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Three Pint Stance - IPAs: East Coast vs. West Coast

January 16, 2019
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During my weekly appearance on “Downtown with Rich Kimball” last Thursday, I was reminded by the namesake host himself that not everybody eats, sleeps and breathes beer every day of their lives like I do. Specifically, when I casually mentioned that choosing an East Coast IPA over a West Coast IPA has more to do with flavor preference than hometown pride.

That led me to think it might be a good use of newsprint this week to go over the major differences between East and West Coast IPAs and how the IPA style has changed over time.

I guess I’ll start by saying that there was indeed a time where you would only find West Coast style IPAs from breweries out west and only find East Coast or New England Style IPAs from breweries on our side of the Mississippi.

These days, it is not so helpful to think of these terms as place locators; instead, think of them as categories that describe a certain type of flavor profile. There are breweries in California, Oregon and Washington that are making very tasty New England IPAs and breweries down the street bringing out excellent West Coast style flavors from their IPAs, so it really is more about how you make the beer than where you make the beer.

Right. Let’s get into the major differences between the two. To do that properly, we should probably first quickly cover how they are similar. Most IPAs, east or west, range from pale golden to deep orange in color and feature hops as the primary flavor. Most are in the five-to-seven percent alcohol range and are best served carbonated and cold. While they both share hops as a major player in terms of the overall flavor profile, it is how the hops are used and introduced to the beer that determines how those hops will taste.

In a West Coast IPA, you will find hops used throughout the boil, added at different intervals to bring out different bettering characteristics form the hop. West Coast IPAs tend to have much higher IBU (International Bittering Units) rating due to this boiling of hops. Boiling hops brings out bitterness, so West Coast IPAs tend to have more bitter, piney flavor than their East Coast brethren. West Coast IPAs are usually dry-hopped (hops added after fermentation, when the beer is cold), but this is done mainly to balance out the boiled hop bitterness with a touch of aroma and flavor from the unboiled hops.

In an East Coast IPA, there are relatively few hops added to the boil, really just enough to stabilize the beer and impart some preservative qualities and a very small amount of bitterness to balance the malt flavor out. Hops really don’t play a big part in the production of an East Coast IPA until the boil is over. In fact, there are some brewers who don’t make their first big hop addition until the beer is in ‘high-krausen,’ which is a fancy way to say actively fermenting. This begins a process called biotransformation in which the actively working yeast transforms some of the subtle hop flavors into amazingly bright flavors of orange, melon and grapefruit. Additional hops are added in the dry-hop phase, when the beer is done fermenting and cooled, bit these additions are usually quite substantial as well. The resulting beer is very light in bitterness, and has a soft, almost juicy palate. Many New England IPAs look (and sometimes taste) like orange juice to the untrained eye.

Speaking of appearance, the easiest way to tell an East Coast IPA from a West Coast is just by looking at it. West Coast IPAs tend to be bright, clear and somewhat darker in color. East Coast IPAs are usually more a pale golden in color and are very clearly unfiltered; to borrow a phrase from the youth of today, they are “Hazy AF.” This hazy appearance has become an important aesthetic part of the East Coast IPA phenomenon, with some brewers making haze puns for the beer name.

So, to wrap this up, IPA no longer just means “a beer with more than the usual dose of hops.” There are so many variations to the IPA style that simply saying “I don’t like IPAs” doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe you don’t like pine-y bitterness, but do you like oranges and stone fruits? The flavor possibilities are vast and ever-changing; my advice to you is to get out there and try as many as you can!

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