Don’t Call it a Comeback: The West Coast IPA Has Returnediainoldman
While the hazy IPA market has dominated taps and shelves for the past half decade, the West Coast IPA is quietly returning to prominence.
Over the past half decade, the hazy IPA has become a kingmaker for craft breweries around the world. Indeed, most contemporary craft brewery tap walls will dedicate at least one line for hazies, and it is common to find breweries selling a handful of hazy or New England-style IPAs at once.
But it wasn’t always this way. The early days of the American craft beer revolution—and much of consumer demand—was driven by the West Coast IPA. Introduced to the American drinking public through craft beer giants such as Stone Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the West Coast IPA—sometimes called simply the American IPA—seemingly fell out of vogue over the past decade in breweries and bottle shops.
However, the style is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. For many breweries on the West Coast, the style never experienced a dip in demand. So is the West Coast IPA back for good, if it really went anywhere at all? Let’s take a deeper dive into the history of the style, as well as some contemporary examples of the style. Finally, we’ll share a house recipe of Brewvana’s West Coast IPA that you can brew yourself.
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What is a West Coast IPA?
While the West Coast IPA now refers to the American Pacific Rim, this beer style actually originates overseas.
In the 19th Century, British trading companies in India started buying heavily-hopped ales from British breweries. Hops act as a sort of preservative and stave off infection, and these beers could survive the naval passage from England, where they could then be sold in India. These early IPAs were only slightly stronger in alcohol content than other popular British ales, but they were strongly hopped. Demand for the style eventually grew back in England and the IPA became a popular style of beer in the middle half of the 19th Century.
Fast forward more than 100 years and the style was picked up by American craft brewers. The classic IPA recipe was found to blend well with hops grown in the Pacific Northwest, such as Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops.
Utilizing these American hops gives the West Coast IPA its distinctive hop-forward flavor profile. Traditionally, this beer style is bursting with dank resin notes and pine flavors. Notably, a West Coast IPA is considerably more bitter than its New England counterpart.
Unsurprisingly, many California breweries (with ready access to freshly harvested Pacific Northwest hops) put out the earliest examples of this new American IPA. California-based breweries Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Firestone Walker and Green Flash Brewing Co. all produce now-famous iterations of the West Coast IPA. Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder remains one of the most sought-after beers regardless of style.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the American IPA became one of the most (if not THE most) popular craft beer styles in the U.S. Breweries leaned into hop-heavy beers and ramped up the bitterness.
West Coast IPA Versus East Coast IPA
The genesis and rising popularity of a beer style on the other side of the country in the new millennium would soon push the classic West Coast IPA out of the forefront of the American craft beer scene.
Serving as an almost exact opposite to the West Coast IPA, hazy New England IPAs stormed onto the beer scene in the 2010s, led by award winning beers like The Alchemist’s “Heady Topper” or Tree House Brewing Company’s “Julius”.
Whereas West Coast IPAs retain the pale color of the IPA style and hone in on resin and pine hop flavors, the New England IPA utilizes hops entirely differently to extract citrus and tropical flavors. Further, the New England IPA typically retains a signature opaque haze and sometimes a soft, billowy body.
This new beer style offered a hoppy alternative to the West Coast IPA for American beer drinkers, and the hazy IPA quickly rose in popularity.
IPAs in general have since completely dominated the American craft beer market. At the 2021 Great American Beer Festival, breweries submitted 427 entries for juicy or hazy IPAs—the most of any category—and there were 404 entries in the competition for American-style IPAs. The next closest style in number of entrants was fruited American sour ales, with 249 entries.
What’s more, IPAs in 2021 accounted for 41% of all craft beer sales volume in the U.S., according to an analysis of IRI Group market data.
And while it may seem as if the hazy IPA has become the dominant American beer style, the classic IPA still rakes in the largest market share of beers sold across the country. In 2021, American IPAs took up more than 20% of the total market share for craft beer—higher than any other style and more than twice as much as hazy IPAs.
So did the West Coast IPA style really ever fall completely out of favor? Not likely, according to market data.
Highest Rated West Coast IPAs
While West Coast IPAs are coming back in vogue across the U.S., it should be unsurprising that many of the highest-rated beers in the style come from, well, the West Coast. Here are a few highly-rated examples of the style:
Firestone Walker Brewing Company Union Jack IPA
California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company packs as many hops as they can into this beer. Hopped during the boil, then dry hopped, then dry hopped AGAIN, this beer features a mix of Cascade, Centennial, Simco, Citra, Amarillo, Chinook and CTZ hops. This extremely generous hop content produces pronounced (but balanced) grapefruit flavors with pine and citrus aromas.
Societe Brewing Company The Pupil
One of BeerAdvocate’s highest-rated American IPAs, Societe Brewing Company’s The Pupil IPA is a great example of the West Coast IPA style. The beer’s crisp and dry finish help accentuate the hop profile, which generates tropical aromas and grapefruit zest flavors on the palate.
Green Flash Brewing Co. West Coast IPA
Green Flash Brewing Co.’s flagship beer is one of the earliest and most notable examples of the West Coast IPA style, and the beer continues to stand as an exemplary standard for the style. Brewed with a blend of five different hops, the West Coast IPA jumps out of the bottle with bold grapefruit and resin flavors.
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Russian River Brewing Co. Pliny the Elder
This highly sought-after beer is actually classified as an imperial IPA, but it would be negligent to fail to list Pliny the Elder among some of the best West Coast IPAs available. Every year, Russian River Brewing Co. releases Pliny the Elder in small batches, attracting craft beer enthusiasts from all corners of the country to California to snag a bottle. This expertly-balanced IPA is brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops, and the fresh hops give the beer strong pine and citrus aromas.
Alpine Beer Company Duet
Brewed with Amarillo and Simcoe hops, Alpine Beer Company’s Duet IPA is a classically “sticky” West Coast ale. This beer blasts out resinous and dank notes on the nose and palate, combining pine, citrus and zest flavors in a well-rounded pint.
West Coast IPA Recipe
The West Coast IPA is not a category of beer that is officially recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program or Brewers Association. That being said, there are a few easy guidelines to stick to when building out a West Coast IPA recipe.
As previously mentioned, the West Coast IPA relies heavily on the fresh and abundant hops of the American Pacific Rim. This style of beer is HEAVILY hopped, and hops can be added throughout the brewing process to great effect.
For your hop selection, it is recommended to stick to New World hops. Luckily, there are plenty of great hops you can choose from, either whole-cone or pellet. Classic West Coast hops include Centennial, Cascade, Mosaic, Amarillo, Chinook, Simcoe, Strata and even Citra. Avoid using noble hops like Saaz and Hallertau Mittelfrüh, which will provide spicy and woody notes that may clash with the flavors acquired from your American hops.
While looking at when to add hops throughout the brewing process, you have many opportunities to make this beer your own. Utilizing Simcoe and Cascade hops during the late stages of your boil will bring out grapefruit zest, pine and dank resin aromas in your beer. Dry hopping with Citra hops will result in a beer with juicy citrus flavors, and Mosaic hops pair well with Citra hops either as a dry hop addition or as an aroma hop.
A West Coast IPA has a comparatively straightforward grain bill, but you want to find a blend that accentuates the hops you include in your bill. Start with a grain bill that relies heavily on Pilsen malt before rounding out the body with high flavor grains like Munich malt or Caramel malt. To get a crisp and dry finish in your beer, steep your grains at a lower temperature below 150 °F.