India pale ales are the EDM of the beer world: big, loud, in your face. The new mainstream. But there’s a conscious effort to tone it down a bit. At least in terms of alcohol content.
American IPAs often hover between 6.5 and 8 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), with some imperial IPAs hitting double digits. One of the latest trends snowballing in the craft-beer world is the so-called session IPA — beers that hit that high hop quota to satisfy contemporary American palates while keeping the ABV closer to 4 percent.
“It is a little unfair that you have to go to a lighter hopped beer — or at least you used to have to — if you wanted to keep the alcohol content down,” said Dustin Brau, head brewer of Brau Brothers Brewing Co.
That’s why his Marshall, Minn., brewery released its summer seasonal Hopsession Super Pale Ale two years ago. The brewery hosted an annual daylong hops festival in its then hometown of Lucan, and Brau wanted to give attendees their hops fix without leaving them in an inebriated puddle after having more than two.
“With Hopsession, we were admittedly a little bit of a sellout with the malt bill. This beer was designed with hops first,” he said of the 4.2 ABV beer.
From Founders Brewing Co.’s floral All Day IPA to Stone Brewing Co.’s more citrusy Go To, many session IPAs unapologetically overload on hops, aiming to drop Hiroshima-sized hop-bombs in a less devastating format. But Kristen England’s on the other end of the spectrum.
The head brewer at Roseville’s Bent Brewstillery unleashed his balanced Moar Scottish Session IPA this spring. The limited release is a multidimensional, easy-drinking brew with its hop character more than adequately supported by a biscuit-y malt profile. Making a lower-alcohol beer that still has lots of flavor “takes a lot more than just chucking a bunch of hops in,” England said. “A lot of the session IPAs made in the U.S. are basically hop water. They forget about the entire malty character and put so many hops in that it’s basically hop soup.”
But they sell. Last year, Founders added its All Day IPA to its year-round lineup, and it’s reportedly become the Michigan brewery’s top seller. The session IPA is part of a long line of subcategories of the hot-selling style, which includes rye IPAs, Belgian, red, black and white IPAs, England points out. “It’s whatever the sexy, fickle IPA of the moment is,” he said. “Every year or year and a half you’ll see this trend of ‘What IPA can I do this time?’ ”
This may be the summer of the session IPA, but another hops-heavy subset is already fermenting: the so-called India pale lager. Breweries from San Diego’s Ballast Point to Sam Adams are making lagers hopped as heavily as West Coast IPAs and billing them as IPLs.
“Oh, yeah,” groans Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg when talk turns to the buzz phrase a week earlier. “Apparently everything that is strong now is related to India.”
Schell’s hopes to release a new hopped-up lager this month’s end. Named Arminius after its hometown’s unofficial mascot, the New Ulm brewery’s new addition will be more akin to hop-happy Stone’s IPA than Schell’s traditional German lagers.
Most American craft brewers favor heavier, robust ales over crisp lagers because of the lower brewing cost, Berg said. A brewer might be able to crank out an IPA in 10 to 14 days, while Arminius takes five weeks, he said.
Bud/Miller/Coors’ reign hasn’t done the lager any favors in the eyes of the American public, either. Many craft-beer newbies favor high-alcohol imperial stouts and IPAs as opposed to lighter lagers or pilsners. “I still see people saying, ‘It’s pretty good for a pilsner,’ ” Berg said. “It’s like, stab me in the heart!”