What Makes IPA Great?

The first in our series of articles written by our mate Shoeless Joe Jackson III - Joe shall remain anonymous but rest assured his years of brewing experience at some of the country's biggest and best craft breweries, as well as a stint brewing in the US of A and plenty of beer judging experience give him some street cred! Enjoy!


When you think about beer these days, two types of drinker likely come to mind. That is, the old school, “I only drink beer that tastes like beer” person...those that think everything else is “fruity”, or “perfumey” and “that’s not beer”. Then there’s the other type (notwithstanding the beer snob, but let’s not get into that…), those that are prepared to give anything a chance to let their tastebuds decide what drinks they actually enjoy.

We could separate them another way.

Most of us remember a time when beer was just that fizzy golden liquid that came in a clear or brown glass bottle, mostly enjoyed by men, or served up in plastic cups at sporting events. Some people don’t want to move away from that, they fondly remember splitting a case of “throwies” with one of their mates as a teenager down at the park or by the beach, and a schooner of mass produced lager at their local for under $7 is all they want to consider. Good for them, you do you. That’s one group.

The other group, those with the adventurous tastebuds, they can be defined pretty broadly one way. They can and will drink an IPA. Simple as that.

“Would you try an IPA?” “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a shot”, or “I f**king love IPA, that’s all I drink!”

These people fall into the other category. For it was IPA that started the trends we now live with and allowing the hops to shine led us to here.

Now, it is true to say some people that like to branch out with their beer offerings don’t necessary enjoy IPA’s. But here’s the kicker, a well-made IPA can be appreciated by just about anyone that enjoys a beer that shows a substantial degree of hop flavour and aroma. Sure, the bitterness might be a bit too much for you in the vast majority of IPA’s, or even the alcohol content too high, but if a brewery can nail their IPA recipe (in whatever variant of the style you wish to dream up), I’ll guarantee they can make a Pale Ale, an XPA, a Red Ale, or even a Stout, that takes your fancy. Because at the end of the day, they are all about balance, whilst letting certain ingredients in the respective beer take centre stage.

Next time you visit a local brewery and get yourself a tasting paddle, you’ll see what we mean. You’ll be served a range of styles starting from lighter flavours up to more robust beers, and somewhere in there you’ll find your jam. But if you’re willing to give them all a go, you’ll appreciate every one of them in some form, and the IPA will be close to the hardest one for the brewery to master…



This statement is true for all beers, but especially for the IPA. But before we get into that, and I’m sure a lot of us have heard this all before, but let’s do a quick recap on the history of the style and what exactly an India Pale Ale actually is.

Pale Ales are generally accepted as originating in the UK a few centuries ago. Simply, the beer is “ale” as it uses an ale producing yeast for fermentation (these yeasts tend to bind to other particles in the beer and float in suspension to create a cloudy appearance, rather than settling out to create a crystal clear liquid more associated with lager). A “Pale Ale”, is so called as it incorporates pale malts (i.e. those that aren’t roasted to a high degree to gain colour) and uses water that naturally produces a paler product due to its mineral content (science stuff, a discussion for another day). “India” Pale Ales were so named as the British produced hopped up and beefy styles to last the voyage to India during the commonwealth’s efforts to occupy that country during colonisation. The brewers back then didn’t know a lot compared to the advances made in understanding the science behind brewing that we appreciate now, but they did know that the more hops they used, the longer the beer lasted in a micro-biological sense (certainly not in a freshness of flavour sense…). The beer simply didn’t spoil or explode from continued in-package fermentation. So they tripled and quadrupled their hop usage, so those on the boats had enough beer to last at sea for months on end. That combined with upping the alcohol content (another micro-biological stabilising manoeuvre) created the first iterations of the staple IPA.

But what we have to understand now is, these beers almost definitely tasted like absolute garbage. Anyone that has drunk an old IPA next to a freshly packed or poured new one will notice the differences straight away. Oxygen has a degenerative effect on beer, as it ages the product the longer it comes in contact with it (alongside higher temperatures. So keep those beers refrigerated!). No beer can be completely protected from oxygen, so the key to enjoying them at their best is to drink them as soon as possible once they leave the tank, and keeping them cold until you do so. If you needed another reason to drink local, there it is right there!

But more importantly, you’ve got to build from a solid foundation in the first place to create a truly special beer, and for IPA the trick is all in the balance. Think of it as the gymnast of beers, if it tilts either way at any moment, the scores from the judges are going to drop drastically.

Let’s start with bitterness. IPA’s are so bitter because of the excessive amounts of hops used. These days, we’re not trying to make them last for months on end (and we have better ways of achieving that than a massive hop load anyway), but we do want to taste all of that hop resin goodness. A great IPA simply has to display a huge amount of bitterness. Like a well extracted shot of coffee, the bitterness has to be there in droves and adds so much character to the flavour. If you’re making a “session IPA” and have dropped the bitterness down to mid-range and the alcohol content back into the 5% range, guess what? You haven’t made an IPA, that’s what we call a “Pale Ale”. Great job, it’s a really great beer on its own terms. Similarly, XPA as a style is just an ultra-hoppy Pale Ale; we’re just finding new ways to re-package our age old product.

