SPRING IS HERE, which means session IPAs are returning.
This style of beer takes your typical IPA (India pale ale) and reduces the alcohol content. As I like to put it, ISAs (or India session ales) offer all the IBUs (International Bitterness Units) and half the ABVs (alcohol by volume). A normal IPA might weigh in at 7 percent ABV and 60 IBU; an ISA is likely to clock in at 4.5 percent ABV and 45 IBU. Or, put another way to some folks, it's a pale ale.
Some Oregon breweries make these beers year-round. Widmer introduced Replay (4.5 ABV, 40 IBU) last year. Ninkasi's Easy Way (4.7 ABV, 44 IBU) rolled out in January. Bend's Crux unleashed Off Leash (4.5 ABV, 30 IBU). Breakside created Lunch Break (4.7 ABV, 28 IBU)—a beer that earned a silver medal in the quixotic, new Australian-style pale ale category at the World Beer Cup last week, so maybe "Australian-style" is the new "session."
An unwritten but oft-spoken rule is that an ISA needs to be less than 5 ABV. Some folks may remember 10 Barrel's cheater ISA with a cumbersome 5.5 percent. Yet Dutch brewer Emelisse makes a fantastic, citrusy, and diminutive 2.5 ABV for X-treme sessionability.
These beers started showing up en masse two or three years ago. Lest ye think of session IPAs as a silly fad (Ballast Point Even Keel—a 3.8 percenter—debuted in 2006), consumers have always loved drinking bitter, flavorful beers long into the night without reaching oblivion.
Made to Be Broken
Brewers strive for balance—a symbiosis of malty sweetness and hoppy fruity, floral, or herbal notes. But session IPAs are deliberately out of balance.
Are beer drinkers falling out of love with pale ales? Hard to say. On one hand, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains the best-selling craft beer in the country. Then again, many new breweries' tap boards, like recently opened Great Notion and Grixsen, offer one or more IPAs, yet neither offers a pale ale. Six months ago, Grixsen's brewer DJ Moxley told the Mercury that he would not cave and brew an IPA; he's currently developing an imperial IPA. Because it's damn near impossible not to make something with the letters I, P, and A in it. And that's half the reason behind session IPAs.
India pale ale is, naturally, a hopped-up version of a pale ale, but many consumers are leery of ordering a pale. It sounds so '90s to them. One indicator of the industry's leeriness of using the term "pale ale" is that at the last Great American Beer Festival, session IPAsw were new among the 92 different beer categories. With 161 entries, it was the largest field ever in a debut category, and edged out the 160 beers among the American-style pale ales.
'Tis the Season?
Fresh-hop beers are only available after the late summer harvest into early autumn. Then we get pumpkin beers. Then stouts and heavy dark beers come out of hiding. Blondes, helles, and, increasingly, radlers rule summertime. But IPA is the most season-defying style.
It should stand to reason that ISAs are year-rounders, too. Yet few brewing companies offer them as such. But, truth be told, this Lush Life column was conceived as a roundup of all the ISAs currently on shelves until our furtive eye spotted loads of "born on" dates that predated the season six premiere of Game of Thrones. The problem with an older hoppy beer is that hop flavor and aroma degrade over time, which can mean the beer tastes maltier and possibly of wet cardboard if oxygen has seeped in. (Oxygen can actually seep into bottles, not cans.)
The Fred Meyer on SE Hawthorne yielded seven such beers. The store's also notorious for its craft beer volume. Fort George's Big Guns was canned on January 12. Sitting next to it on the shelf was the Astoria brewery's Vortex IPA packaged on March 16 and Optimist IPA, dated March 24. Widmer Replay appeared to be bottled on February 8, while their Upheaval IPA perched nearby was roughly seven weeks fresher. Ninkasi Easy Way was tattooed with an enjoy-by date of May 31.
Ninkasi Vice President of Sales Per Nielsen said via email, "The brand has been performing satisfactorily and we are waiting for the spring sets at the chains to be finalized before we will have true picture of how the brand is selling."
Maybe ISAs are destined to become or remain seasonal offerings. Hop Valley's Neon Prince (4.5 ABV, 25 IBU) is now enjoying its limited availability in six-packs around town, as is the newly released Hop Slice (4.5 ABV, 45 IBU) from Deschutes. Maybe for ultimate freshness, just find ISAs on draft. An unfiltered iteration of Hop Slice that's actually brewed at the Deschutes brewpub in the Pearl is scheduled to tap soon. Snicker if you must, but with nearly 30 pubs in Portland, McMenamins Jam Session IPA (4.7 ABV, 51 IBU) is fresh on tap throughout May and more than holds its own against all the ISAs taste-tested above.