India Pale Ale is a style which supposedly originated from beers being shipped from England to India requiring high amounts of hops, which served as a preservative. This produces a beer which has a decent malt backbone but is dominated by distinct hop bitterness. The hop aroma and flavour are usually not as forward as they are in an American Pale Ale. As craft beer has become popular, drinkers have migrated from the Budweisers, Coors, and Bud Lights of American drinking, which are on the hop side of the spectrum, so most drinker’s palates are accustomed to hops. When they begin drinking craft beer, IPAs are one of the styles which tastes the most like “beer” to their palate.
IPAs also benefit from a trendy quality within the craft beer community. Many breweries live and die by their hop-balanced beers (Stone, New Belgium, Dogfish Head). Some breweries are dedicated almost entirely to hop-balanced beers (Terrapin). Craft beer drinkers love their IPAs. Over the years, brewers have tried to stuff more and more hops into their beer to appeal to the hop-loving populace. Practically, though, humans can only discern a certain level of bitterness (estimated in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs; most people can’t taste over 100 IBUs as distinct flavours). That hasn’t stopped the breweries from adding more hops!
Brewers on the west coast of the US (California, Oregon, Washington) started throwing more and more hops into their IPAs to appeal to the bitterness-loving drinkers. This ultimately resulted in a style which is slightly distinct from the historic IPA. The craft beer community called this a West Coast IPA. People have since used the term East Coast IPA to distinguish it from the West Coast. West Coast IPAs, supposedly, have a more pine-like or grassy character, characteristic of the hops grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. To us, that’s outdated.
We spent three weeks on the west coast, going from brewpub to brewery, and encountered dozens of IPAs. Contrary to our expectation, the beers were well balanced, with incredible malt complexity which made them palatable even to our hop-aversive palates. Maybe the IPAs on the West Coast were once super-hoppy. But they have evolved, and grown up, and are now more interesting and complex, at least in the brewpubs and small breweries along our alcohol touring route. So, while we don’t think we can cause the entire craft beer community to adopt different terminology for uber-hoppy IPAs, if you go to the West Coast expecting a West Coast IPA, just remember we warned you that you might be disappointed!