Most beer drinkers can’t decide what an IPA actually is. Typically, an India pale ale is a hoppy, bitter beer that has a higher ABV than most types of brews, and often is higher on IBUs (international bittering units). Easy.
But the beer people up top decided that one form of IPA wasn’t enough. Nope, there need to be even more types of the pale ale offshoots because…well, why not. Enter the West Coast and East Coast IPA.
When I say West Coast and East Coast, I’m talking about American coasts, so American brewed beers. While IPAs are brewed all around the world, these specific styles hail from the far regions of the US (which is probably the best nation in the world at producing IPAs).
Both styles are technically India pale ales, but they are very different brews, further complicating the whole “what is an IPA” question. Since both styles are relatively new (as in last century), it’s hard to pin down exactly what they are. But I’ll give it my best shot.
What’s a West Coast IPA?
The West Coast IPA is known for being as bitter as bitter gets. Over the past 5 years or so, west coast brewers have been competing to make the hoppiest, bitterest, alcoholiest brews the world has ever seen.
Look at brewers like Sierra Nevada, Stone and Lagunitas. These guys have been thriving off their IPAs, and many west coast breweries launched in the past decade opted to use an IPA as their flagship beer.
It all comes back to west coast taste. Something about super bitter IPAs goes well with the west coast – at least recently. Tastes change, and many brewers are starting to feel bored with trying to make the bitterest IPAs in the world.
But the West Coast IPA has carved out its niche. These bad boy IPAs are heftier than hefty, suppress the malty flavor of beer and embrace the flavor of hops.
While not every West Coast style is going to be the most bitter beer brewed, we can make a sort of a generalization: bitter = west coast.
What’s an East Coast IPA?
The East Coast IPA is a bit more complex than the West Coast variant. While the West Coast styles force the hops, East Coast IPAs look for the complex flavors that come from each ingredient in the beer, particularly the malt.
This isn’t to say that East Coast IPAs aren’t hoppy – they very well can be. But the flavor sought in an East Coast IPA isn’t going to make your head explode with the bitterness.
You can find this type of complex flavor in the current fad: hazy IPAs. Hazy IPAs are notable for their generally juicy flavor and hazy look (buzz words, baby!), these are going to be sweeter and less bitter than the western brethren. No, hazy IPAs and East Coast IPAs aren’t the same, but we would have never had the hazy IPA without the rise of the classic East Coast IPA. That makes the hazy IPA something of a son to the East Coast IPA. Or step-son? …someone who is like a son? One of those.
Anyway, these are super popular in New England, and the flavor is starting to spread nationwide…just as people on the east coast might want a West Coast style India pale ale.
As with West Coast, we can sort of generalize East Coast styles: juicy, non-bitter = east coast. No, it isn’t perfect. Get over it.
East Coast IPA vs New England IPA
Ok, getting real down into the nitty gritty of beer here. The difference between an East Coast IPA and New England IPA, or NE IPA, is debatable, as all things in beer apparently are.
Here’s the way I like to think about it: All NE IPAs are East Coast IPAs, but not all East Coast IPAs are NE IPAs. NE IPAs build off what East Coast IPAs started, but with even more hops added late into the brew. This makes the beer hoppier (ie juicer) without making the brew super bitter. The NE IPA is essentially another IPA sub style that gets made, remade, confused, renamed, and so on until we can hardly agree what the term even means.
West Coast IPA vs East Coast IPA: Which Is More Popular Today?
After years of slamming super bitter, IBU-busting beers, many beer drinkers — casual and snobby alike — have started to move away from the West Coast IPA and lean further into the East Cost IPA style. Why? Just tastes. Tastes ebb and flow.
Of course, this isn’t to say that you can’t find a West Coast IPA anywhere anymore. You’ll just be hard-pressed to find one over an East Coast/NE IPA any on the Western seaboard.
Side note: If this isn’t the case on the East Coast, and West Coast IPAs are actually more popular out east, let me know.
But when we put things into buckets (West Coast vs. East Coast IPA), we ignore the fact that there are soooo many styles of pale ale that don’t really fall into either category. Best to use this terminology as guidelines more than anything else.