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Friday, October 31, 2014

Session IPAs


Think back about 20 years or so (if you're old enough) and consider your options as a beer drinker in the US. The Craft Beer Revolution was still fairly young and your choices were basically a light lager or a lighter lager (or LITE-er), Foreign beers were somewhat exotic and pricey changes-of-pace. An interesting curiosity, perhaps: Becks or St. Pauli Girl in that German place, Guinness or Smithwicks in an Irish Pub, Peroni or Birra Moretti in an Italian Restaurant, Corona or Dos XX in a Mexican Cantina, Kirin or Asahi in Ichiban. You get the picture. Yet even these beers (with the possible exception of Guinness or a Beck's Dark) were still pretty similar in taste profile to the American mega-brews. They were all lagers with minimal hop presence - light bodied, light in character. But slowly, thanks to some visionary brewers out there, beers with bolder, fuller flavors began to make their across the American landscape. Choice is a wonderful thing. Hey, if your preference is a mega-brew light lager, great. There are still tons of those out there. But now they are not the ONLY choice out there. For those who crave flavor, the possibilities are endless: Altbiers, Amber Ales, Barley Wines, Belgians, Bitters, Bocks, Cask Ales, Cream Ales, Doppelbocks, Dunkels, Eisbock, Golden Ales, Goses, Hefeweizens, Helles, Holiday Beers, IPA's, Kolsches, Lambics, Maibocks, Oktoberfests, Old Ales, Pale Ales, Pilseners, Porters, Pumpkin Ales, Red Ales, Schwarzbiers, Shandies,Sour Ales, Stouts, Strong Ales, Summer Ales, Tripels, Wheats, Zwickelbiers. Just to name a few.

Just check out this Periodic Table of Beers. I know, you can't really see it clearly, but you get the picture.

And brewers are constantly coming up with new twists on traditional styles - adding spices fruits and flavors resulting in interesting concoctions that sometimes work and sometimes don't depending on your taste. Choice is a wonderful thing.

Lately a new style has been emerging: Session IPAs. It seems nearly every craft brewer is throwing their (relatively) low alcohol IPA into the ring. he idea is great. Traditionally an IPA (India Pale Ale), by its very nature, is a higher alcohol brew. By now everyone is familiar with the Origin Story of the IPA style (like any superhero, IPAs have an Origin Story) in which a beer was developed to survive the long boat trip to India from The British Isles. The solution was to up the hops and up the alcohol. American IPAs generally clock in at somewhere between 6% and 8%  ABVs. No problem if you're going to kick back and have a couple beers. But there are those times (think fall = football) when you might want more than a couple, but you really don't want to wake up with a pounding head the next morning. One solution is to stick with the Mega-brews since they fall into the 4%-5% range (no, just kidding, I would never suggest that). Some Pale Ales and Stouts and Porters come in at lower alcohol levels certainly. But what if you wanted that nice hop kick of an IPA without too big a kick in the head by the alcohol? Enter Session IPAs. Session IPAs are exactly that: hoppy beers that have ABVs of around 4% - 5%. Of course, some of the flavor and body found in a normal IPA is derived from the alcohol, so it is not an easy task to create a lower alcohol IPA with taste. This month we decided to check out a few.


The Beer Facts: BREWERY: Otter Creek, Middlebury, VT; STYLE: Session APA (American Pale Ale - the only one not specifically an IPA); ABV: 4.25%; IBUs: 35

What the Brewer Says: "Originally brewed by the Otter Creek brewers who were looking for an easy sipper after a long shift, Hop Session lies somewhere between a Pale Ale and an IPA. A bouquet of hop varieties complement a rich blend of malts, making this brew highly drinkable with a distinct West Coast hop flavor and aroma."

Pour: Better than "Decent" off-white foamy head

Color: Unfiltered honey

Aroma: Toward the malty side, somewhat floral.

Body: Medium

Taste: Slightly toward the bitter side of balanced. A bit bready, some malt and a little citrus tang.

Overall Impression: Midway between "I Could Drink This" and "Can't Get Enough"

Comments: "This is the first session IPA I've had that tastes of hops; A good mix of hops and malt; It needs to come in cans; Tastes like what it is - a light IPA; This is not a complex beer; You could mow the lawn drinking this; It's a perfect session beer; There is nothing objectionable about it."


