West Side Story – The rise, fall and rise again of West Coast IPA.
Posted on at
When did American IPA become split into East and West Coast IPA? Was there a hip-hop style battle between the West and East coasts? Why bother sub-dividing a classic craft style?
The story of how India Pale Ale got Americanised and hopped up to hell starts with a number of enthusiastic home brewers who were influenced by two main things: traditional, but flavoursome beer from Europe; and punchy, aromatic and fruity hops from the USA. More precisely the west coast of the USA.
Hops, hops and more hops
Hops are primarily grown in three states in the Cascadia area of North America. Washington State is in the Pacific Northwest, on the Western border with Canada. The state grows over 65% of all the hops in the country, with its capital in Yakima. The next two largest producing states are Idaho and Oregon, both adjacent to Washington. These three states account for over 90% of the US hop harvest, and it’s no coincidence that the craft breweries that are close by to those fields of green gold are the ones that wanted to brew the most hop-forward version of IPA, just as the style started to take off.
The West Coast is more than just hops though. It is an area that embraces creativity and a certain laid-back attitude; an attitude that doesn’t really get too bothered about what everyone else thinks, and just goes for it. This is the area whose craft breweries embraced the can with open arms. Back in the mid 2000s, a few breweries were experimenting with canning, but popularity really took off on the West coast of the US and Canada, where drinkers not only appreciated the improvement in quality and carbon footprint the can gave, but enthusiastic outdoors types couldn’t get enough of grabbing a few lightweight and crushable craft cans to take out camping, fishing and kayaking. The love of freedom, fresh air and fresh hops is integral to the West Coast personality.
American-style IPAs – including both East and West Coast IPA - always make the fruit and pine notes of the local hops front and centre, alongside a solid bitterness to back it all up with. The east coast styles tended to have a touch more malt and body, and showed their brewers’ love of balance, while still being a hoppy showcase. The 1990s saw many brewers make hop-forward styles and brewers like Brooklyn and Goose Island exemplified the original ‘East Coast’ style.
The West Coast IPA brewers wanted to shout loud and proud from the brewery rafters about the hops they found in their part of the country. There were no holds barred when it came to screaming about hop flavour and bitterness. The sub-style was here to stay and classic West Coast IPAs like Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA, (mid 2000s) Lagunitas IPA (mid ‘90s), Stone IPA (late ‘90s), as well as smaller breweries like Driftood’s Fat Tug IPA (2010s), on the West Coast of Canada, cemented the style in the hearts and mouths of local drinkers over a 20-year period.
East Coast confusion?
The rise of the softer, cloudy, more tropical and less bitter New England IPA (NEIPA) over the last decade had started to push the more classic American style into the shade. This style has often been mis-named ‘East Coast’ by many (especially in the UK), to cause huge confusion amongst some recent converts to American IPAs, but they are properly named after the region that spawned them: New England.
The West strikes back
The hazy, tropical NEIPA (often pronounced ‘nee-pa’) has caught the eye of many hop-fans - and rightly so - but over the past two years we have seen a massive resurgence in interest in the clear, punchy and bitter West Coast IPA variety that really changed the brewing scene forever. It was the style that pushed American hops to the front of many a drinker’s mind and palate, and they’ve never taken a back seat since. The renaissance of the West Coast IPA is a banner that has been taken up by many breweries on both sides of the Atlantic and many are discovering this classic craft IPA style for the first time, while others who’ve lost touch in favour of the latest hot new styles, are back in the hoppy, bitter embrace. Others, including the author, never lost touch, but are enthusiastically trying all those fantastic, new brews that are cascading (geddit?) into good beer stores.
Clear, golden amber, bitter and punchy, full of citrus and pine is how this West Side Story began, and long may it continue!
Goose Island brought no less than two West Coast IPAs into their limited edition line-up of late:
Coast To Home is a medium-bodied beer brewed to celebrate the Great British summer holiday, with notes of mandarin, grapefruit and papaya, and it’s…. sold out.
But fear not:
SK Brew is still available (for now). Brewed in collaboration with the band (and our good pals) Blossoms, it’s a balanced and tropical take on the West Coast IPA that really brings the noise. Pick yours up from the Goose Island webstore.