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Blind-Tasting and Ranking 90 of the Best "Session" Beers (under 5% ABV)

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goodpeople_beardedlady.jpg 40. Good People Brewing Co. Bearded Lady
City: Birmingham, AL
Style: American pale wheat
ABV: 4.2%
Key ingredient: Falconer’s flight hops
The verdict: An unusual American pale wheat from Birmingham’s Good People, Bearded Lady is like some kind of nexus between styles. The brewery calls it an “American wheat,” but the base is only half wheat malt and half regular base malt. Citrusy American hops are its other calling card, but the thing that makes it unusual is that it seems just a little bit tart. Not even so tart as in an average Berliner weisse, but just enough for one to note that there’s something a little different about it, if you’re looking close enough. It’s caught inbetween a lot of things—not hoppy enough to be called a “hoppy wheat,” not an American hefeweizen and not a classic American pale wheat either. It’s just tasty wheat beer, I guess.

dc_brau.jpg 39. DC Brau Brewing Co. Brau Pils
City: Washington D.C.
Style: German pils
ABV: 4.6%
Key ingredient: Spicy noble hops
The verdict: A classic pils in a can from DC Brau, who we’re happy to add to these tastings for the first time. This one is fairly hop-forward for a German pils, almost more in Czech pils territory, especially because the hops come across quite spicy/peppery, similar to the distinct character of Saaz. Light, clean, cracker-like maltiness and an otherwise neutral profile make the hops the star, with moderate bitterness. This one is for the noble hop fans.

southerntier_rightoway.jpg 38. Southern Tier Right-O-Way Session IPA
City: Lakewood, NY
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.6%
Key ingredient: Toasted malt, surprisingly
The verdict: One of two Southern Tier session IPAs we tasted, Right-O-Way was actually one of the more malt-forward variants on the session IPA formula, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. I suppose one could question whether balance makes a session IPA less appropriate for the style, but here it works pretty well. Light caramel sweetness and a bit of doughy malt lay the foundation for a classic hop profile of citrus and pine. In fact, what it may really remind you of in the end is a classic American pale ale, a solid take on an old favorite.

secondself_summeripa.JPG 37. Second Self Summer IPA
City: Atlanta, GA
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.9%
Key ingredient: Citrusy hops
The verdict: Like with the Right-O-Way before it, Second Self’s new session IPA also features a bit more crystal malt flavor than most of the others. It is, however, still very light of body and crisp—the malt comes through more in a toasted sense than with residual sweetness. Hops are a classic blend of fresh and citrus-forward flavors, but not over-the-top in terms of intensity. This is another fairly restrained session IPA that could reasonably pass for an American pale ale if labeled as such.

foothills_carolinastrawberry.jpg 36. Foothills Brewing Carolina Strawberry
City: Winston-Salem, NC
Style: American cream ale /w fruit
ABV: 4.3%
Key ingredient: Subtle use of strawberry
The verdict: Our history with strawberry beer is much less rosy than the fruit itself. In general, strawberry-flavored brews just haven’t fared very well in Paste tastings—even from sour breweries that we adore, they’ve routinely been the weakest entries in series of fruited sours where the others are phenomenal. And of course, at their worst, they’re syrupy, artificial-tasting messes because authentic strawberry flavors are more difficult to capture than say, raspberry. Thus, we were pleasantly surprised by the tact and restraint in this strawberry cream ale from Foothills. Indeed, tasted blind, you might not even be able to place a finger on “strawberry”—rather, there’s just a fruity richness that complements a rounded, toasted malt character. It’s actually easy to imagine drinkers being disappointed because they expect more overt strawberry character from something with “strawberry” on the label, but for us it works well.

wildheaven_emergency.jpg 35. Wild Heaven Craft Beers Emergency Drinking Beer
City: Avondale, GA
Style: Unclassified
ABV: 4%
Key ingredient: Citrus zest, sea salt
The verdict: This beer is really between styles—there’s no way to put an official label on it, but think of it as a marriage between pils, kolsch and gose on account of the salt rather than the tartness. Tasted blind, the citrus pops more strongly than when I’ve tasted it in the past, as does a pleasant graininess in the malt body. The salinity is tough to pick up—as is often Wild Heaven’s way, the flavors are right on the edge of periphery. If you don’t know to look for them, you might not be able to identify them exactly, but it would simply be clear that this is a very refreshing, light-bodied, dangerously drinkable beer, whatever it is exactly. Full disclosure: We often have Wild Heaven employees participating in these tastings, but none of them were present when we tasted and rated Emergency Drinking Beer.