The Beer Facts: BREWERY: Sierra Nevada, Chico, California; ABV: 4.8%; IBUs: 40; MALTS: Two Row Pale, Wheat, Munich, Chocolate; HOPS: Sterling (bittering), Centennial, Chinook.

What the Brewer Says: "there's no better way to start a lazy afternoon than with a group of friends and a few beers. Nooner IPA is a session beer that's light in body yet big in hop flavor. By using intense, whole-cone American hops in our Hop Torpedo we pack this small beer with a hefty hop punch. Traditionally, IPAs have been bigger, stronger beers, but this session beer offers the same hop assertiveness with an easy drinkability."

Pour: Very carbonated with effervescently tight bubbles. Decent head.

Color: Golden

Aroma: Grassy hops.

Body: Light to Medium

Taste: Balanced with notes of lemony citrus, some grapefruit and subtle malt.

Overall Impressions: "I Could Drink This"

Comments: "I love the name; There aren't many (if any) bad beer from Sierra Nevada; This is a little more malty than most; It's a good representative of the type; It's very refreshing; This would be a good golf beer; It has a nice, sharp bitterness on the end, but more malt; It had a great mouthfeel; It's what you'd expect form Sierra Nevada."


The Beer Facts: BREWERY: Middle Ages Brewing Company, Syracuse, NY; STYLE: Session IPA; ABV: 4.8%; IBUs: NA; AVAILABILITY: Draft, Growler - Year Round.

What the Brewer Says: "An IPA with a lower than average alcohol but with intense pine and citrus hop flavor, rounded up with a dry finish. It was first brewed to celebrate our 17th anniversary."

Pour: Midway between "Decent" and "Guinness Class."

Color: Hazy amber

Aroma: Piney/floral hops

Body: Between Medium and Full

Taste: Bitter with notes of grapefruit and pine. Bit of malt.

Overall Impression: "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "It's the first one that really slapped me up side the head; Wow - that smells good; It's a bit daring for a session beer; This is NOT BAD; It has a strong taste for a session; It fills the mouth; Very good beer; It is clean and crisp; Real nice American IPA; It reminds me of Abita (in a good way); I personally don't care for it as much as Sierra Nevada or Otter Creek."


The Beer Facts: BREWERY: Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, CA; STYLE: Session IPA; ABV: 4.5%; IBUs: 45-50; MALTS: American Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Malted Wheat, English Carmel-35, Cara Pils, Rolled Oats; HOPS: Bavarian Mandarina, Hallertau Melon, Blend of New Zealand, American Mosaic

What the Brewer Says: "Brewmaster Matt Brynildson went to the mountain and returned with a vision for a different kind of Session IPA, one that would be brewed and dry hopped with a globetrotting selection of new hop varieties from Europe, New Zealand and North America. He foresaw a beer that would deliver massive hop aromas, a signature malt balance and an empty glass before you knew what hit you. And so the newest member of our Jack IPA was born."

Pour: Initially decent head, but without much staying power

Color: Unfiltered blonde

Aroma: Hoppy - hay, grass

Body: Medium

Taste: Leans toward malty for an IPA, with notes of bread and yeast.

Overall Impression: "I Could Drink This"

Comments: "It tastes bigger than 4.5%; There is more of a malt presence than with most of the other session IPAs; Something seems to be missing from each of the session IPAs - it seems they have to sacrifice some taste for the lower alcohol; It has a big beer smell; It's yeastier and breadier than the rest of the ones we have had; It could be a decent summer brew; In isolation it would be a great beer, compared to the others we have had so far today - meh!"


The Beer Facts: BREWERY: Stone Brewing, Encondido, CA; STYLE: Session IPA; ABV: 4.5%; IBUs: 65

What the Brewer Says: "Since Day One, we've been abundantly forthright and fully transparent about our lust for hops. It's led us to craft many an IPA, most of them Imperial - some intese for their time and all timeless in their intensity. For Stone Go To IPA, we are embracing our hop obsession is a new way, funneling an abundance of lupulin-borne bitterness into a 'session' IPA delivering all the fruity, piney character of a much bigger IPA. To accomplish this, we employed 'hop bursting,' a new technique wherin an irrational amount of hops is added during the final phase of the brewing process to coax out extreme flavors and aromas while also imparting a burst of desirably pleasant bitterness. The result is an Alpha-acid rich beer that fans can enjoy more of withou missing out on the assertive hop character you, like us, crave. So, sit back and go two with your new everyday go-to IPA and bask along with us in the glory of the almighty hop." 
Ya' gotta' love Stone - and the guy who writes their labels.

