Without consulting statistics, it's probably safe to say India Pale Ale, IPA, is the favorite craft beer style in the United States. Even casual beer lovers know the IPA story.

In the late 18th century, England had a huge colonial presence in India. Englishmen living there thirsted for beer. Unfortunately, the voyage was long. By the time traditional beers arrived, they'd spoiled. Dark porters, a favorite style of the era that survived the journey unscathed, weren't satisfying in the hot Indian climate.

George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in London solved the problem by brewing a lighter-colored pale ale, with a higher alcohol content and more hops to retard spoilage. And, thus, India Pale Ale was born.

The problem is that none of the legend is true.

England had been exporting beer to India - and farther - since the early 18th century. While there was some spoilage, beer could easily last a year or more in a cask. There wasn't a crying need for a new style. Porter and other dark beers were, in fact, popular in India. Pale ales had been brewed for at least a century before Hodgson.

Brewers had known since the mid-1700's that extra hops were needed for beer being shipped to warmer climates. (It wasn't known at the time that hops kill bacteria.) Furthermore, the beer that became IPA wasn't especially strong, about 6.5 percent alcohol. If anything, it was weaker than average for the time.

There's no evidence IPA was invented by Hodgson, or anyone else. The style appears to have evolved from an existing brew called "Pale Ale prepared for the India market," which was named East India Pale Ale around 1835.

America put its stamp on the style by making IPA the country's signature craft beer, replacing the earthy and spicy English hops with piney and fruity American varieties from the West Coast. Brewers then began to one-up each other, making double - and even triple - IPA's, although today's column features only regular IPA's (I'll review the big boys later).

The latest trend in IPA's, championed by West Coast brewers, is to remove the sweet caramel malts to make the beer as dry as possible and add massive amounts of hops late in the brewing process to maximize aroma and flavor, without adding bitterness.

For maximum enjoyment, drink IPA as fresh as possible. Those wonderful hop flavors and aromas subside over time, so meticulously inspect the bottling/freshness dates when purchasing and don't be afraid to send back an outdated bottle at a restaurant. As a rule, draft IPA's are a safer choice.

IPA pairs with a myriad of foods. Hops will first fan the flames of spicy curries and Mexican dishes before dousing them. Acids present in hop oils cleanse the palate, making IPA perfect for deep-fried pub food favorites. The sweet caramel malt in some IPA's will latch onto the crust of grilled meat for an explosion of flavor, which is contrasted by the hop bitterness. Drink these regular strength IPA's in a pint glass. Enjoy the selections. Cheers!

Commodore Perry IPA, Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland, Ohio: Named after a hero of the War of 1812, Commodore Perry isn't as aggressive as some IPA's, but's it's nicely balanced. The color is golden orange with a white head. Its body is medium. Aromas of citrus and pine give way to flavors of peach, mango, and malt - with a dry finish. This beer's an excellent introduction to the style.

West Coast IPA, Green Flash Brewing, San Diego, Calif.: This is one of the reasons San Diego has become synonymous with IPA. West Coast pours copper-colored with a fast-receding head, leaving a trail of thick, sticky lacing. The nose is an assault of fruity citrus and pine resin. There's an initial dankness on the tongue from Columbus hops. The flavors then oscillate between grapefruit and pine, complemented by a hint of biscuity malt. The finish is delightfully dry, and the 7.3 percent alcohol content is perfect for the style.

Torpedo Extra IPA, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, Calif.: Sierra Nevada wrote the book on brewing with whole hops. Their revolutionary torpedo dry hopping technique results in a silky smooth IPA, enveloping you in a cocoon of velvety hoppiness. Torpedo pours straw-colored, with a thick head and tiny bubbles. The piney aromas and flavors aren't as resinous as the other IPA's. The mouthfeel is creamy, with flavors of pine and grapefruit, supported by a solid malt backbone. The finish is predominately herbal, with notes of mango and grass. My wife liked this one best.

Deviant Dale's IPA, Oskar Blues Brewery, Brevard, N.C.: Believe it or not, good beer comes in cans, a 16-ounce tallboy, no less. This golden-amber IPA has a pine resin and citrus aroma. The mouthfeel is more substantial than most IPA's, yet not objectionable. The flavors are hop dominated - citrus, grapefruit, pine and a hint of stone fruit - peach, perhaps. I like my IPA's dry, but the slightly sweet finish is offset by a lingering pungency. The best thing about Deviant Dale and other Oskar Blues products is that canning provides a more stable storage environment than bottles. This would be the IPA to pair with a crusted grilled steak.

Sculpin IPA, Ballast Point Brewing, San Diego, Calif.: Surprise, another IPA from San Diego. Sculpin is one of the country's top-rated IPA's, and it doesn't disappoint. The color is light amber, with a medium head. The aromas are a mélange of pine, peach, mango and lemon. The body is light with subtle notes of malt, emphasizing mouth-filling flavors of pine resin and grapefruit. Sculpin get an "A" for drinkability. I wish I'd bought more.

(The Brew Dude is published every other week on the Food and Drink Page. For comments, suggestions, or questions, email Mark Pasquinelli at thebrewdude@newsitem.com.)