The popularity of India Pale Ales (IPAs) over the past few years has been rather remarkable, moving from a craft beer appealing mainly to a niche audience into the mainstream, where it is easily found on tap at every bar and available in bottles and cans from brewers large and small. If you don’t believe me, check out your local grocery store — I found more than a dozen different IPAs at mine.

While relatively new to Americans, IPAs have a long history, going back to the height of the British Empire in the 18th century. As the story goes, the British government needed to supply its settlers, officials and troops in far off colonies with their favorite beer from home. However, the traditional English ales that they were used to went bad on the long journeys around the globe. Eventually, by using more hops and a higher alcohol content than regular ales, brewers in England were able to produce a beer that could withstand the trip (to India and beyond) and satisfy the thirsty expats.

In this country, the modern IPA — a strong, hoppy, flavorful beer — emerged with the craft beer movement in the 1990s. A dramatic contrast to the light lagers that dominated the American beer scene for decades, IPAs soon became favorites of those attracted to a bolder brew. Personally, I have a couple of favorites, including Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (from Michigan) and, locally, Fairhope Brewing Co.’s Take the Causeway. However, breweries have recently experimented with numerous different takes on the traditional IPA — stronger, lighter, hoppier, even fruiter — so I thought I’d try and branch out a bit.

With so many different IPAs, I enlisted some friends to join me one Sunday afternoon for an IPA tasting party. We met at LoDa Bier Garten, not only because it’s a great place — with 102 beers on tap — but also because all drafts are half off on Sundays (a deal that is pretty hard to beat). We tried a number of traditional IPAs first, including Cullman’s Goat Island Big Bridge IPA and Birmingham’s Good People IPA. Both were good, but on the lighter side for IPAs. One person described Good People as “light and zesty,” while others considered Big Bridge “a down the middle, mild IPA” and “flowery, fruity; not enough for an IPA.”

We then moved on to the IPAs with new twists. New Belgium Brewing Co., best known for its Fat Tire Amber Ale, produces a number of IPA varieties, and the Citradelic Exotic Lime IPA struck us as something we wanted to try. As its name implies, it was very light and sweet for an IPA — “like a shandy with some bitterness,” as described by one of my friends, and “like a Corona IPA,” by another. A number of brewers are tempering the bitterness of the IPA with fruit flavors, including Sam Adams, which released a version of its popular Rebel IPA as a Rebel Grapefruit IPA, which is available in bottles and is another really good, light IPA.

A unique IPA that we saw on our beer menu at LoDa Bier Garten was Back Forty Brewing Co.’s Snapper Biscuit White IPA. Never having had a White IPA, I was intrigued and ordered one, but unfortunately that tap had run dry. I did later find a White IPA — New Belgium’s Accumulation — in a bottle, but it tasted pretty much like a Belgium White instead of an IPA.

As the afternoon wore on, those of us who remained moved on to the good stuff — the Double IPAs. Bolder, hoppier and stronger, Double IPAs — also known as Imperial IPAs — have become increasingly popular. Of those we tried, Southern Prohibition’s Crowd Control Imperial IPA was a favorite, described as “citrusy but bold.” A bottled Double IPA, New York’s Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s 2XIPA, is bitter but smooth, and at 8.20 ABV (alcohol by volume), plenty strong.

If double is good, triple must be better, right? While some questioned the necessity (or even the reality) of a “triple” IPA, we closed out our tab out with Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery’s Hi-Res. At 10.5 ABV it was strong, bold and smooth — highly recommended.

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