What's the deal with IPAs? For hop lovers, they're a go-to style for a mellowing pint

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DULUTH, Minn. — IPA. Every engaged beer drinker has heard or seen these initials whether it's on a billboard, in ads, or on the beer list at your favorite taproom or bar.

IPA stands for India Pale Ale.

The story behind IPAs goes like this: In the mid-1800s, India was under the rule of the British Empire. The soldiers stationed in India were paid, in part and according to custom, with ale. The six-month boat trip from England was torturous on the beer and most of the time, when the ships arrived, the beer had gone bad. It was undrinkable and downright sickening. Brewers in England tried to figure out how to make the beer stable for the voyage and eventually discovered that hops could serve to preserve the beer. This makes sense as we now know that the hop plant is a preservative and an anti-bacterial. So, apart from the flavoring components to balance the sweet, malty beer notes and the distinct aroma profiles that hops add, they also give beer a longer life.

I'm a big fan of hops, and IPAs are the No. 1 style for hop lovers. It's not surprising that IPAs amount to more than 25 percent of sales in the U.S. of "craft" beer (non-macro or big brewery), according to the Brewers Association of America. This is an incredible number because there are about 130 styles of beer with more being added each year. I am obviously not alone in my love of hoppy beers.

Recently, I polled a few people at the bar about their love of IPAs, and the responses were very similar. Most prefer IPAs for:

• Flavor, heavier aromas and tastes.

• Higher alcohol content, meaning they drink less and still enjoy a pint.

• Distinct aroma profiles from hops — pine, citrus, blueberry, grassy, woody, orange and lemon were mentioned.

• Discovering and identifying the unique flavors in hops and learning about different beers brewed with specific varietals.

IPAs are usually high in alcohol and are typically brewed at 6.5-8.0% alcohol. There are many substyles that fall outside these numbers, but I'm focusing on good old American IPA here for now. Beers brewed at that strength require more malted barley and that translates to more body. So, they are full-bodied to start, then the addition of copious amounts of hops adds tons of flavor and aroma that balances the big malt bills.

Hops also have soporific qualities that, generally speaking, can make people a bit sleepy, or in the case of IPAs, are a natural relaxant. So, the perfect storm of great flavor, amazing aroma, higher alcohol content and the hops' natural ability to mellow things out, is the big reason why IPA is the go-to pint for many beer drinkers.

Now, let's take a look at a few subcategories of IPA. All but the session version are strong beers to be enjoyed in moderation.

• Imperial IPA: Very high in alcohol, usually aged.

• Triple IPA: Triple the hops can be a challenge to drink.

• Double IPA: A bit more flavor and hops to be enjoyed in moderation.

• Barrel Aged IPA: Strong IPA aged in oak barrels, interesting novelty type beer.

• Session IPA: A low alcohol version with the same number of hops as a regular IPA. (The session offerings on the market today can be really great, and I highly recommend seeking them out when you want to enjoy a few pints at a time.)

Here's a list of a few IPAs to try if you're looking for nice examples:

• Summit Saga

• Fulton 300

• Lift Bridge Hop Dish

• Bent Paddle Bent Hop Golden IPA

• Indeed Let It Ride

• Castle Danger Red Hop

• Steel Toe Size 7

• Minneapolis Town Hall Masala Mama

A final note — when I brew, I tend to separate my IPAs into two camps: old school and new school. Old school IPAs have a darker color with more caramel and toffee notes, and more body. The hops are in the piney, grassy, category. New school IPAs are lighter in body and drier in finish with strong aromas featuring fruit notes.

Feel free to email me. I love to talk IPAs and hops.