The Major IPA Beer Styles, Explained

Stone Brewing Co.
Stone Brewing Co.

Arguably the world’s most popular beer style, the India Pale Ale (or IPA) has become such a broadly used term that it has nearly lost its meaning. Sure, it’s still recognized by its traditionally hop-forward profile, but today’s IPAs come in all the colors of the rainbow, and in more flavors than you’ll find at a hipster ice cream shop.

“An IPA is generally a very hop-forward beer but that can mean a lot of things today,” says Jeremy Moynier, senior innovation brewer and 16-year brewery veteran at Stone Brewing Co. That means hop-curious drinkers are confronted with choice challenges, unsure whether to go hazy or clear, malty or bitter.

First, a little history. That famous myth that IPAs were created out of necessity to strengthen and preserve beers from England for their six-month voyage to India has been discredited — yet remains the most common origin story. In truth, IPAs first popped up in England in the 1700s as a lighter, crisper, and more-refreshing beverage than the darker beers of the day. Hops worked as a preservative before they became more important as a flavoring, which added a new way for brewers to experiment.

However, the advent of industrial brewing methods eventually led to the rise of lager beers and the decline of more flavorful IPAs. It wasn’t until the 1970s that IPAs picked up steam in the US, when Anchor Brewing’s famous Liberty Ale reintroduced the style -- and paved the way for a hop revolution.

“It all comes down to innovation,” says Moynier, whose Stone Brewing has been pushing the craft beer envelope since it opened in 1996. “That’s [the basis of] our ‘Leave no stone unturned’ mantra. We continue to push ourselves to try new things, do and look at things differently, and continually challenge ourselves. That can be difficult but well worth it in the end.”

While it can be difficult to know what to expect in an IPA anymore, you can at least know what’s out there. So to help you to navigate these hoppy waters, we’ve outlined the broad strokes of four main IPA categories to help find the brew that’s right for you.

Stone Brewing Co.

West Coast IPA

IPAs sailed from Europe to America in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the craft brewing boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s that US brewers started utilizing Pacific Northwest hops to put in their beers. West Coast brewers bumped up the alcohol, lightened the body, and recast the old floral and spicy European hops for sexy new Northwest-grown breeds.

“When Stone IPA [was released] in 1997, the hop and beer landscape was much, much different and there weren’t as many choices,” Moynier says. “Our beers have grown with hop innovation and it’s really cool the choices we now have with so many different and exciting hops available -- not just from America, but from around the world, allowing us to create an array of flavor profiles.”

Stone was one of a handful of early pioneers in establishing the West Coast IPA with an overabundance of IBUs (International Bittering Units). The extreme flavors caught the attention of drinkers and never let go, eventually setting off a hops arms race that would culminate in Imperial and Double IPAs (more on those in a sec). With the success of the West Coast IPA, America annexed the India Pale Ale from Europe and made it our own -- just like we did with French fries.

Imperial/Double IPA

Soon after the advent of the West Coast IPA, everyone and their mother began an energized wave of experimentation with hops. It wasn’t enough to just have higher IBU -- you had to dry hop your beer post-fermentation and maybe even add an extract or begin hopping the water before you even brewed with it (if you want to get in the weeds about it). To accommodate all those hops, the alcohol started getting bumped up from 6% ABV to 8, 9, or even 10%. 

This sub-style became known as Imperial IPA or Double IPA, of which Stone was an early innovator (and continues to be with the Stone 24th Anniversary DigiriDoom Double IPA).. Today, the Imperial and Double IPA remain popular, but also inspired brewers to move away from bitter beer into sweeter, less “beer-like” flavors that still showcase the hops.


Hazy or Juicy IPA

The terms “hazy” and “juicy” are often used interchangeably to describe the type of East Coast beers that rose to popularity about five years ago. Unlike other India Pale Ales, the Hazy IPAs tend to be much sweeter and tangier, identifiable by their cloudy appearance reminiscent of fresh-squeezed juice. By doctoring the IPA with wheat, flaked malts, and other adjuncts, Hazy IPAs have a creamy, silky body that deemphasizes the bitterness and brings out the juicy flavors that hops can impart. On top of all that flaked barley is a melange of fruit aromas and flavors, from citrusy to tropical to stone fruit, often with a little finishing burst of citrus zest bitterness. Despite the name, no juice is actually squeezed in the process -- except those squeezed out of the hops.

“East Coast [and] Hazy IPAs have really broadened the IPA category and brought more consumers to the style, which is awesome,” Moynier says. “Many tend to be sweeter, smoother, and dare I say, more approachable.” Stone is known for pioneering the more pungent West Coast IPA, but their love of IPA extends to nearly every variety and sub-style.

Take, for example, Stone Brewing’s Scorpion Bowl IPA, a tropical fruit punch of hops without the haze. But for folks who love high opacity, Stone’s Fear.Movie.Lions is a hazy double IPA that hits the San Diego-style palate, but with stinky Loral and Mosaic hops -- and a knockout 8.5% ABV.

Fruit/Citrus IPA

Fitting neatly between the pith-y and piny West Coast IPA flavors and the sweet and fruity East Coast IPA movement is the fruited IPA category. While most IPAs get their fruity flavors from hops, these IPAs utilize the combination of fruity hop varieties and actual fruit. So instead of sipping piña coladas poolside, try sipping a tropical IPA on your front porch and imagine you're on vacation.

Stone Brewing’s Tangerine Express Hazy IPA captures the haze of summer and turns it into a pulpy, pith-y adult creamsicle without the cloying sweetness. Pro tip: Look out for Stone’s seasonal and limited-release IPAs, which can range from Tiki-esque to full-on, in-your-face luscious hop bitterness.

Brewers like Stone have proven that the old styles of beer demand innovation, and that you can turn a 200-year-old ale into a blank canvas for hoppy experimentation. In doing so, the IPA has turned from a hyper-specific category into an open sea of hops with a million variations -- and now you know how to wade through it.