American and English IPAs

John ShearlockDec 9, '23
We riffed on the idea of the ebb and flow of beer styles around the world in last week’s blog and it got me pondering on some of the notions of how styles are actually defined - and what shape they will take going forward. Of course, once again, the IPA provides the perfect case study.

You know the history of the IPA, so I won’t dwell on it, except to say that it appeared in the 1830s in England as a heavily hopped higher ABV style. It gradually became weaker and less popular through the decades until by the 1960s it had all but disappeared.

The craft beer boom of the 1980s resuscitated the style (spearheaded by American brewers) and the IPA (in its various forms) is now arguably once again the king of beers.

Those that appeared in this beer renaissance would be more correctly catalogued as American IPAs, but when you look at the definition of the style in the Beer Judge Certification Program style guide, and compare it to the English IPA - there’s not a huge disparity in how they present. The words ‘hops’, ‘bitter’ and ‘moderately strong’ appearing in both.

Of course, this isn't exactly surprising, but interestingly - there is one key phrase that sets the English IPA apart, and which states that ‘classic British ingredients provide the most authentic flavour profile.‘

On the other hand, the definition of the American IPA is one that ‘often uses American or New World hops but…’ and this is the important bit, ‘...any varieties are acceptable.’

So, we sort of find ourselves with one style that is more heavily related to a region, and another that is dictated almost purely by the end flavour, regardless of how it is achieved. American IPAs are born of the fact that they were popular in America and made by Americans, but not necessarily because they used American ingredients.

I guess what this really points to, is just how different brewing is now compared to, say, 100 years ago.

Back in the day, styles would have originated with a heavier bias to location, as the sharing of information and ingredients on a global basis just wasn't possible. Think of the original Pilsner, born from the soft water and abundance of Saaz hops local to the town of Plzeň.

Today though, that is not the case, and this explains the slightly looser definition of the American IPA, versus the English IPA’s dependence (ideally) on English ingredients.

In the 1980s, American brewers armed with hops from around the world brewed a newish style of IPA that broke the association of that style to a region. Many new styles have followed suit - think of Brut IPAs, Cold IPAs and the like - none of which are defined by regional ingredients. That’s exciting stuff really, and points to a future where styles are no longer constrained by region and the possibilities are perhaps limitless.