Dissecting the IPA


Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Emily Brindley | Staff Writer

In 2011, Matt Gouwens ditched his desk job for an office with a much better view.

His roof.

Back in 2006, Gouwens ordered eight varieties of hops online and planted them on the roof of his garage, testing which strain would fit best with Pittsburgh’s rainy, gray weather. Then, in 2011, Gouwens decided crafting the perfect India pale ale could be more than a hobby — it could be a career.

Now the Chief Executive Hopster at Hop Farm Brewing Company, a brewery in Lawrenceville focusing on locally sourced ingredients and products, Gouwens is part of a larger culture of IPA brewing in the city. IPAs, known for their bitter flavor and light color, have gotten a bad rap with some beer drinkers because of their hallmark strong bite — to the protest of craft brewers and IPA-fanatics. But for the craft brewers of Pittsburgh, IPAs are a carefully brewed, flavor-packed beer with more varieties than a box of Crayola crayons.

Perfecting the IPA, Gouwens said, means getting the right balance of hops, a grain added to beer to make it more bitter and longer lasting. Gouwens found most American varieties of hops grow well in Pittsburgh’s climate and soil, including hops strands such as Columbus, Chinook and Lemondrop — names that reflect the creator’s individuality or the strand’s flavor

According to Jake Voelker, part-owner of Voodoo Brewing Company in Homestead and a 2012 graduate of Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, you’ve probably already heard a mostly accurate story behind the name “IPA.” Many, many years ago, while the British were busy sending people to colonize the world, they tried to send beer, too. The beer of the time couldn’t make it through the high temperature intact, so they packed the beer full of hops, the flower of the hop plant and a relative of cannabis, which added stability as well as flavor to the beer.

“They essentially, in the old colonies back in the day, when they were making sure the beer was OK on the ship, they threw a lot of hops in there,” Voelker said.

According to Gouwens, the oil from hops produces two types of acids: alpha acids and beta acids. Alpha acids are what give IPAs their bitter flavor, Gouwens said, while beta acids preserve the beer and prevent it from spoiling, just as they did during the five-month trip from England to its distant colonies.

According to the Brewers Association,  the American-style IPA has been the most entered category at the Great American Beer Festival, the world’s largest beer competition, since 2001. In 2011, the category had 176 entries, compared to 118 entries in the second-most-entered category of wood- and barrel-aged strong beer.

The popularity of IPAs is partly because beer-drinkers have grown tired of other beers, Gouwens said.

“People get sick of Budweiser and they want something completely the opposite,” Gouwens said. “I think [IPAs] can be the new gateway craft beer.” The acids in hops add more than just bitterness to the trendy beer — the variety of strands of hops add individual flavors in IPAs, such as fruit and wood flavors, according to Voelker.

“There are hundreds of different strands of hops,” Voelker said. “[For example,] there are hops that can bring a pine flavor [or] a citrus flavor.”

IPAs also differ from other beers in their lighter color and stronger smell, which they get from the high concentration of hops, according to Dan Morris, part-owner of Helltown Brewery in Mt. Pleasant.

“IPAs tend to have more of an aroma from the hops — flowery, fruity, there’s a lot of different types,” Morris said.

Despite the variety of hops and the range of flavors, Gouwens and Morris said there are certain factors universal to making a quality IPA, like balancing the bitterness of the acids with additional flavors.

“Well-balanced flavor, not too bitter, good selection of malts and drinkable and smooth,” Morris said.

Gouwens added his own list, focusing more on the presence and strength of hops.

“Quality hops. Quality water. A healthy dose of hops in the finish,” Gouwens said. “Some sort of clarity. Haziness is okay, [but] if it looks like a milkshake, if it’s chewy, I think that’s a little too much.”

Even with all of these features, an IPA doesn’t have truly good flavor unless it’s fresh, according to Gouwens.

“Alpha acids are really what cause the bitterness,” Gouwens said. “The other thing that makes a good IPA is freshness, because those alpha acids will fade [over time].”

Voelker said his personal taste preference is for IPAs with a note of sweetness to balance out the sometimes-harsh bitterness of the hops.

“I love an IPA that has a very nice balance,” Voelker said. “I like a nice malt sweetness that kind of counteracts and works well with that hop bitterness. I also really like a tropical flavor.”

Though craft brewers enumerate the pros of IPAs, Voelker said it’s not uncommon to hear people complain that the beer isn’t to their taste — though he said these people just haven’t found the right IPA yet.

“[People don’t like IPAs] because they’ve had bad ones. When you’re throwing hops into those different varieties and with all of the varieties of hops, you can get a lot of different flavors,” Voelker said.

For some people, there may be a physiological reason behind their dislike of IPAs. Gouwens said supertasters, individuals with highly sensitive palates, have up to four times as many tastebuds as regular tasters. For them, Gouwens said, the bitterness of IPAs seems particularly strong and unpalatable.

Gouwens said IPAs are an acquired taste even for non-supertasters — but there are added benefits of learning to love IPAs. As a relative of cannabis, hops can add extra oomph to the effects of alcohol, especially when the hops are highly concentrated like they are in IPAs.

According to Voelter, the beers have come a long way from their original overly bitter flavors.

“In the very beginning of the craft beer movement, IPAs were very bitter beers that were offensive to [people’s tastes],” Voelker said. “What people need to do is give them another try and try the different varieties.”

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