In June 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont wrote a sarcastic piece on his Blogging at the World of Beer blog titled Every Beer is Now an IPA. In it he bemoaned the proliferation of variants on the India Pale Ale – variants that often have nothing to do with that style except an overload of hops. Beer drinkers are subjected to black, white and red IPA, Belgian IPA, rye IPA, stout IPA, Cali-Belgique IPA and any number of others. IPA is such a popular style that brewers slap that acronym onto any hopped-up ale or lager they produce instead of going to the trouble of calling it something else. If it’s an IPA people will buy it.
The one that bugs me maybe the most is the “session IPA.” What the heck is that besides an oxymoron? The whole idea of an IPA is super-hoppy and high alcohol. Indeed the style’s mythical origin story is all about brewers upping the alcohol content on beer shipped to India so that is wouldn’t spoil. IPA was never intended to be sessionable. We have a style category for sessionable pale ale. It’s called “pale ale.”
So what is a session IPA and why isn’t it just called pale ale? A quick survey of a few of them shows alcohol content ranging from 4.3% to 5.1% ABV. Using the BJCP guidelines as a standard (because that’s the standard we’ve got) that puts all but one of them squarely in the range for American pale ale. And the one is under by just .2%. As for bitterness, they range from 40 to 65 IBU. Of the eight that I surveyed, only three were outside the American Pale Ale guidelines, one by an insignificant 2 IBU. I would argue that these beers are all just heavily late and dry-hopped pale ales.
But two of the examples that I looked at had significantly higher bitterness than is specified for an American pale ale. Stone Go To clocks in at 65 IBU and Summit Hopvale Organic Ale at 55 IBU – both square in the range for an IPA. So perhaps the definition of session IPA – if we have to call it that – should be a lower-alcohol, highly-hopped, pale ale with the bitterness of an IPA.
I don’t like the label, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the beers. Given my preference for malty beers, these often thin and aggressively bitter beers should not be to my taste. There is really nothing about them that I should like. But I happen to love them.
Did I mention Summit’s Hopvale Organic Ale? The newest year-round beer from the steadfast St. Paul brewery is being unleashed on the public today (April 1st. No really. It’s not a joke.). Summit seems to have studiously avoided the session IPA moniker in the marketing for this beer. Thank you Summit! They say merely that it has the “hop character of a full-strength IPA, but the drinkability of a low-gravity bitter.” But at 4.7% ABV and 55 IBU it fits neatly into the pigeon hole. It’s made with all organic ingredients and just a touch of lemon peel to give it a citrusy high note.
Here’s my notes:
Aroma: Huge hop aroma. Melon, tropical fruit – mango. Herbs. Grapefruit. Lemon peel. Malt offers only a low impression of sweetness. Neutral character. Low esters – orange. Hint of sulfur. It all combines into a fruity, almost powdered sugar aroma.
Appearance: Medium gold and slightly hazy. Full, creamy, off-white head with excellent retention.
Flavor: Full blast of hops with low, supporting malt sweetness. Hop flavors are similar to the aroma – melon, tropical, grapefruit, pine. Lemon comes through more strongly. Bitterness is medium-high to high, but smooth, not overwhelming. Malt sweetness supports. Low biscuit/toast malt flavor. Light and refreshing. Hops are the star. Malt is barely there. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and hop flavors.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low hop astringency.
Overall Impression: Hops rule the roost in this beer. Malt is almost an afterthought. Almost, but not quite. And oh, what hops they are. Full of rich, fruity and resiny flavors. And then there is that bright spot of lemon peel. This is one of those beers that I shouldn’t like, but do. This will be great in the summer, but it’s a year-round so you can drink it all the time.