It’s the king of craft beer styles, but claims to the West Coast IPA crown are many and varied. Jacopo Mazzeo takes some time to assess and taste an array of contenders from both sides of the Atlantic, with the help of two of the UK’s most discerning beer communicators
Sometimes, you just can’t beat a classic... and what better classic than a West Coast IPA, the style that has come to define the craft beer movement itself?
It all began almost by chance when, in the early 1970s, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company released a brand new beer, Liberty Ale. This particular beer was a reinterpretation of a classic British pale ale, but with the addition of a huge amount of an American-grown hop called Cascade. Then came Sierra Nevada and a number of other interpretations. By the 1990s, the West Coast IPA style became synonymous with that dank, pungent hop-led nose, counterbalanced by a significant malted component. As the influence of American craft brewing grew, the style began being imitated, reinterpreted and experimented with anywhere a bearded brewer had grown a morbid passion for hops.
A number of variations on the theme appeared over the years as a response to consumers’ thirst for novelties, from black IPAs to brut IPAs, and from session IPAs to, more recently, hazy, sweeter New England IPAs. But the West Coast IPA, the style that kickstarted the trend, has never gone away. In fact, as craft beer lovers begin to develop a renewed interest in traditional styles, the West Coast IPA might just well be about to rediscover its mojo.
But what does the modern West Coast IPA look like five decades after it was first brought to life? With examples of the style being brewed both in its home country and on British shores, we decided to put US and UK-made West Coast IPAs to the taste test to see how it has changed over the years and – why not? – decide which country’s interpretations we like best.
How it works
We asked breweries and UK agents to submit examples of West Coast IPAs from their portfolios, whether labelled as such or ones they thought fitted the style. We discarded beers that clearly did not fit the brief, such as flavoured IPAs and New England-style IPAs. Due to the lockdown, we couldn’t gather all our tasters in one place, so the beers had to be sampled separately instead. We bagged and numbered all samples to make sure they could be tasted blind, boxed them and shipped them to our tasters. They sampled and scored the beers aware only of abv and whether they were UK- or US-made. We then collected all scores and weighted them to determine each country’s average score. Once all sampling was done, we caught up with the tasters virtually to discuss the outcome.
Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe
Adrian Tierney-Jones, beer writer
Natalya Watson, Beer with Nat
What actually is a West Coast IPA? This was one of the key points we debated virtually as we were going through the lineup. For Tierney-Jones, the West Coast IPA is ‘a 2015/2016 style, which is when I visited the area and nailed down the style in my head. This big burst of tropical fruit, high hop aroma at the front, deep, rich taste. That’s what I thought a West Coast IPA stood for’.
Styles, however, evolve over time, and the West Coast IPA is no exception. If Tierney-Jones’ description is one that many experienced beer tasters would agree with, it’s not what today’s brewers seem to be looking for when making West Coast IPAs. ‘One of the things that I’ve noticed,’ he said, ‘is that in quite a few of the beers the malt was quite dialled down, especially in the UK ones, and most of them were at least a bit hazy… the UK ones were all good beers, but just didn’t fit the original style.’
Watson agreed: ‘Generally, a West Coast IPA would be a little bit malt-forward and a little bit darker, but a lot of the [UK ones] were quite pale.’ She explained: ‘According to the provisional style definition by the Beer Judge Certification Programme (BJCP), the West Coast IPA should have high hop bitterness and a very dry finish, while in the New England or hazy IPA what we’re really looking for is the hop flavour, and the bitterness should be significantly lower.’ So, why commercialise a beer as a West Coast IPA, when the liquid does not reflect the style as it’s commonly understood?
British brewers use the labelling term ‘West Coast IPA’ as the antithesis to the New England IPA
Watson believes that British brewers use the labelling term ‘West Coast IPA’ as the antithesis of the New England IPA. By using these terms, she argued, they’re simply trying to communicate the bitterness and hop flavour level, though she added that she wasn’t sure ‘if consumers get that yet’.
Tierney-Jones offered an alternative explanation, suggesting the fluid use of ‘West Coast IPA’ on labels is due to the very idea of ‘beer style’ being elastic, ‘amongst young brewers especially… how many times have we got something that says it’s a pilsner and it tastes like a helles? And if people want a West Coast IPA, you need to give it to them and you’ll try to get as close as possible to what you imagine the style is’.
