Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Session IPA: the next big thing?

Last week, Founders announced the release of their first new year-round beer since 2006. All Day IPA is "a session ale that has the traditional qualities of an India Pale Ale with significantly lower alcohol. At 4.7% ABV, the beer is highly drinkable, but maintains the intense tropical aromatics and complex flavors consistent with Founders’ portfolio." My initial thought was what a great name, right? Then I thought its about damn time.

As the name implies, the goal of a Session IPA is to provide the hop forward focus of an American IPA in a lower alcohol, more drinkable beer. Now, I think its easy to say that this style is nothing new. Its the foundation of the American craft beer movement and its called American Pale Ale. While I understand this point of view and to a certain extent it is correct, I think that brewers of Session IPA are trying to accomplish something a little bit different here. APAs are obviously good hoppy every day drinking beers, but few are below 5% alcohol. Maybe that's where we draw the line for this style. Founders All Day IPA is 4.7%, 21st Amendment Bitter American is 4.6%, Stone Levitation is 4.4% and Ballast Point Even Keel is all the way down at 3.5%.

My first experience with this low gravity IPA concept was the one-off collaboration between Stone, Ballast Point, and homebrew champ Kelsey McNair, called San Diego Session Ale (4.2% ABV, the same as Bud Light). I was working at Mile High Wine and Spirits back in Denver then. I absolutely loved that beer and it sold well for us. I wrote a review on Beer Advocate then that I think sums up my thinking at the time. Here's a quick excerpt:

"Did I just taste the future of beer? I always wondered what it would be like if a light beer was heavily hopped. After all, its the alcohol level that produces most of a beer's calories, not the hops. Well, now I know and it is excellent. Want to be a millionaire? Learn how to make a beer like this around 125 calories and under $9 a 6pk."

Ok, I was probably a little too excited then. But I think with all the attention we give to high alcohol beers and the growing imperialization of beer, sometimes we forget that for most beer drinkers (even the ones who do like flavorful, unique beers) Imperial IPAs and Belgian Quads just aren't realistic everyday options. Most people prefer to drink beer of modest strength that won't break the bank. That is one of the reasons BMC beers are so dominant. But what if craft brewers made beer that had the alcohol content of Bud Light, but with a truly interesting flavor profile? Who knows, maybe we could convert some new craft drinkers that way, though that hop character can be pretty intimidating to some people. I'm just excited to be able to keep some hoppy beer in the fridge that has a more moderate ABV and (presumably) a lower calorie count. Because frankly, I do like the idea of lower calorie beer. I just don't want to sacrifice all of a beer's flavor to get there.

Unfortunately, it looks like All Day IPA won't make it to KC, at least not in the early going. But hopefully more breweries start making year-round Session IPAs. Then maybe we can put that Tastes Great, Less Filling line to better use.

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  1. I'd drink Boulevard Ten Penny if they would bring that back. My other favorite low alcohol beer is Cain's Dark Mild.

  2. I really like the concept of high-flavor, low-alcohol beers...in theory. The reality is that I drink them too quickly and end up having twice as many as I intended.

    I would add Surly's Bitter Brewer (yet another one we can't get here) to the list of good session beers.

  3. Hopefully we will see Boulevard's Hoppy Wheat released as a standard or at least spring seasonal. By Spring seasonal I in no way mean January-February. Thinking more Mid-March > June.

  4. Isn't Hoppy Wheat replacing Two Jokers as the summer Smokestack?

  5. Isn't this just an English IPA with American hops? If you look at all the British IPA's, they're in the sub-5% ABV range, like this beer.

  6. @Anon- It's my understanding that Hoppy Wheat will be in 6er's with a riff on Collaboration #1 replacing Two Jokers.

  7. I love the idea for session IPAs. Check this link out from a homebrewing blog I follow, The Mad Fermentationist
    Who brewed a 2.5% IPA

    Don't get me wrong, I love a smack in your face and bitter as hell Double IPA, but sometimes the hops get lost. I'd imagine small-ish beers like this would be great to get real hop flavors and aromas

  8. Would LOVE to have more low-alcohol raft beers. They are very difficult to brew because there is less to hide behind, and the nature of brewing is that more ingredients can be used to make more flavor, but more ingredients usually means more fermentables and more alcohol. Crafting flavorful low-alcohol beers is very difficult but I love the idea. I'm much more interested in drinking good beer and not getting shitfaced than I am the other way around.