If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone turn down a craft beer because they “don’t like IPAs”, I could buy a six-pack right now. That IPAs (India pale ales) represent the palate of all craft beers is a misconception, of course: craft beer comprises all artisanal quality ales and lagers. But to respond to the misconceivers, I will say: I’d probably use my nickels to buy some IPA.

IPAs have become the poster-child for American craft beer. How come? It departs from the typical flavor profile of the ubiquitous lager in the same way that craft beer departs from the ubiquitous mass-market beer. Of course, all craft brews represent a “breakaway” of sorts, but the flavors in an IPA have made it an icon. 

IPAs are particularly dramatic. They are provocative brews, often toeing the boundaries of what is palatably safe with mouth-puckering bitterness, astringency and big, boozy flavors. Thus, style-wise, lagers and IPAs are in diametric opposition: IPAs are hoppy beers, where lagers are malty. Like craft beer, IPAs are an alternative to the mainstream (hipsters, it’s time to ditch your PBR), but it’s their particular taste that makes them especially symbolic.

But let’s get real, the misconception is also reinforced by the immense popularity of IPAs among craft beer drinkers. When I first started drinking beer, all I wanted was IPAs. I fell hard. I was besotted by boldness, bitterness and bite. I loved hops: how different strains and combinations brought unfamiliar, complex flavors to beer that I hadn’t tasted before. Readers, I started calling myself…a hophead.

Yes, I know, this is getting personal. I’m fine with it, however, because I’m not alone. American brewers love IPAs. Most American breweries brew at least one as a kind of staple, and many of the most popular craft breweries in the country are devoted to brewing big, hoppy beers. 
In fact, the American affinity for IPA (especially on the West Coast, where the majority of hops are grown) is so strong that Americans have reclaimed and redefined the style on the international stage.

The IPA actually originated in Britain. The story goes that the Brits in the metropole wanted to transport barrels of pale ale to their colonies in India, but the beer would spoil before it arrived. Their solution to this problem was to increase the amount of hops added to the boil, since hops are a preservative as well as a flavoring agent. The result: a super hoppy version of the familiar British pale ale.

Of course, what we now recognize as a British IPA wouldn’t taste anything like the astringent that likely arrived in India way back when, but it was likely what inspired the idea for hop-forward, more alcoholic pale ales. But American brewers pushed the style slightly further—after all, it’s an American tradition to break away from the British. We might even attribute the popularity and reputed “boldness” of the IPA to what Americans have done to renovate the style in recent years. These changes have been so influential that they’ve made their way back to England; I recall bending elbows at a few pubs that recommended English-brewed IPAs that were clearly modeled off the American approach. One brewer I spoke with affirmed the American influence, explaining that while the Brits can take credit for the IPA’s origin, Americans are now leading the way.

While the American “East Coast IPA” is closer in flavor profile to its British counterpart, there are plenty of hoppy, innovative IPAs brewed in Maine. The Portland brewery Bissell Brothers makes an IPA called “The Substance” (6.6 percent) that currently vies for my favorite on the market. Super hoppy, but not overpoweringly bitter, this beer actually soars towards its finish when it reaches its buttery malt base and achieves a perfect balance. You can get this beer on tap at Frontier, or buy it in a 16oz four-pack of cans.

I’ll save the Freeport-based Maine Beer Company (MBC) reviews for their own featured column, but I’d be remiss not to mention “Lunch” (7 percent). MBC loves hops, but its beers are not overly bitter and the gentle and complex interplay between hops and an almost cookie-like malt is probably why Lunch is the brewery’s most popular beer. 
Lastly, check out Portland’s Rising Tide’s Zephyr, if only because it’s fall, and this beer evokes the pre-winter chill with apples, citrus and pine needles. A perfect Maine beer, if I ever imagined one.