There’s a new trend in craft beer that aims to bring the bold hop flavors of modern West Coast IPAs to lighter, more drinkable brews. The popularity of Session IPAs has been surging with some of the best breweries in the country creating beers that are under 5%ABV but hopped like a double IPA, and 2014 is shaping up to be the year of the hop-bomb session ale.
Taxonomy of the fledgling style aside, I couldn’t be happier to have more options for high-in-flavor but light-in-alcohol brews on the shelves and taps. I’ve sampled over a dozen examples from breweries of every size and spoken to nearly as many brewers of the new-wave IPAs to understand why the Session IPA is suddenly so popular.
Session IPAs are about more than just shoehorning the hop character of an American IPA into as light a beer as possible, or slapping another name on a particularly hoppy example of an American Pale Ale. They are about highlighting exciting new hop varieties and using the technology and techniques that craft brewers have learned over the past 40 years to create the next generation of “light beer.”
Brewers love hops, and they love to drink beer, and Session IPAs are a superlative example of a “brewers’ beer”—low-alcohol, high-flavor brews that get craft brewers excited.
So what exactly is a Session IPA? Jeremy Kosmicki, Brewmaster at Founder’s Brewing Co., has this to say about how the brewery’s All Day IPA—a successful early hoppy session ale—differs from the classic APA:
“I’ve had IPAs that to me seem like Pale Ales, and Pale Ales that I might consider IPAs, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation. [Founders] Pale Ale is in the 5% ABV range, and while it’s hop-forward, it features Cascade hops that are not too aggressive, and it’s still balanced pretty well by the malt character. With All Day IPA, I wanted something that really exploded with hop aroma and flavor, like a ‘standard’ IPA would. So it features Simcoe and Amarillo hops, which are pretty dominant ‘in-your-face’ hops.”
In addition to a low ABV and a pronounced hop character provided by new hop varieties, Session IPAs are lighter in body than their American Pale Ale cousins. They can be challenging beers to brew well, especially keeping the body light and the finish dry without the final brew tasting watery or thin. Brewmaster of Firestone Walker Matt Brynildson explains:
“The challenge is that [low-ABV] beers need to be perfectly executed in terms of malt selection and fermentation; there isn’t as much to hide flaws behind. Finding the balance between body and high hop intensity (both bitterness and flavor) is the key.”
Stone Brewing’s Mitch Steele expands on the challenges:
“Reaching a flavor balance while making the beer drinkable is a challenge. Alcohol carries a lot of flavor, so when the ABV on a beer is lowered, the intensity of the flavors is also reduced, often to the point where the beer will taste thin. One of the goals in formulating a great session beer is using ingredients and techniques to overcome that situation”
There are dozens of Session IPAs flooding the market, and choosing which to splurge on can be daunting. Here are six suggestions to get you started down the path of easy-drinking hop bombs.
ABV 4.65% IBU: 54
Tastes like: Half an IPA
Best for: Long Summer afternoons doing hard work in the sun
Daytime IPA is a strange bird, and one that I’m not a huge fan of (though I absolutely see why it is so beloved by craft fans). The beer is extremely light, and treads a little too close to “thin and watery” for my tastes, but it’s extremely crisp and refreshing. There is plenty of hop character present, and it might be more easy-drinkin’ than even the Founder’s example. Daytime may not be my favorite SIPA, but I wouldn’t kick it out of the cooler on a camping trip or beach party.
ABV: 4.5% IBU: 65
Tastes like: Chewing on hops
Best for: Unabashed lovers of lupulin
Stone’s take on the Session IPA trend is, as expected, bigger and bolder than the other entrants into the SIPA arena, and Brewmaster Steele says Go To uses almost the same amount of hops as the brewery’s lauded Enjoy By Double IPA series. Tropical fruit aromas from the Mosaic and Citra hops explode from the glass, and the beer is the most bitter of the SIPAs I’ve tried, but somehow it isn’t overpowering. It’s an impressive achievement.
ABV 4.5% IBU: 45-50
Tastes like: Heirloom citrus and those melons you don’t know the name of
Best for: Hop heads who want to taste tomorrow’s hops, today
On paper, the new summer seasonal release from the Firestone Walker looks a lot like Pale 31, the brewery’s superlative American Pale Ale, but Easy Jack is packed with twice the hops, spotlighting “new cultivars sourced from across the globe.” Hops including Mandarina Bavaria and Hallertau Melon from Germany, and a blend of New Zealand varieties give the crystal-clear ale a beguiling zest. This is the cutting-edge of IPAs.
ABV: 4.7% IBU; 42
Tastes like: A modern hoppy Pale Ale
Best for: Craft lovers with lots of yard work to do
First introduced in 2010, All Day IPA is among the old-guard of the Session IPA crowd, and it tastes like it. This isn’t a knock on the ground-breaking brew; All Day has a lot of charm and even more pungent hop character from Amarillo and Simcoe hops. The perceived bitterness is high on this beer, and it’s got a bit more body than some of the other examples. Where Go To is a bit of a palette-pummeler, and Easy Jack is almost distractingly novel, All Day stays true to its name. It’s a good thing this beer comes in 15-packs!
ABV: 4.5% IBU: 50
Tastes like: West Coast IPA on a diet
Best for: Anyone who likes big IPA flavors
The expert brewers from San Diego’s chain of brewpubs have begun canning beer, and their Ponto takes its S.I.P.A. moniker seriously. This is the closest to a full-on West Coast IPA of the bunch, and it balances lightness, hoppiness, and malt character perfectly. Classic citrus and fruity hop flavors are bolstered by just the right amount of body to maximize drinkability. Ponto is the Session IPA to beat in my opinion.
ABV: 3.8% IBU: Unknown
Tastes like: A West Coast IPA got into a brawl with an English Ordinary Bitter
Best for: Los Angeles-area craft beer fans looking for a high-flavor, low-strength brew
I’ve saved my favorite Session IPA for last; it’s a beer that’s currently only available in Los Angeles, and only on draft. ‘Cross the Pond is like the super-group of Session IPAs: it was originally brewed at Banks’s Brewery in the UK in collaboration with two veteran Session IPA brewers from the U.S. Alexandra Nowell, now at Three Weavers Brewing Co., won a Bronze Medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013 for the Session IPA she brewed at Kinetic Brewing Co., and she teamed with Golden Road Brewing’s Brewmaster Jesse Houck—who first brewed a Session IPA six years ago when he developed Bitter American for 21st Amendment. The American brewers created a beer featuring all English malts, but hopped like a West Coast IPA (including popular hop varieties like El Dorado, Mosaic, and Citra to name just a few). The brew differs from many other examples because of the mild, but distinct, malt character that shows through the huge hop punch. Even though it’s just 3.8% ABV (one of the lower-strength examples) it is also one of the most flavorful.
Grab a growler of Cross the Pond if you’re in Los Angeles near the Pub at Golden Road; it’s the rare craft beer that won’t bore you, or wear you out, before you finish the whole jug.