upland_campside.jpg 34. Upland Brewing Co. Campside Session IPA
City: Bloomington, IN
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: Big dry-hopping
The verdict: Now this is pretty close the archetype that one pictures in 2015 when someone says “session IPA.” Campside is very light of body, with minimal malt flavors but a pungent bouquet of hop aromatics that tends toward both pine and tropical fruit—there’s a cool fruit note that is a lot like melon or cantelope. Pretty much a delivery vehicle for juicy, fruity hop flavors, and on that does so cleanly and with little fuss.

smuttynose_hayseed.jpg 33. Smuttynose Brewing Co. Hayseed
City: Hampton, NH
Style: Grisette
ABV: 3.8%
Key ingredient: A farmhouse yeast strain
The verdict: You’ll be seeing something in Paste in the near future on an opinion I’ve slowly become more and more sure of, and it’s this—”grisette” is to 2015 what “gose” was to 2014. But if you haven’t actually heard the term just yet, “grisette” essentially means a low-ABV session saison or farmhouse ale, and Smuttynose’s Hayseed is a fine example. It packs a whole lot of authentic Belgian character into that 3.8% ABV—lots of barnyard-type funkiness, and also a prominent fruit note that made one taster writer “bananarama” in his notes. A spicy, funky mini-saison not lacking in character despite being small of stature.

duclaw_kolsch.jpg 32. DuClaw Brewing Co. Kolsch
City: Baltimore, MD
Style: Kolsch
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: German yeast
The verdict: This brand new beer is the first offering in DuClaw’s new “Foundation Series,” a traditional German-style kolsch. A little bit richer and maltier than a few of the other kolsches on the table, it boasts some nice bready notes and just a hint of herbal hops. A true lawnmower beer right here, would certainly hit the spot after sweating out in the garden or tending the hop bines.

shiner_whitewing.jpg 31. Shiner White Wing
City: Shiner, TX
Style: Belgian wit
ABV: 4.7%
Key ingredient: Coriander
The verdict: Did we expect to praise a witbier made by Shiner? No, not so much, but that’s why you do these things blind. With a nose that is heavy on the exoticism of spices, especially coriander, White Wing is one of the spicier wits we ran across in this tasting, which isn’t a bad thing—our wheat beer winner, Allagash White, was spice-dominant as well, after all. It’s proof that when you put a good yeast strains in the hand of a big national brewery, there’s no reason they can’t make a fine take on a classic style like Belgian wit. Beers like this will never get great scores on rating sites because of their breweries of origin, but in a blind tasting it becomes clear that they’re more than serviceable.

allagash_housebeer.jpg 30. Allagash Brewing Co. House Beer
City: Portland, ME
Style: Patersbier
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: Something from the Allagash yeast rolodex
The verdict: “Patersbier” is so named because it’s the style of low-ABV, quaffable beer that monks in the abbey would enjoy as part of their own daily meals—a modest brew of moderation, but also a great style of craft beer that is being rediscovered under multiple similar names: “Belgian single,” “patersbier” or simply “Belgian blonde.” This so-called “house beer” from Allagash isn’t some really funky or “challenging” offering, but that’s not to say it isn’t plenty complex. It’s a very well-balanced collection of funky and bready flavors with a pronounced aroma of hay and spices.

firestone_easyjack.jpg 29. Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Easy Jack
City: Paso Robles, CA
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: Mandarina Bavaria hops
The verdict: A to-style session IPA from Firestone Walker, which has performed extremely well in our past IPA rankings, I think a few of us expected that Easy Jack would end up even higher on this one. Still, it more than holds its own against the other session IPAs, with distinctive citrus flavors of tangerine and juicy melon. Very light of body and quaffable, Easy Jack drinks as easily as the name might suggest, even in comparison to some of the other session IPAs in the same ABV range.

saintarcher_blondeale.jpg 28. St. Archer Brewery Blonde Ale
City: San Diego, CA
Style: Kolsch
ABV: 4.8%
Key ingredient: German kolsch yeast
The verdict: One of the best of the neutral, lager-style ales on the table, St. Archer’s kolsch hits the bullseye for that style, with light bitterness and crisp, clean, lightly bready malt flavors. A bit of continental hop character also pops up, but not quite to the degree that you’d think you were drinking a traditional pilsner. A very well-executed version of this style that delivers pretty much exactly what one would reasonably expect.

