1. Bars & Breweries

New session IPAs big on flavor, low on alcohol

Published Apr. 10, 2014

It wasn't long ago that I wrote about the controversy surrounding the "session IPA" label, as applied to relatively low-alcohol pale ales containing a hop profile similar to IPAs. Many felt there was no need for a new official style to be recognized, or that "session IPA" was itself a contradictory term.

The style has since gained enough popularity to warrant its own style category. Many breweries have experimented with it over the past year or two, and the results are in: Drinkers want more pale ales that drink like the big guys but pack a much smaller wallop.

Big-name breweries are catching on, with some taking the seasonal and limited-release route (e.g., Victory's Hop Ticket Session IPA, a 4.5 percent alcohol by volume brew available on draft from January to February), and others going all-in, making versions of this would-be style part of their year-round portfolio.

One of the first to go the latter route was Founders Brewing Co., with its All Day IPA (4.7 percent ABV). This beer — now available in both cans and bottles in Florida — has a big hop nose that smells just like its heftier counterparts. The flavor is just barely on the sweet/malty side, with a nice toasty quality to balance out the beer's hoppiness.

This year, two pioneers in the West Coast pale-ale scene released year-round session IPAs. The Sierra Nevada Nooner Session IPA (4.8 percent ABV) is a well-rounded, rich brew that's both smooth-tasting and sturdy in the hop department, employing the same Sterling, Centennial and Chinook hops used in its bigger brother, Torpedo IPA. The key is the malt base, which provides a level of balance that is sometimes missing in session IPA attempts. This tastes like a fully realized beer, and not just a light beer that's been blasted with a large bucket of hops.

Stone's Go-To IPA (4.5 percent ABV) is the other, featuring explosive, heavy citrus notes resulting from the process of hop-bursting — adding a lot of hops toward the end of the boil during brewing. This results in a bright, aggressive hop aroma that — in this case — can be smelled from an arm's length away. Go-To IPA is effervescent and refreshing, with juicy, grapefruit flavors and the aggressive bitterness that Stone is famous for.

Three other session IPAs have popped up lately, although their availability is unclear. The first is Anderson Valley Keebarlin' Pale Ale (4.2 percent ABV), which is not even listed on the brewery's website but is currently available in cans in the bay area. Part of the Highway 128 Session Series, this 100 percent Columbus-hopped brew has a light, floral nose. The body is extremely light, and there's a long, pronounced hop bitterness. It's maybe a little unbalanced, with bitterness overtaking any nuance or subtlety otherwise found in the malt bill, but there's no doubt that it's a highly crushable session IPA.

Next up is the Black Diamond Moesaic Session IPA (4.6 percent ABV), which was originally brewed as a tribute to the late Dave Moes, a longtime loyal patron of the brewery. Mosaic hops are featured prominently, giving it a soft, tropical fruit character reminiscent of pineapple and melon. There's a good amount of bitterness in the mix, but the unique, fruity hop profile stands out both in flavor and uniqueness.

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Finally, Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project's ¡Magnifico! (3.4 percent ABV). The bad news is that you probably won't find this one, at least right now, as it appears to be a summer seasonal. This beer is extremely mild, as you might guess, but its mouthfeel is given a boost by increased, dense carbonation, making it surprisingly satisfying in spite of its diminutive strength. The hop bill includes Simcoe, Horizon, Citra and Bravo, giving it a big, floral nose and a unique hop flavor reminiscent of green tea. With luck, this one will be back in the summer.

If you decide to try a few of these new session IPAs, just remember one thing: these beers are meant to be served very fresh. Many of the defining characteristics of these brews — highly floral nose; delicate balance between hops and malt — change quickly with time, so make sure to drink these as close to the bottling or canning date as possible.

Find a fresh one, and enjoy!