A History of American IPAs

American IPAs have to date passed through three discrete eras. The first, which constitutes examples generally made before the new millennium (with a few exceptions), existed mainly after the mid-1990s. From the late 70s until then, there really weren't many examples to speak of. This seems impossible given their ubiquity now, and a few years ago I had to do a bit of research to confirm that it was true. I consulted a couple books I had that rounded up all the available beers at the time they were written. Jack Erickson's Brewery Adventures in the Wild West (1991), focused on the West Coast--IPA country if any was to be found. Amazing, of the 235 beers he listed, just three were IPAs. Jennifer Trainer Thompson's The Great American Microbrewery Beer Book (1997), which covered the US, found barely more--just 8 of 187 beers identified. Those of us who think back and remember certain examples from the 90s--Harpoon, Stone, Blind Pig, BridgePort--sometimes remember them as emblematic of a burgeoning trend. But actually, we misremember--those were the pioneers.

IPAs from the first era were characterized by two things: extreme bitterness (lacerating, pain-inducing) and heavy, sweet malt bases (thick, cakey) that sort of acted as a balance. It's no wonder that IPAs remained a niche phenomenon. Karl Ockert, the master brewer at BridgePort, reflected on their IPA from that period.

BridgePort came out with IPA in 1996 and people looked at that and basically said, ‘Hmm, nice, niche beer. But hop-led beers will never become dominant because who’s going to drink anything that hop-loaded, you know?’ Fifty BUs? My god, you have to practically choke that down.
— Karl Ockert

But some people wanted to choke, and phase one inspired a kind of arms race on bitterness. It did appeal to a very niche crowd--but an avid one. Brewers themselves loved IPAs and began experimenting enthusiastically with hops.

Phase two arrived when breweries began to realize that hops could also contribute flavor and aroma. This was when they began to be made with some elan, and the best examples--Racer 5, Pliny the Elder--still impress. They keyed off hop bitterness, but discovered that hops could contribute heady aromas and distinctive flavors--citrus, pine, marijuana. They were still very loud and brassy beers, but they were made with an attuned sense of harmony.

The third and current (and probably final) era was when breweries began to develop techniques that fully unlocked hops' flavor and aroma potential. (You can find a full post on that process here.) This is when the IPA category blossomed into red, white, black, Belgian, session, Double, New England style, fruit IPAs, and even India pale lagers. When we think of IPAs, we're mainly thinking of these modern styles. Even the examples from earlier eras that managed to survive were ahead-of-their-time IPAs that seem modern to our current palates.

Patrick and I recount all this in today's episode of the Beervana Podcast, tasting classics from each era. We started off with Anchor Liberty (a precursor beer), then moved through Dogfish Head 60 Minute (first era), Racer 5 and Lagunitas IPA (second era), and finished up with Green Flash Le Freak, Saint Archer Nelson IPL, and Block 15 Sticky Hands (third era). Of course, along the way we discuss the origins of IPA, some of the economics, and the history as it unfolded. (Being old has its advantages.) We had a fun and I hope somewhat informed discussion, so give it a listen.