“It stands for India Pale Lager, dummy.” Yeah, I know, and that seems simple enough: It’s a hoppy lager, right? Well … it’s not quite that cut and dry. As we tasted through a recent wave of IPLs, stark differences emerged between the beers. And with no set style guidelines or even a ubiquitous, nationally available IPL on the market, there’s not a certain level of hop flavor or bitterness that seems accepted as the standard.
Fermented with lager yeast rather than ale yeast, IPLs generally combine a crisp lager finish with amplified hops. Where it goes from there, though, is quite open to interpretation.
A few seemed to fall into barely-hoppier-American-pilsner territory, while others had amped-up hops and fuller mouthfeels that read nearly as pale ales; still others offered IPA levels of hop aroma and flavor with a crisp, snappy finish. So which is the closest to what an IPL should be?
Talking with a few of the brewers behind these beers yielded varied answers; not everyone is shooting for the same goal.
“Lagers are what we do best,” Yuengling’s Pennsylvania brewery manager John Callahan told me. “The IPL is hoppier than our average lager, but Mr. Yuengling’s order was that it should be very sessionable. I’m not very fond of all these hoppy new beers out in the market, but I really enjoy this IPL myself. On the bittering units scale, it’s quite a bit higher than our lager, which is down around 10-12 IBUs. Lord Chesterfield Ale was our hoppiest beer for 100 years, and that’s down around 30. This one’s around 60, but it’s still a lager first and foremost.”
OK, so a slightly hoppier, still sessionable and not overly bitter lager is Yuengling’s goal with its IPL, a winter seasonal that debuted in November and will be on shelves through March. But at Maui Brewing, the intent is somewhat different:
“For me personally, I’m a hophead and an IPA lover,” says Matt Ponichtera, a brewing supervisor at Maui. “Another one of my favorite styles here is our pilsner, so the IPL is sort of in between those two lines. It might not be as drinkable on a beach or outside [as the pilsner], but Hopkine hits that nice medium ground. It does showcase really hops really well. Clean lager yeast doesn’t get in the way.”
So the idea is to shove hops to the fore, letting everything else take a backseat. And while Hopkine—a limited-release beer seeing distribution in cans for the first time—is certainly drinkable, it’s not quite as intensely crushable as Yuengling’s version. (Though, interestingly, the bitterness measures on both beers are within 10 IBUs of each other.)
This may seem like splitting hairs, but gather up a mixed sixer of IPLs and I think you’d be surprised at the variations within them. The malt-hop balance spans the spectrum, meaning you could pick an IPL off the shelf and end up with a bitter, hop-forward sip or a smooth lager with just a kiss of hops. And that’s not a bad thing; it just means drinkers have to spend some time exploring these beers and finding versions they prefer. Here, we’ll get you started:
Widmer Brothers Hopside Down IPL: According to Widmer, this spring seasonal (a returning favorite after its debut a few years ago in the Rotator IPA Series) “is aggressively hopped for all the flavor and aroma of a traditional IPA, but cold-fermented with lager yeast for the crisp, clean character and finish of a lager.” We found it to have a rustic, woody hop nose with oat and honey malt underneath; the sip had a soft, pillowy texture with just enough hops to balance out all the bready flavors underneath. It finished just toward the malt side of balanced.
Two Brothers/Metropolitan False Dichotomy: This collaboration between a lager specialist (Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing) and a hop-loving brewery (Two Brothers, based in Warrenville, Illinois) should yield the best of both worlds. Light leafy hops punctuate the Vienna lagerlike aroma of Honey Nut Cheerios and biscuity malts, but the sip introduces more orangey hop flavor that makes this an enjoyable, flavorful sip that closes just on the malt side of the spectrum. Careful, this one’s 7.2%.
Devils Backbone/NoDA Brewing Session IPL: Available as part of Devils Backbone’s Adventure Pack Collaboration Sampler, this collaboration with Charlotte, North Carolina’ NoDA is miles away from False Dichotomy in terms of ABV, weighing in at just 3.8%. The breweries describe it as a “highly sessionable, hoppy, crisp beer brewed with Vienna malts, oats and a combination of Northern Brewer, Simcoe and Azacca hops.” We enjoyed the fresh, leafy green and dried orange peel aroma; the sip is more bitter than we anticipated, introducing a tangy tangerine flavor that dives into citric bitterness. Hop heads won’t be disappointed.
Maui Hopkine: (It’s pronounced Hop Kine, with a hard ‘i’, in case you’re wondering like I was.) An IPA-level aroma bursts with big tropical notes of pineapple and mango as well as scallion at the edges. Saltine cracker malt flavors support a big rush of citric hops on the tongue, with a clean finish that isn’t quite as snappy as a straight lager. Still, relatively low perceived bitterness makes this an easy-drinker with a ton of hop flavor.
Yuengling IPL: It’s clear Yuengling knows how to make a solid, drinkable lager (they’ve been doing it for generations, after all). The woody hops and neutral crackerlike malt here are reminiscent of a California common, but with a touch more bitterness. This IPL is super easy to drink, with a neutral finish that invites another sip as soon as you put down the bottle. The smooth mouthfeel and balanced flavors make this a beer you could serve to almost anyone.