Best of Series: What is the Best Session IPA?
The Oxford Companion to Beer reminds us that one definition of light beer is “a beer with lower alcohol than most…” Which might make Joseph Owades ‘Diet Beer’ the first mass marketed session beer after Prohibition. A while back, while reviewing Lagunitas’s then new DayTime IPA we introduced the concept of a beer with the massive hop presence of an American IPA, without the higher alcohol content or heavier body. But is it the best session IPA? Since then, just as Gigapets displaced Pogs, higher ABV beers are slowly losing popularity to lower ABV styles such as sours, saisons, and heavily hopped ‘session IPAs’. With summer ever so slowly approaching through the indefatigable polar vortex, it seems time to pick which low alcohol beers are worth packing for a long, sticky day on the disk golf course.
WHAT IS A SESSION BEER?
Who the hell knows. Lew Bryson who writes ‘The Session Beer Project’ pens fine prose, and is bit of a zealot when it comes to this session beer thing. For him, 4.5% alcohol by volume is the upper limit allowed by the style. 4.6% is right out. SEO wizards Beer Advocate offer up 5% as the proper ceiling. But these all seem to look back to dour old England, where the beer was nearly flat, cask conditioned mediocrity, chugged from 20 oz imperial pint glasses. In a modern American “craft beer bar” you are lucky to get even a 16 oz pour, as the cooler glasses and mendacious ownership trump traditions of the old empire. With unlimited ice water and a menu full of fresh, local, organic offerings of house made hummus, and charcuterie (You didn’t know we have our own butcher here?) getting drunk is more a challenge, than a inevitable problem one must plan ahead to avoid. So for our purposes here, if a brewer calls a beer an “easy drinking” or “session drinking” and mentions big hops, its a session IPA.
- Fat Head’s – Sunshine Daydream IPA: Hugely floral and citrus hop dominated IPA with great malt backbone to balance with a subtly bitter kick of a finish: 4.9% ABV
- Stone – Go To IPA: Big hops on the nose of this citrus and pine loaded IPA with a thin body and crisp dry finish: 4.5% ABV
- Founders – All Day IPA: Tangerine nose, thin body with a delicious mostly pine hop loaded taste, with significant bitterness: 4.7% ABV
- Southern Tier Farmer’s Tan: Dank hoppy nose, decent pine and tropical fruit hop flavors, with some biscuit malt and bitter, dry finish: 4.6% ABV.
- North Peak Brewing – Wanderer Session IPA: Smells of malt but taste is nearly all of grapefruit, floral and spicy hop notes, with some malt and bitter finish: 4.2% ABV
- Ithica – Green Trail IPA: Soapy nose on this west-coast style leads to a sweet malt base finishing dank, oily and bitter: 6% ABV
All five beers tasted were capable of bringing some traditional IPA elements such as a bright hoppy nose, bitterness, or tropical or pine flavors. All are also thinner in body and dryer in finish than a traditional IPA or APA. Fat Heads, Stone and Founders all stand up well against Lagunitas Daytime. Southern Tier is similar, just not quite as flavorful. North Peak is quite drinkable, although the caramel malt taste is different. There are so many brewers doing this style I’m not certain if we discovered the best session IPA, but the top three are all recommended for the style as very hoppy light beers. For our money though, we will still most likely reach for a 6% ABV APA like Row 2/Hill 56 or Alpha King for our sessions.