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Special Houblon is Special

What is a Specialty IPA?

In recent years IPA has become a style that has arguably transcended the world of craft beer to become its own market. As craft brewers attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition, new IPA styles have come forth — collectively known as “specialty IPAs“.

Introduction to Specialty IPA

Over the past decade the historical context of IPA has been thrown out the window and the term is now often assigned to any beer that is highly hopped so as to be very bitter and demonstrate high levels of hop aroma and flavor, or as BJCP 2015 puts it, “has the balance and overall impression of an IPA”.  The BJCP has further stated that “IPA” should not be seen as an acronym for “India Pale Ale” when used in reference to certain styles as few of these styles ever went to India and even less of them are pale.

More hops equals more good
Specialty IPA styles are shown in dark green. Note that for each of these, “Session”, “Standard” or “Double” is to be specified on entry, further increasing the number of potential variations.

In fact, BJCP seems to have accepted defeat in being able to keep up with the ever expanding number of potential IPA categories. In retaliation they have created a new category of beer for judging that they call  “Specialty IPA”. As of publication, the BJCP 2015 guidelines defined six specialty IPA styles (as shown above in the snazzy chart; thanks Matt) with the understanding that this category is open for expansion provided the beer submitted represents “a collection of currently produced types of beer” as opposed to “experimental beers”, though they admit the former “may or may not have any market longevity.”

In other words, as I write this, that Blue Raspberry IPA you have planned doesn’t belong in this category. However, if Stone, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and Rogue start making one, then you may be able to present an argument. Until then it’s off to category 34C with you — along with the rest of the weirdos.

But where did all these specialty IPA categories come from and what exactly makes them special? Surely it must come down to more than simply what colour the beer is or where it came from. To help you plan your category 21B entry, or if you are simply interested in learning more about IPA, I have broken down the currently established styles below.

For each, I’ve listed a “parent style”. This is intended to demonstrate what traditional style has been heavily hopped to achieve this new specialty IPA style. In some cases this is not expressly stated anywhere in writing, and is simply my personal opinion based on the information provided. While I will touch on some characteristic ingredients, I’ll save full recipe development for another time. For further details, check out the BJCP 2015 guidelines.

Belgian IPA

“Parent Style(s)”: Belgian Tripel and Belgian Golden Strong

What makes it “special”: The use of Belgian yeast strains, particularly those commonly associated with Tripel and Belgian Golden Strong, will add flavors typically not associated with American IPA. These may include cloves and pepper from phenols and banana, pear and apples from fruity esters. Regional variations further differentiate the style. American versions tend to pair the Belgian yeast with American and New World hops. Special care needs to be taken in hop  selection so that hops’ flavours do not clash with those of the yeast. European versions tend to be highly hopped versions of Tripel and Golden Strong recipes, continuing to use European hops. Exceptions to both examples exist, of course.

Similarly when designing a recipe you can take two approaches: highly hop a Belgian Triple recipe, or, take an American IPA recipe and swap the yeast out with a Belgian strain.

Commercial Examples: Houblon Chouffe, Green Flash, Le Freak, Stone Cali-Belgique

OG: 1.058 – 1.080
IBUs: 50 – 100
FG: 1.008 – 1.016
SRM: 5 – 15
ABV: 6.2 – 9.5%

Black IPA

“Parent Style(s)”: Schwarzbier (Dark Lager); Cascadian Dark Ale, though the style names are synonymous in some regions.

What makes it “special”: Well to start, it’s black in colour. At its core, Black IPA is a regular American IPA brewed with some debittered/dehusked roasted malts for colour, such as Carafa Special II and III. It does show some restrained roast character, but nowhere near what would be expected from an American porter or a stout. They will also have a smoother, less full body when compared to those styles. Hop selection will mimic that of a standard American IPA though consideration needs to be made when blending hop flavor with the low level of chocolate and roast character present from the darker malts. While I have listed it as related to a Schwarzbier, this is only with respect to the amount of roast character. Black IPA is an ale and not a lager.