Pour: Initially OK but not a lot of staying power

Color: Unfiltered pale yellow

Aroma: Hoppy - pine

Body: A bit beyone Medium

Taste: Pleasantly bitter with notes of pine and grapefruit

Overall Impression: "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Not a 'Stone's throw' away from perfection; It reminds me of Founder's All Day IPA; I COULD drink this all day; With Stone's the expectations are high, and this does not disappoint; It knocks your socks off for a session; This could stand up to several regular IPAs; It is head and shoulders above what I had expected; It's a great beer, period."


The Beer Facts: BREWERY:Flying Dog Brewing, Frederick, Maryland; STYLE: American Session IPA; ABV: 4.7%; IBUs: 50; MALTS: Biscuit; HOPS: A propriatory brewers blend

What the Brewer Says: "Easy IPA is the first beer in our Brewhouse Rarities series of staff-pitched and elected limited releases to become a part of our regular portfolio."

Pour: Midway between "decent head" and "Guinness Class"

Color: Straw

Aroma: Hops - floral

Body: Medium

Taste: Balanced with a malty finish

Overall Impression: Midway between "I Could Drink This" and "Can't Get Enough."

Comments: "Very malty finish; It's the maltiest of the bunch so far; This is a pretty good beer; Flying Dog doesn't disappoint either; It has a fresh, crisp taste; It's the most balanced of all; It's the 'fresh linen' of the bunch; I'd buy something stronger; I think it's a nice beer."


Once again, we were blessed with six tasty beers (plus some good ones from Yonkers Brewery - we'll get to those in a bit). We had a lively discussion of the beers we had just tasted and found a mix of opinions. There was no consensus number one, but after some deep philosophical debate, we came up with an uneasy ranking of these Session IPAs. These were our findings:

#1 - Stone's Go To IPA - Only by a whisker, but just by reading the beer notes by Sone you can see why this would win out with a bunch of hop-heads.

#2 - Middle Ages Session IPA - We all liked this locally brewed beer, but not everyone ranked it 1 or 2 (as did happen with Stone). That broke the possible tie.

#3 - Sierra Nevada's Nooner - A very solid entry into the Session IPA sweepstakes. 

4 - Flying Dog's Easy IPA - A nice, easy-drinking beer tending toward the malty.

#5 - Otter Creek's Hop Session - A great boat beer with flavor

#6 - Firestone Walker's Easy Jack - this surprised everyone. We are all big fans of Firestone Walker and their "Jack" series so when we found this a bit lacking compared to some of the others we were taken aback. It just didn't have the hop kick many of the others did.


To complete the day's "work" we reviewed three beers kindly donate by Yonkers Brewing Company (check them out at ). It was founded in 2012 as a Kickstarter project. We reviewed each of the three beer based on their style (Lager, Blonde Ale, IPA).


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Blonde Ale; ABV: 4.5%; IBUs: 22

What the Brewer Says: "This light golden ale provides the perfect jumping off point for drinkers new to craft beer. The malty body is balanced with just a touch of hops. A touch of local Hudson Valley honey is added into the kettle adding some depth to the clean ale aroma."

Pour: Moderate white head

Color: Unfiltered pale yellow

Aroma: Grassy malt

Body: Light

Taste: Balanced, light taste wit a bit of sweet honey flavor and a hint of hops

Overall Impression: We would "Leave it on the shelf" - That's our opinion, not because it is a bad beer for its style - it isn't - but because we are not really fans of the style. It would make a good jumping off point for someone dipping their toes in the Craft Beer Pool. For us, just not enough hops.

