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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Deep Geekology: Do IPAs Vary By Region?

Ruminating from Leeds, Ghost Drinker ponders:
In my latest IPA post, there was quite a call for West coast and East coast IPAs from America to have their own style categories. I can sort of see why. I can see a big difference between English and Scottish Ales and they're only a few hundred miles apart. I guess it makes sense for Ales that are a few thousand miles apart to be a little different... 
He then asks for examples of classic examples of East and West Coast IPAs as a way of illustrating the difference.  I have thoughts on this, but I thought it would be more interesting to elicit yours.  The questions are these
  1. Do different regions of the country make IPAs differently?
  2. If so, what are the differences?
I will up the ante by saying opinion is not enough.  Show your work by highlighting high-profile IPAs that bolster or refute the case for regional variation.  Anyone can riff with opinion, but is there a data-based case to be made?


  1. I think there used to be regional variation. West Coast used to be more bitter and drier (things like Stone Ruination, Sculpin, etc) whereas East Coast used to be more balanced with some malt presence (I guess Weyerbacher Double Simcoe works?). However, now there's plenty of dry, bitter, bright IPAs coming out of Vermont, MA, and other places that it's just another way to brew an IPA instead of a geographical piece.

    I'd say this occurred partially because IPAs are one of the more popular styles now instead of a niche, meaning way more people are brewing them.

  2. I don't think mileage is a good basis for differentiation. When English and Scottish Ale styles were developing a few hundred miles was much more significant than a few thousand miles is today. Also variations in beer styles are developing so quickly these days that I wouldn't jump to create new styles. That being said Northwest IPAs are much better than East Coast IPAs.

  3. I heard in an interview with Mitch Steele from Stone, who wrote the recent IPA book, that a comparative study was done between east coast and west coast IPAs and found no differences in IBU, gravity, color, or flavors.

    I agree that there may have been a difference in the past, but with the rise of craft beer in the past decade, and the increase in distribution across the country, I think brewers on both coasts have very similar influences and make an equally wide range of IPA styles.

    As odd as it sounds, West Coast IPA could be considered a historical style!

  4. I recall reading, and I forget where (perhaps here?), that there was some sort of spectrum, primarily around hops (both variety and timing of additions) and yeast selection, extending from Knife-crime island to the Pacific coast. On the island, hops were less assertive, used in lesser amounts later in the boil, and more frequently English varieties, while yeast was more estery, and did not attenuate to the extent of Pac-coast strains, leaving more residual sugar. East coast IPAs fell somewhere between these two extremes, perhaps marrying English yeasts to American hops.
    I think this is just an easy idea to believe, and whether it was ever supported by actual beers, I can't say. I've had a few East coast and British IPAs, but not many, as we have so many great Oregon IPAs here. The few aliens I've had always seemed to fit this idea, but given the popularity of hop monsters in the US, and a global market, there are likely far more exceptions than examples today.

  5. Northern VT needs to have its own category of IPAs. They trump all.

  6. I'm with Tim on this: "When English and Scottish Ale styles were developing a few hundred miles was much more significant than a few thousand miles is today."

    My understanding is that hops don't grow so well in Scotland due to climate, and they were historically loath to import them from England, thus their styles tended to be more malt-focused.

    Since the US IPA is a phenomenon that's only really developed in recent history (i.e. when refrigeration and shipping is cheap and easy), there's nothing that really prevents East Coast breweries from making a top tier "West Coast" style IPA. Hence Rich's comment on Vermont (and there are certainly others on the East Coast that would fit the definition).

  7. I will cite myself as authority for the proposition that there was an east coast IPA style to be vaguely recognized as far back as 2005 which was maltier but also nutty, raisin maltier. Problem becomes it is hard to make a Double IPA loading up on the malty side in the same way the left coasters can with hops. So is it really a variant or is it an evolutionary dead end even if a tasty one?

  8. Neither here nor there, but,

    "My understanding is that hops don't grow so well in Scotland due to climate, and they were historically loath to import them from England, thus their styles tended to be more malt-focused."

    Ron Pattinson might want to have a word with you on that one.

  9. As far as the West Coast vs East Coast argument is concerned, it's a bit challenging to sort out. I do think there is a protypical "East Coast IPA" out there. I might draw Southern Tier's IPA into this argument, which, to me, is a very malt-focused beer though it certainly boasts those bright American hops and firm bitterness, versus prime West Coast examples that will be a little more imbalanced in favor of the hops.

    But is this really a regional trend? As we've stated, in the current state of rapid information flow across the country, it's perfectly possible for an East Coast brewer to make a West Coast-style beer, and the reverse is true. Is this a regional trend, then? Do West Coast brewers already make East Coast-style IPAs, but they're simply overlooked in favor of they're hoppier brethren? Are "West Coast" and "East Coast" really the proper names, then?

    Of course I'm doing nothing but speculating, so feel free to poke holes in any of this.

  10. I think there can be (and has been) regional distinctions in IPA production, but I also think that as soon as some region offers any type of new variation, everyone else jumps on it, limiting the initial regional specificity. While there may have been some distinct differences between West Coast and East Coast IPAs at one point in the recent past, breweries from both coasts have plundered ideas and possibilities from each other, foreclosing much of what made regional variety in the past. Thus, you can have something like White Rajah from Brew Kettle in Strongsville, Ohio, which is described on their website as a "West Coast style IPA full of citrus-like and tropical fruit like hop flavor and aroma." In this case, West Coast has been reduced from a region to an adjective to describe the beer. You could make a similar case for the distinctions between the San Diego IPA and the Northwest IPA: both follow the West Coast trend of big hop flavor and aroma, but San Diego IPAs (like Ballast Point Sculpin IPA) feature a lighter malt profile--light enough to be using pilsener malt as a base--compared to their Northwest cousins (like Deschutes Inversion IPA), which feature a more liberal use of crystal, caramel, and other specialty malts. When I visited Two Beers in Seattle a couple of years ago, the man serving beer behind the bar described Echo IPA as their Northwest IPA and Evolutionary IPA as their San Diego IPA. However, both of these potential regional variations have been unmercifully plundered by breweries outside of the West Coast--calling something a San Diego IPA is becoming (or has become) more of an adjective to describe particular IPA characteristics than describing a regionally distinct beer. I think that the conversation could even be extended in regards to the whole Cascadian Dark Ale/Black IPA conversation, and even the recent White IPA run, albeit in slightly different ways--each stemmed from an initial more regionally-based experimentation that quickly went viral in the national brewing community. After all, after the Deschutes/Boulevard White IPA collabo, White IPAs started popping up everywhere.

    At one point, location mattered more for American IPAs. Now, it is the accompanying adjectives describing the beer that matter in regards to giving drinkers a sense of the potential influences at work inside the bottle. Now, whether there is a clear sense as to the definitions connected to those descriptors, that is a whole another story.