In Defense of The Session IPA: A Trend That Doesn’t Need To Die


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Earlier this week, Thrillist ran a post titled “Craft Beer Trends That Need To Stop.” As an incorrigible listicler and frequent complainer, I felt duty bound to click immediately, and I’m glad I did. Seventeen different beer folks aired their grievances, and I agreed with many of them.

Norman Miller is absolutely right that we still have way too many sexist beer names and labels. I’m with Dave Thibodeau that we’ve got more than enough boozy soda pops on the market. Sara Bozich makes a good point about our tendency to let beer social media get in the way of beer appreciation.

I wasn’t quite as sold on some of the arguments, but nonetheless, I saw their merits. Nora McGunnigle is more relaxed than I am about IPA freshness, but I agree that sometimes the fetishization can be over the top—there’s nothing wrong with a 6-week-old beer. And I’ve had better luck with new breweries than Ben Brausen seems to have, but I concede his point that some outfits would be better off spending a bit more time in the kitchen before they open their doors to the public.

There was only one trend that I felt compelled to defend: I disagree with Bryan Carey’s assertion that session IPA should be “placed in a coffin and buried six feet under.” He finds session IPAs to be “toned-down versions of the real thing,” and while he accepts the practical advantages of lower-strength beer, he ultimately invokes Patrick Henry in calling for “full-flavored, over-hopped, in-your-face- IPA” (or death).

The drinking public is on my side of this debate—Draft Magazine reported last March that session IPA sales increased a ridiculous 450 percent from 2013 to 2014, and while the rise likely wasn’t as high in 2015, there’s no reason to think the session tide is receding. But the beer rating, blogging, and commenting classes are rife with perfectly tasteful, reasonable people who side with Carey; it’s easier than ever to find a 4.5-percent alcohol-by-volume India pale ale, but if you order one in public you risk running afoul of a certain strain of beer cop who can’t resist complaining about them.

Anyhow, after I read Mr. Carey’s slander, I took a highly scientific survey, by which I mean I asked Twitter, “Do session IPA haters really dislike it, or are they just offended by the concept?” My suspicion, as evidenced by my kinda sleazy push-poll, was that the beer underworld simply hosts too many joyless pedants who would rather complain about some ill-defined notion of authenticity than just pipe down and enjoy good beer. And yeah, there was plenty of that and similar versions of hatred for hatred’s sake; some people clearly came to the category predetermined to dismiss it.

But I have to admit that among the several dozen responses I got, there were more than a couple that got me thinking. I haven’t been converted to the dark side—I’m still fully supportive of session IPA’s right to exist. And I still maintain that in my experience they’re fine or better nearly as often as full-strength IPAs are, and that a lot of the misses can be attributed to brewers still trying to get a handle on the right recipe, rather than evidence that the endeavor is doomed. But all that said, I think fairness mandates that we address the most common complaints individually rather than just shouting “No! You’re wrong! Session IPA is good!”

“It’s Just Hop Water!”

I dunno, hop water sounds pretty good to me. But I do understand this argument in so far as dialing down the grain volume in order to keep the alcohol content below 5 percent or so can throw things out of balance. However, many of the first wave of modern American IPAs are much closer in ABV to today’s session versions than they are to newer interpretations that approach double-digits. No one ever accused Harpoon, Goose Island, or Dogfish 60 Minute of lacking malt character—in fact, they’re often faulted for not being hoppy enough by today’s standards—and none of them is over 6 percent. There are plenty of SIPAs that show plenty of malt. And besides, just how much malt do we even want in them? No one’s trying to sell you on a session barleywine here.

“They’re Just American Pale Ales Dressed Up With A New Name!”

I don’t generally find this to be the case, as most SIPAs I’ve tried are way too hop-forward to be mistaken for an American pale ale; in some ways this criticism contradicts the one above, as APAs are more likely to lean toward malt-hop balance than are American IPAs, session or otherwise. But even if this charge were accurate, I wouldn’t much care. I tend to reject these taxonomical qualms without comment. I simply don’t get too worked up over what’s called what. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would have been called an IPA if it came out at a time when the label had its current cache; any complaints about what the stuff tastes like? As long as the name isn’t intentionally misleading, I’m fine with letting the marketing department call the shots. It’s the same reason I have no problem with the proliferation of “white IPAs”: the moderately informed drinker knows what to expect from that combination of words, which is all she can ask for. IPA, as currently understood in America, means “notably hoppy.” Session IPAs are that.

“They’re Too Expensive!”

I was surprised by how many people told me this. I’m a huge advocate of maximizing the bang for your beer buck, and I freely admit that alcohol accounts for a healthy part of the bang equation. I have trouble paying $9 for a pint of 2-percent Berliner Weisse, and I shy away from some of the lighter goses, as well. I’m kind of a meathead in that regard. But at 4 or 5 percent ABV, session IPAs are firmly within the acceptable range; I mean, the world’s dads and uncles have long been proving that a Bud Light-strength beer can cause plenty of trouble.

But although some people want the price to be lower because they’re cheapskate drunkards, plenty of others are simply misinformed about the costs of brewing: They don’t necessarily think Firestone Walker Easy Jack (4.5-percent ABV) should cost less than Union Jack (7-percent) just because it’s a less efficient intoxicant, but they incorrectly if not illogically think it must be much cheaper to produce. That makes a certain amount of sense, but it turns out not to be the case, at least not according to this graphic, which maintains that malt only accounts for 5 percent of a beer’s production cost. Actual brewing expenses are a small fraction of a beer’s total cost; packaging and middlemen are much larger parts of final price tag, and those costs are fixed regardless of the strength of a beer. If you insist on wringing as much alcohol as possible out of every dollar, that’s okay, but don’t reject session IPAs out of a misguided notion of pricing justice. No one’s ripping you off, they’re just charging a fair amount that happens to not suit your priorities.

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