Commercial Examples: Rogue Dad’s Little Helper, 21st Amendment Back in Black

OG: 1.050 – 1.085
IBUs: 50 – 90
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
SRM: 25 – 40
ABV: 5.5 – 9.0%

Brown IPA

“Parent Style(s)”:  American Brown Ale

What makes it “special”: Brown IPA has existed on the homebrew scene for years as a highly hopped American Brown ale. It’s addition as a unique style in BJCP has evolved from homebrewed, and many commercial, American Brown Ales experiencing “hop drift” over the years, becoming more and more bitter with increasing hop character. In an attempt to preserve the original intent of an American Brown, Brown IPA has been split off in order to still have a place to enter these highly hopped beers. The most famous American Brown recipe, Tasty McDole’s NHC award winning “Janet’s Brown” would arguably be placed in the Brown IPA category if it were to be entered today. In fact it was put into the “Specialty Ale” category when entered in 2009, based on the previous 2008 guidelines that forced it out of American Brown.

It is unique from a standard American IPA in its use of darker crystal malts as well as pale chocolate malts. They may also contain brown sugar. While malt character will be more apparent than with Black IPA, the flavors contributed by these ingredients should complement the hops and not outshine them. Similarly the style should not be overly sweet or heavy.

Commercial Examples: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Harpoon Brown IPA, Russian River Janet’s Brown Ale

OG: 1.056 – 1.070
IBUs: 40 – 70
FG: 1.008 – 1.016
SRM: 11 – 19
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%


“Parent Style(s)”:  American Amber Ale

What makes it “special”: Red IPA reflects a more hop forward, IPA balanced American Amber. It will contain some darker crystal malts then those seen in a standard IPA and may include some light roasted malts as well. This will cause the finished product to be slightly sweeter with caramel and dark fruit notes. It is to IPA what American Amber is to American Pale. As with the other special IPA categories, Red IPA should not be overly sweet and heavy. It should ultimately still present the mouthfeel, body and drinkability of a standard American IPA.

Commercial Examples: Sierra Nevada Flipside Red IPA, Summit Horizon Red IPA, Odell Runoff Red IPA

OG: 1.056 – 1.070
IBUs: 40 – 70
FG: 1.008 – 1.016
SRM: 11 – 19
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%


“Parent Style(s)”: ‘Classic’ American IPA

What makes it “special”: A Rye IPA takes a standard IPA recipe and alters it slightly in order to present some unique characteristics. Obviously the most notable is the addition of some rye malt and the hint of spiciness that comes with it. Typically rye malt will account for between 15 and 20% of the grain bill for this style. This version of IPA also has a tendency to be a bit drier than its counterparts and is often mashed at a lower temperature for improved fermentability. Additionally sugar may be added to further improve attenuation. It is important to note that, as with other “alternative malt” beers, an IPA brewed with rye does not instantly force it into the Rye IPA category. If entered as a Rye IPA the beer is expected to have a perceptible rye note. A beer that uses say, 5% rye, which shows no rye character, would be better suited to the “classic” American IPA category.

Commercial Examples: Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, Great Lakes Rye of the Tiger, Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye

OG: 1.056 – 1.075
IBUs: 50 – 75
FG: 1.008 – 1.014
SRM: 6 – 14
ABV: 5.5 – 8.0%

White IPA

“Parent Style(s)”: Witbier

What makes it “special”: White IPA is expected to demonstrate the high levels of bitterness and hop character associated with an American IPA while also providing the fruit and spice of a Witbier.  It will be brewed with Belgian yeast and American or New World Hops. As well, it will often contain additions of orange peel and coriander as would be expected with a Witbier. This special IPA will typically be less bitter and hop forward than other IPAs. Obviously this style will be brewed using a higher portion of wheat than would be expected of a standard IPA. Traditionally Witbier is made using a high portion of unmalted wheat (typically around 50%), though malted wheat is occasionally used.

Commercial Examples: Deschutes Chainbreaker IPA, Harpoon The Long Thaw, New Belgium Accumulation

OG: 1.056 – 1.065
IBUs: 40 – 70
FG: 1.010 – 1.016
SRM: 5 – 8
ABV: 5.5 – 7.0%

While still not for everyone, the world of IPA is expanding to a point where it reaches just about every niche of craft beer. I look forward to brewing many of these styles in the future and will be certain to share my recipes at that time. Meanwhile, if you have a recipe for any of these styles, or if there is a particular specialty IPA you’ve had that stands out to you, please send us an email or leave a comment below!

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