This summer seems set to be the season of the Session India Pale Ale as craft breweries around the world are introducing this new take on a venerable style. As you might recall from my style guide, an India Pale Ale is a style of beer with strong hop flavors and aromas that originated in England. The IPA has been very popular in the American craft beer scene, especially on the West Coast. The modern American IPA is very heavily hopped,very malty and has a high alcohol content. On the flip side a session beer is a beer with a lower alcohol percentage that allow you to drink several beers in one “session.” The combination of these two ideas, lots of hop flavor and a lower alcohol percentage, is more difficult that you might expect.
When the craft boom first started in America the new brewers made a lot of effort to distinguish their work from the big conglomerate brewers. Coors, Budweiser and Miller were all making their standard light and inoffensive lagers, so the upstart micro breweries wanted to make sure to pack as much flavor into their beers as possible. One of the ways to do this was to add lots (and sometimes lots and lots and lots) of hops. To have a harmoniously hoppy beer the brewer has to use more malt so that the sweetness in the malted barley can balance the bitterness that comes from the hops. However, malt is also the main fermentable that goes into creating beer. In other words, the more malt you have in your recipe, the more food the yeast will be able to turn into alcohol and the higher the alcohol by volume of the finished beer. This is why a lot of the hoppiest Imperial and Double IPAs have an ABV of 7 to 9%. With that high alcohol content and the strong bitter flavors it can be pretty hard to drink more than one or two of these big bold American style IPAs.
So here we come back around to the concept of a Session IPA. The idea is to create a beer with lots of interesting hop flavors that is not going to overpower your palate and make you see double; despite the fact that these two requirements are in total opposition to each other. Luckily for us beer drinkers, a lot of brewers are up to the challenge. One of the methods for making the session version delicious without being overpowering is to use a lot of the more citrus flavored hops. These varieties have been increasing in popularity over past few years, and they are certainly showing up in the Session IPAs. This lets brewers add interesting flavors above and beyond “bitter.”
Like a lot of modern trends in craft beer, the Session IPA started in America. Recently I was able to sample Lagunitas Day Time, which is subtitled “a Fractional IPA.” California’s Lagunitas has long been famous for having a very hop heavy lineup so they certainly have a lot of know how for dialing down the bitterness and alcohol while keeping the more effervescent flavors in play. I really enjoyed Day Time; it was exactly what I would look for in this style. Very nicely hopped without being overwhelming with a friendly 4.65% ABV. Stone is another West Coast brewer that is well known for delivering hop bombs like their Ruination IPA. Now they too have a more subtle new offering, Go To IPA. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but I have it on good authority that it is delicious, with all the excellent hop flavor you could ask for at an easy to drink 4.50% alcohol.
Japanese brewers are also taking to the concept of the Session IPA. As I talked about in my review of the Keyaki Beer Fest I tried both the Red Godzilla from Devilcraft and the Hop Seduction from Y Market. I enjoyed both of these beers and look forward to drinking them again soon. Coedo was also at the festival with their summer seasonal Session IPA, which was also quite delicious. It had a lot of really nice citrus flavors. I think that this is a style that could prove quite popular here in Japan, as Japanese cuisine in general shies away from more bombastic flavors. Craft beer that is markedly more flavorful than the mass-market lagers but that is less intense than some of the West Coast style IPAs could do well.
I have quite enjoyed all of the Session IPAs that I have tried so far. It is nice to have a more accessible version of the style I love so much. I suspect that as the craft beer industry makes more inroads into the mainstream beers like this will become more common. Having good, flavorful beers that are simply easier to drink will help win more converts to the world wide craft revolution. Now I certainly don’t think that the sorts of IPAs that made the West Coast famous are in danger of extinction. Without a doubt there is a time and a place for beer with big flavors and big alcohol content, but it is great that the industry is starting to make beers for the other times and places too.
Have you tried any Session IPAs? What do you think of the style?