A Look at Five of The Most Popular IPAs: What Makes Them Good and What Makes Them Different

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If you drink beer, you've probably had an IPA. IPA, short for India Pale Ale, dominates sales in the craft-beer world. In 2008, IPA was clearly the most popular category of craft beer — and if you fast forward eight years to today, its total sales have increased 20-fold. But just sipping an IPA doesn't make you an expert on the style, which is why we're here to explain some of the basics. 

The showcase ingredient in IPAs is hops, which come from the plant humulus lupulus. This is a vine-like plant that produces hop flowers known as strobiles. Within these strobiles are two prized contributions to brewing: alpha acids and hop oils. Alpha acids provide the bitterness in beer that gives the drinker the crisp, clean finish and acts to balance the sweet malt. The hop oils produce the flavor and aroma, which in the case of American-style hops, typically provide flavors and aromas ranging from pine to grapefruit to tropical fruit to other citrus varieties.

Virtually every reputable brewery makes an IPA, and many breweries make more than one. There are also various sub-categories of IPA such as session (light) IPAs, Black IPAs (made with dark malt), Red IPAs (made with toasted-style malts), Belgian IPAs (fermented with Belgian yeast) ... the list goes on.

With hundreds, even thousands, of options to choose from, where does one start? Today, we take a closer look at five tried-and-true IPAs that have stood the test of time. We'll describe what makes them special, why they retain such popularity, and how to differentiate the subtle differences between them.

Union Jack IPA (Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Paso Robles, CA) 7.5% ABV, 70 IBU
This beer is the epitome of hop flavor, hop aroma, balanced malt, and pleasant alcohol working together to produce a symphony of flavor. Make no mistake, hop aromas are prominent, but absolutely nothing is out of balance with this classic IPA. The double dry-hopping methods used to produce this beer elicit aromas and flavors of tangerine, grapefruit, and pine. And the hops employed — which include Amarillo, Cascade, Chinook, Simcoe, Citra, and Centennial — are the hop aroma equivalent to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Union Jack has won every major award conceivable, and is perhaps the finest IPA made anywhere in the world today.

Fresh Squeezed IPA (Deschutes Brewing Co., Bend, OR) 6.4% ABV, 60 IBU
Slightly darker than a standard West Coast IPA, Fresh Squeezed employs Citra, Mosaic, and Nugget hops on a base of Pale, Crystal, and Munich malt. Its hop punch is not a solo act, as it's supported with a rich, balanced backbone of malt flavor. Fresh, clean citrus and grapefruit flavors create a "fresh-squeezed" essence, which makes Fresh Squeezed the most aptly named beer in the history of the IPA category.

Two Hearted Ale (Bell's Brewing, Kalamazoo, MI) 7.0% ABV, 55 IBU
Often considered to be the ideal gateway beer to the IPA world, this classic Michigan brew utilizes the brilliance of just one hop varietal, Centennial, in multiple editions to provide its smooth, orange-citrus flavor and aromas. Bell's house yeast provides additional subtle character. The beer has just the right amount of bitterness to support the inviting Centennial hop character. 

Sculpin IPA (Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego, CA) 7.0% ABV, 70 IBU
Hopped in five different stages, Sculpin produces huge hop flavors and aromas that include, but are not limited to: peach, mango, pine, apricot, and citrus. It's hop nirvana with a super-crisp carbonic finish. Ballast Point's meteoric rise to popularity can be summed up in two words: Sculpin IPA. The number of line extensions produced by this popular IPA (Pineapple, Grapefruit, Habanero Sculpin) are probably surpassed only by the brewing behemoth known as Bud Light.

Hop Hunter (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, CA) 6.2% ABV, 60 IBU
Sierra Nevada has always been on the cutting edge of brewing technology, and Hop Hunter is yet another result of the brewery being a leader in the craft industry. As the brewery website states, "Hop Hunter IPA harnesses the complex flavors of just-picked hops through an all-new method of steam distilling wet hops before they even leave the fields." The end result is a super-clean hop experience, without some of the unpleasant character that can come from excessive hop plant material found in other heavily hopped beers. Crystal, Simcoe, and a Sierra classic, Cascade, finish out the hop aromatics, creating a vivid though well-honed hop character.

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