Whether you hit up your local tavern or bar once a week or once a year, there's no escaping the IPA, or India pale ale. The beer of the moment actually dates back to the early 19th century (and the broader pale ale family even further back), when it was first promoted in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. It has since gone on to find wide success and acclaim – such success, in fact, that it is now manufactured around the world. Two of the most popular types are the English IPA and the American IPA. But what distinguishes the two?
The IPA is universally recognized for its hoppy flavor – a bitter and sometimes tangy flavor profile that can be reminiscent of caramel, florals, or yeast, as found in bread. The degree to which these flavors are present, however, is far from universal. In the English-style IPA, these flavors tend to be muted and in harmony with each other. As opposed to the American IPA (which we'll discuss below), the English IPA is seen as being smooth and well-rounded. Though some sweetness may be present, the hop flavors are prominent, resulting in an overall flavor characteristic that is earthy.
Because of its use of hops and pale malt, the English-style IPA is often seen as offering similar, though subtler, flavors to the stout – a darker beer made from roasted malts and hops. One of the most famous examples of a stout would be Guinness Draught, a dry stout that is exemplified by its dark color and robust (almost savory) flavor. Pale ales tend to be sweeter (and obviously, much paler), but the two types of beer aren't as dissimilar as one might expect. Perhaps this is why the Black and Tan works so well!
The American IPA is distinguished from the English IPA by its range and degree of flavor profiles. Whereas the English-style IPA tends to possess a continuity and consistency in flavors, American IPAs can be fruity, citrusy, or even woodsy (think pine needles and other flavor profiles you might expect to find in teas). Why? Because many of the flavors which would be seen as faults or flaws in English-style IPAs are purposefully enhanced in American IPAs. This stems from the IPA's emergence as a craft brewing favorite in the United States. To find success, independent brewers often went out of their way to make beers that were unique and distinct, and this meant finding new and novel flavor profiles. Thus, the American IPA was born.
American IPAs tend to be sweeter and fruitier than English-style IPAs, but also more bitter. This is due to the hops that are used. Whereas English hops tend to be earthy, American hops have a wide range of flavors; some are citrusy, while others are more bitter. One recurring similarity with American hops is that their flavors tend to be bolder and more conspicuous. English IPAs derive from nearly 300 years of tradition, while American IPAs seem to pride themselves on upending this tradition in the never-ending search for new flavors. One beer isn't better than the other (at least not in an objective sense), but these different approaches do yield different results.
Which is Right for You?
Taste them and see! Ultimately, flavor is entirely subjective, so there's no right or wrong answer here. If you like smooth and refined, with a hint of bitterness and fruitiness, you may find that the English-style IPA is more to your liking. If you prefer robust and bold flavors, then you're likely to be more drawn to the American IPA. Researching the matter may just be the perfect excuse to call up a friend and head down to your local pub!