We explore a snippet of evolutionary history on the most popular craft beer: IPA, and why so many of them can seem unbalanced.

The tap handle comes forward and sweet golden nectar flows from the tap. The barman slides you a pint filled to the brim with a brew that’s overflowing with aromas of citrus fruits and pine trees. I’m referring of course to the modern IPA and all of its hoppy greatness. We (the collective craft beer drinker) love a good IPA and that love has contributed to the world-wide hop craze, so much so that hop growers are murmuring of a shortage… gasp!

There are many theories about how the IPA (India Pale Ale) came about, but we can agree that the IPA was an ale received by the Indian market. If you want to know more about the real story behind the IPA, Martyn Cornell wrote a great blog post (zythophile.co.uk) about the myths surrounding IPA to straighten us all out. If you want to know the complete history of IPA go to Pete Brown’s Hops & Glory.

Now, I have a bone to pick with IPAs: they are too damn bitter! Because of that I end up being disappointed with 90 per cent of them. If we look back at the original ‘Victorian’ IPA, we see that it was heavy in alcohol, some claim upwards of 8%, and hit hefty IBUs up to 100 maybe more (IBUs are international bitterness units – in modern parlance of course). The thing about those IPAs is that they were made at a time when little was understood about yeast’s role in the brewing process. Brewing is a science and a fine one at that. I am completely happy for a beer to have as many IBUs as you can jam into it, so long as it’s balanced. The overwhelming majority of modern IPAs that I have tasted have been bitter for bitterness sake. There was seemingly no attempt to use the hops to offset the sweetness that the malt imparts on the beer, instead the hops overwhelm the malts. It should be a balance of the two.

"I have a bone to pick with IPAs: they are too damn bitter"

Fast forward nearly 200 years, and modern brewing is an advanced science and one of the greatest things about it is our ability to balance beer. I have tasted hundreds of beers from breweries based all over the world, and only a few have reached true balance. By that, I mean the perfect marriage between hops and malt so that the malt sweetness and hop bitterness counteract one another and neither is perceptible. Why don’t we see that perfect marriage very often? Achieving a balanced beer is really difficult. As much as we have learned about brewing, hops, malt, and yeast, we still don’t know how they all react with one another. There are, literally, unlimited outcomes when brewing a beer, and I won’t knock anyone who produces a great beer with a little/a lot of bitterness.

The IPA we see a lot of today – the hoppy West Coast IPA – was popularised in the US in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Many breweries claim to be the godfathers of the modern IPA, including, but not limited to, Stone, Sierra Nevada, Bridgeport, and Anchor (and let’s not forget the pioneering Bert Grant who, in 1982, opened what is thought to be the first brewpub since prohibition). No one really knows how the shift in the public’s view changed but it’s very evident that hop heavy beers are very popular now, and if these breweries are to be believed it’s been that way for nearly 30 years.

This raises the question: why are hoppy beers more popular now than they have been for the last 100 years? Well, if we look at the science of it, as humans we are predisposed to be averse to all bitter tastes. It is hard programmed into us that bitter things are poisonous and we should immediately spit them out. I don’t know about the rest of you but coffee, like IPAs, took me a long time to enjoy. I’m sure we all remember our first cup of coffee. Mine was nearly unpalatable but I made it through, and now I can’t go one day without at least one cup of black coffee. Just like with coffee, the more I drink IPAs, the more I like them, though I do have my moments of disappointment.

IPA is the world’s most popular craft beer, yet it has been analysed and studied for the better part of 30 years and we are still trying to get it right. Whether you like your beer with 1000 IBUs or 10, there is an IPA out there for everyone. As a craft beer enthusiast and homebrewer, the quest for the perfectly balanced beer will be a nearly endless pursuit.

May we all continue the quest for perfectly balanced beer.


Patrick Gengler is Beer Hawk’s Beer Sherpa. A jack of many trades, he is a fledgling beer writer/brewer/taster, as well as a Trade salesman and an assistant account manager. Patrick has completed the first level of Cicerone and is currently training to become a Certified Cicerone.