This is part of a continuing series on IPA variants. So far, I’ve tackled black IPAs/Cascadian dark ales, Belgian IPAs, and wheat IPAs. See also the article on rye IPA, by Denny Conn. In addition, I wrote a whole series of articles on “regular” American-style IPAs, along with American pale ales and double IPAs.
Beers with “IPA” in their name tend to sell well and commercial brewers are keen to have those three letters on their labels. One style (or substyle) of beer that has emerged recently is session IPA. A session IPA supposedly combines the hoppiness of an IPA with the lower alcohol content of a session beer. Founders Brewing’s All Day IPA was one of the first entries in this category, and continues to be one of the best-known.
When session IPAs first arrived, they tended to get one of two reactions. Beer drinkers either said, “Awesome, now I can get more hoppy goodness, and not have to stop after a couple,” or, “Hey great idea, but I liked it better when it was called pale ale.”
Beer Styles, Labels, and Jumbo Shrimp
I don’t really care much about beer styles. Historically, some combinations of ingredients of techniques have yielded great beers, and many of these have been enshrined as beer styles. And that’s great. However, you can also formulate beers without regards to style and have them be wonderful.
On the other hand, as a writer, I have this crazy idea that words mean something. If you label a beer “session IPA,” that ought to have a meaning — and there should be some way of distinguishing it from other things, in this case pale ale. Otherwise, why make up a new name for something that already has a perfectly recognizable name? (Money would be one answer, of course.)
Some brewers might see the term “session IPA” as oxymoronic. An IPA is a relatively strong, hoppy beer. If a beer is not strong, it’s not an IPA. On the other hand, others might claim that the word “session” modifies “IPA,” and is thus a perfectly valid descriptor, in much the same way “jumbo shrimp” is. (They’re shrimp, but they’re bigger than regular shrimp.)
Whatever you think about the name, let’s consider for the moment if we can brew a beer called session IPA and make it distinct from pale ale. How would we do that? Pale ales and IPAs are similar beers, of course, but they have some key differences. IPAs are stronger than pale ales, but of course that difference will either disappear — or be inverted — in a session IPA. IPAs are more hoppy than a pale ale; that we can manage. And finally, IPAs are usually more dry than pale ales — and frequently this means a smaller contribution of crystal malts. Using these criteria, we could perhaps slice out a little piece of “style space” that could reasonably be called session IPA.
This definition might overlap slightly with pale ale, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. American amber ales and American pale ales overlap somewhat. Ditto all the British pale ale substyles. If you want there to be session IPAs that aren’t just pale ales by another name, here’s how you could make one.
What Does “Session” Mean?
A really great way for me to begin a section titled “What Does ‘Session’ Mean?” would be to give the meaning of the word session. Unfortunately, I have no idea what it means. The term gets used these days to mean anything from low-gravity beers to beers just short of a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. For our purposes, let’s say that at a minimum it should mean less than a regular IPA — but it could extend all the way down to the alcoholic strength of what were traditionally called session beers. The BJCP gives 5% ABV as the low end of the American IPA range. Traditional British bitters, mild ales, and the like — what a lot of people think of when they think of session beers — start around 3.8% ABV and usually don’t top 4.6% ABV. (Founders All Day IPA is 4.7% ABV.) So, anywhere in the 3.8% ABV to 4.9% ABV range would qualify the beer as a session beer by our (admittedly ad hoc) definition.
This is bit easier — if a beer has IPA in the name, it should be hoppy. The BJCP gives 40 IBUs as the minimal level of bitterness for American IPAs, so that would be as good of a guideline to accept as any. (Founders All Day IPA has 42 IBUs.)
Along with higher levels of hop bitterness, compared to most pales ales, IPAs should also have more hop flavor and aroma. As such, you can probably just use your favorite IPA hopping schedule in your session IPA and get the hop character you want. Alternately, you might want to keep the BU:GU ratio (at least roughly) the same and lower the amount of hops you use. And this should be fine as long as they still fall within the range that qualifies them as an IPA. Even if you shoot for the same target IBUs, you will need to use less hops to do so. In a lower gravity beer, your hop utilization will increase.
A Dry Beer
The final major thing that distinguishes IPAs from most pale ales is that IPAs are relatively dry and lighter in body. Compared to pales ales, that commonly contain about 10% crystal malt, IPAs generally contain less than 5% crystal malt (and usually a lighter color). Additionally, pale ales are mashed to achieve a moderate to medium full body, while IPAs are mashed yield a more fermentable wort. And of course, most double IPAs use sugar as a kettle adjunct to make their worts even more fermentable.
For a session IPA, if you used less than 7.5% crystal malt (20 °L or lower) or less than 5% crystal malt (between 20 and 35 °L), your beer would lack the level of caramel flavor that typifies most pale ales. Likewise, if you single infusion mashed this grain bill at 150–152 °F (64–66 °C), you’d end up with a fairly dry beer.
My point in this article is not to advocate for a style called session IPA, nor argue against it. (Likewise, I’m not criticizing Founders All Day IPA. It’s a tasty beer no matter what it’s called.) My point is simply that if you want to brew a beer called session IPA and have it be (at least mostly) distinct from pale ale, it is possible.
Make it nice and hoppy (over 40 IBUs), but not as strong as an IPA (less than 5% ABV). Hold the caramel flavor, color and body that comes with crystal malts below the usual level of a pale ale. (As a guideline, use less than 7.5% of light crystal malt.) If you do that, you’ll get an IPA-like level of bitterness in a beer with less alcohol. From a “words have meanings” point of view, I think it’s reasonable to label that beer a session IPA. And even if you don’t find that labeling reasonable, it could still be a tasty beer. To me, that’s the more important factor.
If you enjoy Beer & Wine Journal, please consider supporting us by purchasing my book — “Home Brew Recipe Bible,” by Chris Colby (2016, Page Street Publishing). It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also find the nearest independent bookstore that sells it on Indiebound.