On Provenance and What Makes a Regional-Style IPA
On Provenance and What Makes a Regional-Style IPA
Is it really an East Coast IPA if it’s brewed in California? Breaking down how locality has shaped two iconic beer styles.
If you’ve ever worked in a bar, brewpub, or taproom, you’ve likely had people order beers by simply asking for “whatever IPA you have on tap.”
IPAs weren’t always the menu staples they are now. IPAs—India Pale Ales—have been around for centuries, but really began their ascendancy as one of the most popular craft brewing styles in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “The cool thing is that IPAs are tied into beer’s recent history,” says Nico Simonian, the former beer educator for Temescal Brewing in Oakland, Calif., before transitioning to music full time. “These are beers that showcase hops, and that’s been the driving force behind IPAs in the United States.”
Like anything that becomes popular, dozens of riffs on IPA have emerged, some with staying power and others destined to fade away (remember the Brut IPA craze?). But two beers seem to bifurcate the nation: East and West Coast IPAs.
East and West Coast-style IPAs should be thought more as broad categories rather than by strict definitions. In this article, when we refer to West Coast IPAs we’re talking about IPAs that tend to be what we might call more “traditional”: an emphasis on piney, bitter notes and a clear body with brewers like Sierra Nevada and Stone defining the style. Hops are added during the boil to extract those bitter flavor notes.
When we discuss East Coast IPAs, we’re working with an even more—no pun intended—hazy understanding of what that means. It’s unclear if qualifiers like “hazy” or “Vermont-style” are subcategories or names that are synonymous with one another, but it’s likely that ambiguity exists since this is still an emerging category.
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) has a category called “Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale,” which they outline as having “low to very high degree of cloudiness” and “medium-high to very high hop aroma and flavor are present, exhibiting a very wide range of attributes, especially fruity, tropical and juicy,” with low bitterness. If we go by GABF category designations, West Coast style IPAs would likely be under “American-Style IPA.” In general, when this article breaks down the categories into East v. West, it’s more a reference to the breweries who were early innovators of each type rather than a strict definition.
East Coast IPAs have seen a rise in popularity due to canning—one of the earliest styles of this beer, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, began being canned in 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Initially, this beer was only available in their taproom in Vermont but the style soon began spreading nationwide. “Five years ago, this style didn’t have a standardized name. People called it hazy, foggy, cloudy, East Coast, North East, Vermont, etc ... IPA,” Simonian says.
Although the difference between East and West Coast-style IPAs does have a regional origin story (one became popular in one area, the other across the nation), there’s nothing inherent to locality that makes these beers tied to place.
As Simonian notes, IPAs are beers that showcase hops. It’s easy to forget that hops are an agricultural product and that 97.8% of hops grow in the United States are in Pacific Northwest (in an area consisting of Oregon, Washington, and the panhandle of Idaho) and that 74% of that is grown in Washington state alone. Many NEIPAs, for example, showcase American-grown hops like Citra and Mosaic—but these are all grown in the Pacific Northwest.
The Hops Stay in the Picture
If hops, which are often the defining characteristic of an IPA, can travel across the country easily, then where does the notion of a regional IPA style come from?
Hops degrade over time, so many IPA cans caution drinkers to enjoy these beers fresh—and that’s likely where regionality became a factor for these beer styles. Moving them around or exposing them to outside factors can diminish their quality. John Kimmich, the brewer responsible for Heady Topper, even has the phrase “drink from the can” printed on the label because, as he described in a piece for Longreads and Food and Wine Magazine, “All that carbonation is coming out, the CO2 is escaping, the aroma, the hop essence, and oils. When you drink it out of the can, the beer is perfectly preserved. There’s a layer of CO2 riding through that can, and when you pour the beer into an empty glass, you’re immediately accelerating the expulsion of all that goodness.”
Regionality likely goes hand in hand with seasonality, or the idea that agricultural products change over time. “That’s been a newer realization for me,” says Simonian. “We have all these ideas of what every hop tastes like, but actually they change every season.”
Beer Connects Us Together
Simonian remembers when he first tasted a NEIPA-style beer while working at Hog’s Apothecary, a former gastropub in Oakland that had 30 beers on tap exclusively from Bay Area-based beer makers. “We only had clear IPAs when I first started in beer,” he says. “But then Cellarmaker made a hazy IPA—we didn’t name for it at the time—and then other hazy IPAs came in made with these fruity hops and we were like, ‘We can’t believe this! This tastes like mangoes.’ In the past, a beer might have had a hint of mango, but this smelled like mango puree.”
Things have changed since Simonian’s initial introduction to hazy IPAs. “Now, every brewery makes a hazy. Even Sierra Nevada has one,” he says. But in a way, that’s the beauty of beer: it’s made as a finished product and hops can be shipped whenever you need. “One of the incredible things about beer, especially today, is that anyone, even home brewers, can brew any style anywhere in the world if you have the ingredients,” Simonian says. “Wine is something that’s grown in a specific place. It’s hyper-local. But I can order hops that were grown anywhere in the world. I can get grain that was malted anywhere in the world.”
Although we’ve talked about the differences between East and West Coast-style IPAs, the two categories have likely influenced one another—something that Simonian has seen firsthand and what makes this moment in beer history incredibly fascinating to watch. “With all these new hops coming out, and people learning about yeast strains from New England, things are moving towards fruitier flavors. IPAs everywhere are getting more tropical.”
As I closed out my conversation with Simonian, he sent a picture of a quote on the wall of Hog’s Apothecary. It’s from American author M.F.K. Fisher and it reads: “Now, with the trains full of soldiers and supplies rather than pale ale, perhaps people far from the great breweries will turn again to their local beer factories and discover, as their fathers did thirty years ago, that a beer carried quietly three miles is better than one shot across three thousand on a fast freight.” In this quote, provenance is important, but not because of exclusive ingredients or materials that can only be sourced in one location: it’s simply about the privilege of drinking a beer close to where it’s made and the beauty of experiences that cannot be replicated or scaled up. “This quote gives me chills to this day,” Simonian says.
East and West Coast-style beers straddle the line of accessibility and locality without being contradictory. There is something special about drinking beer from a local brewery and experiencing the inherent uniqueness of where you’re from and where you’re situated. But the experience isn’t meant to be exclusive. Someone who’s homesick for their hometown can perhaps find a bit of home on the shelves of their local beer or liquor store, and folks don’t have to line up for hours just to experience some mythical beer that’s been hyped up on social media. By examining the differences and similarities between East and West Coast-style IPAs, we learn that the world is both getting smaller and bigger at the same time.