It’s the crucial role that the West Coast IPA played within the development of the craft beer movement that turned it into a style suitable for experimentation. In the UK, the style has been re-adapted to suit the local market: most of the British versions were much lighter in colour than the American ones. Furthermore, UK-made West Coast IPAs tended to clock in at a much lower abv. Both figured the strength differential reflects the British beer-drinking mindset: ‘It has to do with the pub as well and the session mentality… but also don’t forget tax: in the UK above 7.5% abv beers are taxed higher,’ said Tierney-Jones. ‘Styles are also influenced by the financial conditions of the brewing market.’ For Watson, though, interpretations of the style may also differ because ‘not everyone has had the opportunity to travel to the States, so perhaps some brewers are just working with an idea of what a West Coast IPA should be’.
This alternative interpretation of the style, however, didn’t impact negatively on the performance of the UK flight. In fact, when we eventually collated all the tasters’ scores, we found out that both countries averaged 80/100. It was their personality and high average quality that helped the British expressions hit the mark. Given the entire flight displayed such a clearly defined homogeneity, perhaps it’s time to identify this pale, dry, lighter-bodied, and lower-abv West Coast IPA as the UK’s own interpretation of the style.
When we eventually collated all the tasters’ scores, we found out that both countries averaged 80/100
On the other hand, US-made West Coast IPAs were praised for their explicitly overstated character and comforting adherence to the ‘classic’ understanding of the style. ‘That nostalgic element is important,’ said Watson. ‘I listen to 90s music way too often because it makes me feel good, so having that [classic West Coast IPA] is the equivalent when it comes to beer.’
Highlighting his appreciation for American expressions, Tierney-Jones said that despite the craft beer community’s thirst for experimentation, there is still appetite for a classic interpretation of the style: ‘Five Points are making bitter again, so brewers – when they eventually get back on the market – might say “you know what, I’ve had enough of goses with blueberries and my father’s socks in them, I really want to show my skills and here’s a West Coast IPA”.’ Whether dark and rich or lighter in colour and abv, we all agreed that five decades after Sierra Nevada’s pioneering, hop-forward brew, the West Coast IPA is still defining the craft beer movement.
Brick Brewery West Coast DIPA
‘Pungent citrus/grapefruit and pine nose plus chive-like allium note, very attractive. On the palate: pine, tropical and citrus fruit, then some malt sweetness, followed by dryness and bitterness in the finish. One of the best British expressions of the style, it feels like it has a depth and a robustness that I would expect. There is a firmness to the hop character, a grip even, that doesn’t let go.’ NW
8% abv, POA/440ml, Belleville Collective, thebellevillecollective.com
Cloudwater Imperial West Coast DIPA
‘Juicy grapefruit, tangerine, piney, slight onion/chive note. Juicy but quite stern and austere, not something that is taking over the beer. It’s got almost a petrol/Riesling-like quality on the palate, alongside a bitterness and a dustiness and an orange-liquor-like note. It is a brutally hoppy beer, handles the hops well. Not for the faint-hearted but I really like it.’ ATJ
8% abv, £3.75/440ml, Pig’s Ears, pigs-ears.co.uk
Cloudwater West Coast IPA
‘Well balanced between malt sweetness, hop flavour, and hop bitterness. Very drinkable, not too astringent or bitter, with notes of grapefruit peel, pine, resin, some tropical fruit and orange peel. I wanted to keep coming back for more. A classic West Coast IPA.’ NW
6% abv, £3.09/440ml, Pig’s Ears, pigs-ears.co.uk
Drygate Crossing the Rubicon
‘A real encounter between the countries. Malted and yeasty element on the palate, with flavours of caramel, chestnut honey, dried apricots and nectarines. The nose is refined, with aromas of
orange zest, winter spices and a touch of pine needle. In style yet showing personality.’ JM
6.9% abv, POA/330ml, Drygate, drygate.com
Duration Baubles of Vanity
‘Like sticking my face into a bag of hop pellets, but really pleasant, well-balanced taste. Grassy, resin, grapefruit, orange and mango. Bright burst of citrus and tropical fruit up front; the bitterness, supported by grainy-sweet malt, builds into a gentle, dry finish.’ NW
5.2% abv, £2.39/440ml, Biercraft, biercraft.co.uk
Fierce Beer Split Shift
‘Showing plenty of caramel maltiness, counterbalanced by a crisp, grassy herbaceousness on the palate. The flavours are complemented by well-defined notes of peach, tropical fruit and resin.’ JM
5.5% abv, £1.79/440ml, Biercraft, biercraft.co.uk
Firebrand West Coast Session IPA
‘A sessionable interpretation of the style. Deep golden, soft frothy head; it’s quite peppery, with green and pink peppercorn plus some notes of grapefruit zest and unripe pineapple. Lemon and balsamic flavours dominate the palate, which is light and refreshingly bitter.’ JM
4.5% abv, POA/330ml, Firebrand, firebrandbrewing.co.uk
Gipsy Hill Raver
‘Firm collar of foam and lovely blast of citrus hops. Rich on the palate, with a decent caramel-influenced background. Pleasant bitter and dry finish, this is one of the more complete and
thorough UK examples of the style I have come across. Good mouthfeel, full, lots of zest, heft and weight. Gorgeous.’ ATJ
7.2% abv, POA/440ml, Gipsy Hill, gipsyhillbrewing.com
North Brewing Co. Tunnels of LA
‘One of my favourites. Light colour but great hop aroma and flavour. Smells like a mango pot with lime squeezed on top, plus pineapple, orange, grapefruit and some grassy/resiny notes.