Comments: "This tastes like a golf cart beer; It really does taste better than it looks; there is a hint of bitterness on the back end; A nice summer beer; It has a few hops in it; It's a bit too bland for me; I would take this over a Bud; Maybe a boat beer; It's better than a lite beer."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: Lager; ABV: 5.2%; IBUs: 30-40

What the Brewer Says: "Our flagship. An easy drinking, accessible Vienna Lager with a balance between the rich malt character and refreshing hop presence. Copper in color this beer is made from American Bittering and Noble Aroma Hops. Not too sweet and not too bitter, a beer you can enjoy anytime."

Pour: "Decent" ecru head

Color: Buckwheat honey

Aroma: Toward the malty, but not a strong aroma - kind of a bready nose.

Body: Medium

Taste: Slightly to the bitter side of balanced

Overall Impression: "I Could Drink This"

Comments: "Not a bad beer; In fact, it's a pretty good lager; Nice lawn mower beer; Beats the hell ou of Bud, Miller, Coors and Yuengling; The aftertaste is good; If I had to drink a lager, this would be it."


The Beer Facts: STYLE: IPA; ABV: 6.0%; IBUs: 60

What the Brewer Says: "A West Coast style IPA. The rich golden malt provides the perfect canvas for the variety of hops to shine. The columbus, Centennial, Glacier, Citra and Simcoe hops create a rich aroma chock full of citrus and stone fruit."

Pour: Between "Decent" and "Guinness Class" head that is solid and doesn't go away.

Color: Unfiltered orange

Aroma: Hoppy grapefruit, pine

Body: Medium

Taste: Hoppy bitterness with notes of grapefruit and pine

Overall Impression: "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "That's what I want an IPA to taste like; It's definitely a West Coast style IPA; It screams for another swallow; There isn't much malt backbone; A great beer-way to go Yonkers!"


That's one of those expressions that we've all heard over the years. "Well, that's the exception that proves the rule." Really? I've always found that an odd expression. And at times I've found myself trying to come up with a situation that fits that expression, usually with limited success. But finally I found an excellent example: Ballantine IPA. 

Let me explain. I have said for some time now that the Mega-brews could, if the were so inclined, produce really good, full-flavored hoppy beers (or for that matter malty Stouts or Porters). The thing is, they don't because it costs a little more to use top-notch ingredients and actually put some hops in their beers II'm sorry, but "triple-hopped" doesn't mean waving some hops over the beer three times). Check out this list of The Worst Beers in the World. But the big brewers would rather spend that money on advertising - selling image rather than quality. Even more insidious are the pseudo-craft beers they put out, hiding the fact that they are produced by the big breweries, pretending to be a small, local craft brewer. I wouldn't even mind that if the beer was good. 

Now along comes the exception that proves the rule. Ballantine IPA is a beer that was enormously popular post-Prohibition and on into the 1960's. It eventually went the way of all beer not owned by A-B, Miller or Coors (and later InBev or Miller/Coors). But now Pabst Brewing, large enough to be considered a mega-brewery, has revived Ballantine IPA. I tried a bottle recently, somewhat wary that it would be another of those "IPA-in-name-only" brews that have been foisted on hop lovers by the big breweries of late. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. It pours a dark orange in color with a solid,Bud Light crowd. At 70 IBUs (compared to the aforementioned Bud Light's 6 - 8 IBUs) it is wonderfully bitter right from the start. A nice combination of hop flavors - pine, floral, earthy, spicy, grapefruit - blend with oak-tinted roasted malt. A very nice beer that proves what the big brewers could do if they so desired.
long lasting head. Right off the bat you get a hit of pine and a hint of grapefruit in the aroma, signaling good things to come. And the taste doesn't disappoint. It is surprisingly complex, especially when you consider how reasonably priced it is. You are struck immediately by the fact that this beer is not catering to the

Here's a link from All About Beer Magazine that gives some terrific background on the original Ballantine IPA and its current iteration.

And who out there remembers this jingle:

You take a ring;
And then another ring and then another ring
And then you've got three rings.
And now it's premium;
It's a very special glass of beer!

Quick Trivia: What do the three rings mentioned in the jingle (Ballantine's logo) represent?

The Answer: Purity, Body, Flavor

It also looks like a pretzel - which would go well with beer.

Below are a couple of classic Ballantine ads, one employing Mel Brooks as the 2500 year old man in an interview with Dick Cavett.

The BOTB Guys

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