What the Hell Is a Session IPA?

 

ACBNon-StopSessionIPALabelYou might get the impression that we, the beer gurus of ACB, understand all there is to know about beer, yet we’re still learning just like you. It’s this thirst for knowledge that drives us to dig deeper into the stories behind the beer we drink, thus protecting you from the embarrassment of not knowing exactly what it is you’ve decided to put in your mouth.

Although the Session IPA name is an oxymoron unto itself, we just couldn’t help ourselves in tackling one of the more complex and controversial beers today. So we’re going all in on one of the world’s most popular styles: the Session IPA or India Pale Ale.

Welcome to the latest in our ongoing series (drum roll please…) “What the Hell is a Session IPA?”

The Basics:

When it comes to Session Ales, the IPA is the most popular these days in America and if you’ve been living under a rock and don’t understand just what IPA stands for, we’d be happy to give you more details. Now the history of the term session, like that of the IPA, is a little murky as well. The most common explanation for the term harkens back to the days of WWI-era England when they actually drank on the job, even while manufacturing weapons – great idea!

Workers were allotted two drinking periods or “sessions” of 4 hours each workday. This called for a lighter beer than your everyday stout or porter, allowing workers to drink more beer without getting too pissed, in the English sense. The fact that this law remained in place until 1988 is astounding, yet explains why many Session beers today are still British styles, just like the IPA.

Further definition gets tricky. Most Session purists demand that the style be defined as any beer no higher than 3 or 4 percent ABV, just as those cask conditioned worker pints were back in the day. Today, most categorize 5% ABV (or less) a true session, while some brewers create Session Ales that are even higher. Pro Tip: If you feel the need to call a 5%+ ABV beer a Session or Sessionable, prepare for potential heckling.

In case you were wondering, the BJCP has a session category for each style (3% to 5% ABV) and the GABF has a specific Session category featuring all low ABV styles. As far as Session IPAs go, the intention is to provide a flavorful, big-tasting beer that’s easier to drink and won’t weigh you down. We don’t care, as long as it tastes good and doesn’t get us too… pissed.

Session IPA Beers We Like and You Should Try:

Founders-All-Day-IPAFounders Brewing, All Day IPA (Grand Rapids, MI) – Coming from a brewery known for their Kentucky Bourbon barreled wonders of immense size, what has instead become their flagship beer is this year-round IPA weighing in at 4.7% ABV and 42 IBU.

Lagunitas Brewing, DayTime IPA (Petaluma, CA) – It’s no surprise that Lagunitas is making one of the best Session IPAs around (they call it a Fractional IPA) with a crisp, fruity hop flavor, supported by an unobtrusive malt base. Year-Round, 4.65% ABV and 54 IBU.

Pizza Port, Ponto Session IPA (Solana Beach, CA) – Expanding upon their classic and successful Swami’s West Coast IPA, their Ponto brings piney flavors along with grapefruit citrus to a crushable 16oz can, all at an ABV of only 4.5%, 50 IBU.

Our Take:

We at ACB really love the Session IPA style, so much so that we collaborated with Airways Brewing a few years back, to create our own Non-Stop Session IPA.. We think the key to a great Session IPA is one that doesn’t scrimp on malt flavor and brings hops like it’s an actual IPA, while staying low in ABV. It’s not the easiest thing to do, though if you look into those above (and plenty more as well), you’ll find that it’s a skilled style worth seeking out, even if it’s just to get through the workday.

About Warren Wills

Warren is the Assistant Editor & Portland Correspondent for American Craft Beer. Regular contributions include "The State of American Craft Beer" series and the "What the Hell Is" series on beer styles. "Anything worth doing, is worth doing right." ~Hunter S. Thompson
  • WatchingThisUnfold

    That’s awesome, an Airways plug!!! Trying Two Beers India Session and trying to figure it out.

  • Sean

    All Day IPA is my favorite.

  • SailorHugh

    Best brewery around is Flying Dog, but they recently dropped their session IPA and I need to find a new one because I want to have a low alcohol choice. Looking for a really good local session IPA (Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, DC). Any ideas?

    • Jody Bond

      Palmetto IPA is very good and tastes just like the 1st name on the list above. It’s brewed in Charleston and rates at a 4.2% with 46 IBUs. A great beer.

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