Slight alcohol warmth and tannic astringency, but not harsh.’ NW
7% abv, £2.74/440ml, Pig’s Ears, pigs-ears.co.uk
Ora Brewing Panaro
‘Hop-forward, but not harsh. Easy-drinking and delicious. Pleasant grapefruit pith and flesh, pine, resin, tropical fruit, particularly candied pineapple. A classic West Coast IPA nose, mouth-watering but with off-dry finish.’ NW
4.5% abv, £2.20/440ml, Ora Brewing, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cigar City Jai Alai IPA
‘Packs a hop punch, but flavours are balanced by its robust malt backbone. There’s marmalade, bittersweet orange, mango, grapefruit peel and pith. Slight malty-sweet notes and toast in the background. It’s medium-bodied with a dry finish. Classic, one of my favourites.’ NW
7.5% abv, POA/355ml, Beer Hawk, trade.beerhawk.co.uk
Denver Beer Incredible Pedal IPA
‘I love how ‘clean’ the nose is, with its resin and tropical fruit notes, but not too juicy. There’s pineapple, mango, more pine and resin on the palate than nose. Very high bitterness with grainy
sweet malt backbone and a dry finish.’ NW
7% abv, POA/355ml, Denver Beer, denverbeerco.com
Coronado Brewing Weekend Vibes
‘An onion/chive note on both the nose and the palate, then grapefruit and pine, pretty resiny on the nose but also with some tropical fruit, such as mango and guava. Good mouthfeel, excellent dryness in the finish. Plenty of tropical fruit and pine notes on the palate alongside some balancing malt sweetness. Hits the spot for me.’ ATJ
6.8% abv, POA/470ml, Coronado Brewing, coronadobrewing.com
Great Divide Titan IPA
‘A classic, rich West Coast IPA, with an intense caramel note backed up by lots of piney and citrusy hop aromas. The palate shows high bitterness but it’s not aggressive, it’s instead creamy and balanced, with more malt character and well-defined orange citrus, grassy and spicy flavours. Dry and crisp finish. Excellent.’ JM
7.1% abv, POA/355ml, Honest Brew, honestbrew.co.uk
Straight to Ale Monkeynaut
‘Classic-looking amber colour with good head retention. Quite herbaceous with a tart appley note. The malt component lends some stone fruit aromas, rounded up on the palate by balsamic and wild herb flavours, and a hint of spicy pepperiness.’ JM
7.25% abv, POA/355ml, Straight to Ale, straighttoale.com
Three Weavers Expatriate
‘Orange-amber in colour. Lots of grapefruit and orange zest on the nose, sweetish, but not overly sweet, thanks to its pungent pine notes. It’s got a long-lasting dry and bitter finish. Old-school and assertive, and all the better for it. It might not be fashionable now, but it comes across as very drinkable.’ ATJ
6.9% abv, POA/355ml, Three Weavers, threeweavers.la
Thorn Brewing Relay IPA
‘Dark gold in colour and hop-forward on the nose. There’s some caramel in the background and even a hint of red grape sweetness, but both nose and palate are dominated by orange rind and piney notes, with a bit of mango and grapefruit to complement. It’s relatively light in body; refreshing finish.’ JM
7.2% abv, POA/355ml, Thorn, thorn.beer
Virginia Beer Free Verse IPA
‘This unusual interpretation has a characteristic yeast note to it, plus more expected tropical aromas of cape gooseberry, mango and pineapple, and aromas of lime peel, lemon and pine. On the palate it’s creamy, with plenty of grapefruit juiciness.’ JM
6.8% abv, POA/355ml, Beer52, beer52.com
This feature was originally published on the 2020 Summer issue of Imbibe Magazine.