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The Session IPA is Dead! Long Live the Session IPA!

July 25, 2017

By Joshua Bernstein, July 25, 2017

Alabama summers are as a hot and steamy as a lobster pot, the air oatmeal-thick, the sun an angry yellow orb. It’s the kind of soul-melting weather that compels folks to crush cold beers as medicine, preferably something as bright as that infernal sunlight – like, say, a six-pack of Good People Brewing’s JUCO Southern IPA.

“You can sit outside with a can when it’s 98 degrees and 100 percent humidity,” says Michael Sellers, the Birmingham brewery’s co-owner and cofounder.

JUCO (short for junior college) grades out at 4.2% alcohol by volume, abundant pine and citrus earning straight As in the aroma department. Good People designed JUCO to suit the super-humid South. “Our IPAs need to be a little more refreshing and less alcohol-influenced, and the hops need to be brighter,” Sellers says. The brewery added a hint of honey-like malt, evoking drizzled morning biscuits, the end goal a balanced ale and not just hoppy seltzer water.

A couple years back, a breathless press release might’ve ballyhooed JUCO as a session IPA, a low-ABV savior for hop heads angling to delay intoxication. But there’s no mention of “session” in the summer seasonal’s marketing speak. “We wanted to get away from the ‘session’ name because it’s a little bit played out,” Sellers says.

Beer trends are bottle rockets, burning fast and bright before dropping from the sky, another false star fallen to earth. Remember when everyone was atwitter over fruited IPAs? A few years back, session IPAs seemed poised for permanence, a sober correction to vision-blurring double IPAs, as bitter as a presidential primary. The formula seemed sure-fire: petite ABV + massive hops = dollar, dollar bills y’all.

The math was partly right. Moderate-strength beers are increasingly popular, taps packed with snappy pilsners, agreeable blonde ales, salt-licked goses and malt-forward helles lagers. Most shimmy below the 5% pole. Imperial IPAs, however, have doubled up on hops and halved bitterness. Canned haze bombs from Trillium and Monkish have become objects of lust, ABV be damned. Yeah, Founders All Day IPA might be a citrusy steamroller, but across the board session IPAs have become a tougher sell.

“As applied to IPA, the term session implied that there was some sort of compromise being made,” says Smuttynose president and founder Peter Egelston. In 2014, the New Hampshire brewery released its Bouncy House session IPA, an “all-occasion American ale” with Bud Light-level booziness and bitter charge of 86 IBUs.

“One of the compromises, and I think Bouncy House was guilty of that, was balance. It wasn’t as well balanced as it could’ve been. It didn’t have that nice, rounded malt presence,” Egelston says. “That’s where I think many of the session IPAs, including ours, kind of came up short.”

What’s drinkable for one person is not drinkable for another person.”

Smuttynose deep-sixed Bouncy House, in its stead rising Summer IPA. The alcohol content is a hair higher, right at 5.5%, and the malt plays a more prominent role. It adds body and appealing sweetness, keeping the citrus-popped, tropical hops from floating over-the-top.

“I love the seasonal availability of ingredients,” says Smuttynose production manager Steve Schmidt. “Why not make a beer that fits better with the changing season?”

The idea of aligning IPAs with seasons, not just an arbitrary alcohol threshold, is fast gaining favor. The Bay Area’s Faction Brewing fashions a seasonal range of IPAs, including a Summer IPA filled with, appropriately, Australia’s fruity Summer hops. Seattle’s Reuben’s Brews makes an orange-y Summer IPA, and Oregon’s Ninkasi Breiwng does the dankly floral Maiden the Shade summer IPA. Each hot-weather IPA hits above 6% ABV, and above the traditional threshold for the 'session' label.

Are they drinkable during a heat wave? Well, that’s a question that each imbiber must answer. “Drinkability is one of one those weird descriptors for beer,” Schmidt says. “It’s a personal thing. What’s drinkable for one person is not drinkable for another person.”

Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery recently refreshed its Grateful Pale Ale, taking pains to avoid a common pitfall. “One of our goals was to make Grateful more of an American pale ale, moving away from the session IPA characteristics that focused more on hop side of the beer,” brewmaster Robbie O’Cain said in a press release.

He added wheat to boost mouthfeel, substituting sunnier varieties including peachy Mosaic and lemony Centennial. “This new recipe really brings everything into balance with more malt body to stand up to that large hop profile,” O’Cain said.

The 4.7% Grateful Pale Ale, he adds in a phone interview, serves as a correction to the “hoppy, watery beers that didn’t provide balance.” He believes pale ales are poised for a comeback. “It’s supposed to be a sessionable beer anyway,” O’Cain says. “A session IPA is basically an over-hopped pale ale.”

Session today, something else tomorrow, tired phrases replaced by shiny new jargon. Drake’s new summer release is called Kick Back IPA. Southern Prohibition offers the Devil’s Harvest “breakfast IPA.” Frost Beer Works makes the Micro IPA. And Oskar Blue’s Pinner is a “throwback IPA.”

“We’re all basically doing the same thing, and everybody is trying to stand out,” O’Cain says. “Everybody is looking for the next bit of nomenclature.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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