Next and most important factor is the booze. IPA’s simply have to display the additional ethanol/alcohol content and sweetness to balance out the beer and make them great. Much the same as people tend to add their preference of sugar to their espresso, the ethanol adds a sweetness that balances out and takes the edge off of the hop bitterness. As I said, when creating a beer recipe the brewery can certainly drop the alcohol and bitterness to match and balance out the beer that way, but now we don’t have an IPA. Mineral content of the water used in brewing comes into play here as well, as certain salts present in the brewers liquor will help extract more of the bitterness and add a perceived sweetness of its own, so once again the brewery is throwing a lot of balls in the air, and attempting to juggle them all at once.

The malt used, or “grist” as the brewer will call it, plays an important role here. By their nature IPA’s are broadly pale in appearance (though black IPA’s incorporating roasted malts are also great, if not exactly pale) so the correct amount of lightly kilned malts balanced with the classic base pale malts are important to impart some biscuity or toasty flavour, while still producing a more golden to light-brown appearance in the finished product. The malt of course will also impart some of that important sweetness at the back end (from the unfermented residual sugar that makes it through fermentation), once again adding to the overall balance of the final beer in your glass.

Finally we come to hop aroma. Depending on what type of IPA you are enjoying, an earthier and less aromatic English version, or full a blown grass, resin and tropical fruit explosion of the West Coast USA variety, the hop aroma simply has to match the rest of the beer. The dry hopping process, where full cone or pelletised hops are added into the beer during or post-fermentation, will be responsible for the majority of this characteristic. Hops added late in the actual brewing process (that is day 1, prior to the addition of yeast and beginning fermentation) are also vastly important, as they will contribute only mild amounts of additional bitterness so as not overload the taste buds, while preserving distinct amounts of the natural hop oils that give us those beautiful natural aromas. This characteristic once again, you guessed it, balances out the beer, as we now have a big intense aroma to compliment the heavier flavours that the rest of our senses are about to experience.

Yeast selection of course plays a vital role as well. Without going too far down a yeasty scientific rabbit hole, simply put the correct yeast will react well with the hops added for dry-hopping to use them to their full potential, while also having the ability to ferment out large amounts of the sugar available to create the alcohol we need. The yeast will also only impart a small fraction of the yeast-derived flavour and aroma compounds known as “esters” that are more prevalent in other beer styles, such as wheat beers and Belgian saisons.

Beyond all of this technical stuff, it goes without saying now to never ever age your IPA. As we’ve said, while they might’ve been originally made to last longer, this is not the best way to enjoy them. If the brewery has nailed all of the factors above to create a really well balanced style, they’ll want you to drink the beer as soon as possible in order to enjoy it in its absolute best form. Over time the oxygen in the bottle, can or keg, and to a lesser extent even the serving tank, will deteriorate the product and you won’t be able to enjoy the beer the way you really ought to be.

Remember, it’s all about balance. A great IPA is at once high in alcohol (6.5% to 7.5% is your wheelhouse), bitter and dry (50 – 70 “IBU’s” will get you there), pale to lightly roasty in appearance and flavour, and dominated by hop aromas that entice you and bring you in.

Don’t plan to drink 8 – 12 in a session, unless you want to balance your head on the toilet seat with a killer hangover tomorrow morning. Enjoy these beauties sparingly and for their full flavour. And if you can even drink one while simultaneously riding a unicycle, you my friend, have reached the IPA Holy Grail.         


Just read a news article about your battle with the knobs at Coles over your companies name – what twats they are. Little do they realise that a growing number of us cringe at the so-called beer range they offer (and it’s the same over the road at Woolies). The only thing that makes this proud Kiwi homesick in this beloved next door nation is when my mind drifts back to the stellar range of grassroots beer offered at the local supermarket, and reasonably priced to boot.

I am heartened by the number of great little brewers popping up around this fair nation, giving your classic Mick’s and Sharon’s the opportunity to stretch their tastebuds away from Carlton’s lacklustre stable of ales. And to little go-get-em enterprises such as yours who endeavour to extend the reach of the tireless crafty brewers. Hats off.

Sure, I can get beer cheaper elsewhere. But to a growing number of us out there, the price point is no longer the bottom line. And I love knowing that my hard-earned buck is staying local and propping up another decent bloke/Sheila.

So stuff Coles and stick with it. If the big guy forces you to change your name, we’ll understand – David’s don’t always get Goliath’s. And just be happy that their ignorance and disdain for the Aussie entrepreneur has earned you a new customer today.


Cam Brownlee on Aug 18, 2020

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