Drinks

Low-alcohol session IPA is a great summer beer trend

April 17, 2014 at 12:04 PM ET

Session IPAs are perfect for warm-weather drinking
Jim Galligan
Session IPAs are perfect for warm-weather drinking.

Sometimes we get carried away in America, the land where “more is more” and “bigger is better.” From our cars, to our houses, to the portions on our plates, the things we love creep up in size and magnitude year after year (not to mention our waistbands).

Take the IPA for example, the sales darling of the craft beer world. As beer geeks seek bigger and more flavorful hop bombs, alcohol content tiptoes from a reasonable 5 percent ABV for traditional pale ales, to anywhere from 6 to 8 percent for modern IPAs.

Sure these beers are robust and delicious, but they’re simply too heavy and boozy to enjoy during a days worth of warm weather fun.

Enter the session IPA, a class of brews crafted to deliver the hoppy goodness of a full-blown IPA, but with a lower amount of alcohol and a lighter body, allowing you to enjoy a few in a “session” without feeling bloated and groggy.

The session IPA movement got rolling last year with the release of Founders All Day IPA, a 4.7 percent American IPA brewed in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Take a sip and All Day IPA greets your taste buds with a peppery blast of dank, piney hops. There’s a bit of citrus sweetness at play here as well, and an herbal earthiness reminiscent of an English extra special bitter ale. The bitterness of the hops is barely contained by the beer’s thin malt backbone, but there’s just enough caramel sweetness to keep things from getting out of hand. The mouthfeel isn't featherweight, but it’s lighter than a regular IPA, a reminder that that this beer was designed to refresh. All in all, this beer provides a ton of crisp, invigorating flavor for a beer with an alcohol content that slots somewhere between a Budweiser and a Coors Light.

All Day IPA was an instant hit for Founders, accounting for 27 percent of the brewer’s sales volume for 2013. That’s a big deal. With such a huge response, other breweries have gotten into this niche. Stone Brewing Company and Firestone Walker just brought their own session IPAs to store shelves across the nation.

Stone rolled out their Go To IPA last month. This 4.5 percent ABV hop-blaster drops a bright gush of citrus hops onto your palate, featuring tropical tastes like grapefruit, lemon and tangerines. Next comes an acidic bite of pine, which cleanses the palate like a whiskbroom, readying it for another sip. Underneath all of this hop action is a small dose of malt, adding just enough biscuit flavor to keep things in balance. Go To IPA’s mouthfeel is thin, which you quickly begin to appreciate as part of the whole "light and refreshing" mission of this beer.

The latest session IPA to hit the shelves is crafted by Paso Robles, Calif.-based Firestone Walker Brewing Company. Easy Jack – the most recent addition to their “Jack” IPA family, which includes Union Jack, Wookey Jack, and Double Jack – manages to mate a robust and sweet hop profile with an ABV of just 4.5 percent.

Easy Jack is a smooth operator, with a creamy heft to its mouthfeel that the other two beers lack. Take a sip and a tropical salad of citrusy hops swell across your palate, but not with the intensity of the All Day IPA or Stone’s Go To – Easy Jack is clearly on a more mellow mission. There just a touch of pine bitterness on the beer’s finish and a sweet blurb of caramel malt to sweeten up the whole affair.

In their own way, all three of these beers are great. If you're a hophead, then All Day IPA is a good way to go, as it packs the biggest hop wallop of the bunch. If you like mellow sweetness, then Easy Jack can't be beat. For something in between, Stone Go To IPA does an excellent job of providing a hearty brace of hops with that West Coast tropical flair.

Of course if you’re going someplace where bottles aren’t allowed, All Day IPA is the only beer of this trio that comes in cans, so the decision has been made for you. Founders recently unveiled the All Day IPA 15-pack of cans, a nod to the fact that this is beer – like all session IPAs – is meant to be grabbed off the shelf, popped into the cooler and enjoyed with friends in the summer sun.

And who couldn’t use a little summer sun right about now?

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter. 

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