summit_hopvale.jpg 27. Summit Brewing Co. Hopvale Organic Ale
City: St. Paul, MN
Style: American pale ale
ABV: 4.7%
Key ingredient: Crystal malt, Chinook hops
The verdict: The brewery says we should be expected “intense grapefruit, pine and lemon hop character,” but that’s not really what we got from this pleasant, all-organic APA. Rather, it’s a nicely balanced pale ale that displays a bit more caramel malt character than most of the session IPAs on the table and a hoppiness that is mildly spicy and floral. In that respect it’s a pretty classic American pale ale—perhaps the so-called and ill-defined “midwestern pale ale” style that pops up from time to time.

schlafly_lager.jpg 26. Schlafly Summer Lager
City: St. Louis, MO
Style: Helles lager
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: German lager yeast and noble hops
The verdict: This German-style helles is pretty much crispness incarnate—so drinkable that the primary result of drinking one would likely be to look down at the empty glass in surprise before slouching off to get another. One of the highest compliments you can pay to such a subtle style is that it’s very clean, with no off-flavors, simply allowing its light, Continental malt and hop character to shine. The hops come through as floral and slightly lemony, with maybe just a hint of vanilla on the nose as well. Ultra refreshing stuff.

saintarnold_lawnmower.jpg 25. St. Arnold Brewing Co. Fancy Lawnmower
City: Houston, TX
Style: Kolsch
ABV: 4.9%
Key ingredient: German Hallertauer hops
The verdict: Another classic kolsch, Fancy Lawnmower can boast a great name and clean, expressive malt flavors. Hallertauer hops lend their trademark floral character—like a kindler, gentler version of America’s famed Cascade. With biscuity malt and just a little bit of fruitiness for complexity, it’s an easy-to-enjoy spin on kolsch. This is the sort of beer that should reasonably be able to show a Budweiser drinker what he or she has been missing.

stone_gotoipa.jpg 24. Stone Go To IPA
City: San Diego, CA
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.5%
Key ingredient: Tropical hops
The verdict: Intensely hop-forward, Stone’s session IPA brings a very high volume of flavor to the session IPA game. Complex tropical fruit impressions of melon, pineapple and maybe a bit of red berry are chased by assertive bitterness. Fuller of mouthfeel than most of the session IPAs, it feels in many respects like a full-on version of one of its bigger cousins. It’s a beer that reflects the simple aspirations of many session IPAs—arrive, delivery a blast of hops in a drinkable package, and leave. Here, they’re the juicy, tropical fruity hop flavors that have so come into the vogue in hop-forward beer in the last few years. We’re certainly not complaining.

sideproject_grisette.jpeg 23. Side Project Brewing Grisette
City: St. Louis, MO
Style: Grisette
ABV: 4%
Key ingredient: Brettanomyces
The verdict: Told ya—grisette! The style of 2015. I’m sure there will be people in the comments who have never even tasted this beer harumphing over the fact that something from Side Project didn’t make at least the top 10, but this very light-bodied beer is something a little different and pretty subtle from the red hot St. Louis brewery, which produced two of our top three saisons. Where we thought it might just be a miniature version of one of those wonderful, tart saisons, this one is much more funk-forward than it is tart, but still very subtle all around, with impressions of hay and perhaps green apple and very light spices. Complex and best appreciated on its own, it’s likely not built to triumph in a large tasting of more assertive ales.

df_namaste.jpg 22. Dogfish Head Namaste
City: Milton, DE
Style: Witbier
ABV: 4.8%
Key ingredient: Dried orange slices and lemongrass
The verdict: Dogfish creates a twist on the usual witbier formula by using slices of full, dried orange rather than simply the peel, together with the addition of lemongrass, which imparts citric and grassy flavors, as you might expect. Spices really pop on this one—it’s more complex in its aroma than a lot of the other wits on the table, with many different notes duking it out for prominence. On the back end it’s grassy, like a freshly mowed lawn still clumpy with moisture. Simultaneously refreshing and contemplative.

founders_allday.jpg 21. Founders All Day IPA
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Style: Session IPA
ABV: 4.7%
Key ingredient: This beer was likely the introduction of many drinkers to the fully realized concept of “session IPA,” and many that have come along since have been built in its image. All Day drinks rather like a miniaturized version of Founders’ already genre-defining IPA, Centennial. It’s very well balanced, with plenty of biscuity malt—this is one session IPA that isn’t just a hop delivery vehicle. The hops are classic American west coast stuff all the way—pine, grapefruit, floral. It tastes instantly familiar even to people who have never had it before, but that’s not a bad thing.

Next: Beers #20-1, a winner is crowned

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