make it through the six-month voyage from England without spoiling.
The solution? Hops.
The first recorded use of hops in beer was in France in the 9th century, and by the beginning of the 16th century, it was a key ingredient in the Rheinheitsgebot of 1516. (A quick aside—if you gain nothing else from reading this, please follow that link and learn to pronounce “rheinheitsgebot.”) Hops were a flavor additive, certainly—they added different notes to beer, and evened out the sweetness of the malted barley with their bitterness and clean finish. But hops are also a preservative, and in an era before refrigeration, that was an appealing quality. Instead of spoiling after a short amount of time, hopped beer could last much longer.
So when confronted with the problem of shipping ale to India, a brewer named Hodgeson started sending out heavily hopped beer to India. Other brewers followed, and the problem was solved. They started calling the concoctions “India Pale Ales.”
America Takes It Up to Eleven
The brew fell out of style for much of the post-colonial era, until a little country called AMERICA came along, *cue fireworks*. Several brewers in the U.S. claim to have launched the first post-prohibition IPA, but it was probably a brewer in California. These brewers took the original idea of using hops in a traditional pale ale, except they did what Americans do best: They did it bigger and badder than anyone in history.
That led to what we now think of as the “normal” IPA—heavily hopped beers that tend to be higher in alcohol (thanks to the need to use more malt to balance out the hops), fairly bitter and floral, piney or citrusy, depending on the hop varietal. These beers are designed to punch you in the face and leave you smiling.
Naturally, because Americans are born to thrive on competition and arms races, this led to a run to develop the craziest and most extreme IPAs possible. Featuring alcohol by volume that top out in the teens (the average ABV content of beer is somewhere between 4%-6%), these beers challenge what exactly you can call a “beer.” They have names that sound like your little brother heard the term “hop” and started riffing on it: “HOPSPLOSION!” “A-HOP-ALYPSE.” “HOPSEGEDDON.” To my knowledge, these aren’t real beer names, but they probably will be soon.
We’ll touch on the double and triple IPAs in future columns, but today, we turn to the good old, dependable American IPA. It’s the perfect beer as winter is easing into spring and summer, and you’re sure to find one here worth cracking open with a friend.
5 IPAs Worth Your Time
The great thing about IPAs is that pretty much every brewery makes one, and they’re rarely going to be flat-out bad. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with a brewery and not sure which beer to try, go with their IPA. As a rule of thumb, it’ll probably be pretty good. And if you’re not sure what to bring to a party or to an out-of-town friend’s house, opt for an IPA.
So with that, I’ve narrowed down a list of five IPAs for your fridge this spring. I tried to keep the budget in mind, so there aren’t any that would top out at more than $10-$12 for a six-pack (unless you live in New York City, of course). I’ve also tried to keep them to breweries that have pretty wide-distribution, which means you’ll probably see some familiar faces on here. Chances are, there is at least one IPA in your region that should be on this list.
But these five IPAs can be your workhorses throughout the spring, and all year-round if that’s your thing. I’ve given some flavor notes and why I think these deserve your time. Cheers, and until next time:
- Lagunitas IPA (Lagunitas Brewing Company, California): This beer features a crisp, light bitterness. It’s balanced—not too malty or sweet, which also means it has a pretty light mouthfeel. It’s easy to drink, and will pair well with a bunch of foods. Plus, it’s one of the cheapest on the list.
- Fresh Squeezed IPA (Deshutes Brewery, Oregon): If you ever want to explain to someone how hops can taste like fruit, have them try Fresh Squeezed. This beer is loaded with grapefruit and apricot notes. It’s got a nice lasting bitterness, which makes up for it being one of the sweeter options on the list.
- Sculpin IPA (Ballast Point Brewing Company, California): This one is higher in ABV (7 percent) so easy does it. It features a nice emphasis on grapefruit-y hops, bracing bitterness and a lingering bitter finish. It’s not too sweet and has a well-balanced bite that continues beyond the initial taste.
- Anti-Hero IPA (Revolution Brewing Company, Chicago): If other examples on this list highlight the citrus qualities of hops, Anti-Hero tastes like a pine cone, but in a good way. It’s got a heavy bitterness, a wonderful finish and has enough backbone to stand up to both the coldest winter nights and the hottest summer days.
- Two-Hearted Ale (Bell’s Brewery, Michigan): This is the most well-balanced of any widely distributed IPA. It’s at once floral, sweet and bitter, and its heavier mouthfeel combines with a light carbonation to create a wonderfully drinkable beer. It also features the world’s greatest beer label.
Honorable mentions: Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA; Brooklyn Brewing East India Pale Ale; Uinta Hop Nosh IPA; Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA; Victory Brewing HopDevil; Sixpoint Brewery Bengali Tiger; Fat Head Brewery Head Hunter IPA; Stone IPA; Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai; Terrapin Brewing Hopsecutioner; Bear Republic Brewing Racer 5 IPA