"It lacks balance!"
"This style is nothing more than a gimmick."
These are just a few of the things the beer community had to say about the American IPA when it first started hitting shelves. Same for the American Black Ale (or Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA...or whatever you want to call it). And now it's happening again.
Meet the Session IPA.
Session IPAs (sometimes called Fractional IPAs) are the newest trend to hit the craft beer community, and they've been causing more than a few beer advocates to lose their mind. The basis for the style is a beer with the hop forward flavor profile of an IPA that maintains a sessionable drinkability. This seems simple enough. So why are the brains of hop heads and traditionalists alike exploding all over the country?
For some people, the issue is with the recipe. Session IPAs have all the hops of an IPA without any of the malt to back it up and "balance" it out. Others seem to think the style is an example of American craft brewers watering down their product. We'll come back to those two topics in a minute, but the biggest issue for most seems to be in the name itself.
Session IPA. The conjunction of a session beer and an American IPA. "Session" has been used for years to describe lower alcohol versions of other styles, usually for beers under 4.0% to 4.5% ABV. And American IPAs are hop forward, high alcohol brews with enough malty sweetness to balance out the bitterness (though, the degree to which they are balanced can vary depending on what part of the country you're in).
Those who have an issue with the name tend to fall into one of two camps; they either claim Session IPAs aren't "sessions" because the ABV usually lands somewhere between 4.5% and 5.0%, or they say IPAs by definition are not supposed to be sessionable. So, let's forget the name for a minute. Instead of Session IPAs, let's just call them...Beer.
How's that new All Day Beer from Founders? What about the Go To Beer from Stone? Take away for a minute the expectation of a sub 4% beer. Take away the expectation of what you've gotten to know as a balanced hoppy beer. This is a Beer. It's a new beer. Just take a sip. There's a huge explosion of hoppy flavor upfront! Then, as quick as it bursts onto your tongue, it's gone. A crisp, clean finish that leaves you ready for another drink. And (by American craft beer standards) the ABV is relatively low, so you can repeat the process as many times as you want.
These beers are packed with flavor, yet surprisingly light and refreshing. These are the next wave of extreme beers*. And just like every new extreme beer style that has come before them, Session IPAs are facing accusations of being nothing more than a gimmick. Of being nothing more than a ploy for cheap market share.
Every new style has had to go through this at one point or another. And every new style that outlasted the criticism has brought with it a new wave of consumers. New styles create inroads into the world of craft beer for a whole new market of beer drinkers.
And if you are wondering, yes, calling a beer an "IPA" does help it sell in today's market. Is it misleading? Do you really feel duped?
What's the legitimate issue here? Craft beer has been a niche product (dare we say) for far too long. As popular as craft beer has become, it still makes up less than 8% of the total beer market by volume. Breweries have been looking for ways to get a bigger piece of the pie for years; and now that they've found a way to get it, beer advocates want to quibble over the name of the style. Or they want to trash the style because it doesn't match their own specific palate preferences. Or maybe, secretly, they just want to keep all the craft beer for themselves.
Session IPAs are the gateway beers of the future.
Don't like the style profile?
There's nothing wrong with that; drink something else.
Don't like the name?
We're open to new ideas; come up with another one.
Don't want craft beer to get any bigger?
Just get out of the way.
*An extreme beer can be any beer that pushes the limits of what beer is currently understood to be. 20 years ago it was the IPA. 10 years ago we started seeing high-ABV and barrel-aged beers. More recently, we've seen all-wheat brews and beers with hot peppers added to them. Session IPAs are extreme in that brewers are packing an unprecedented amount of hops into light bodied beers.
Just like the craft beer industry, we grow by word of mouth. If you like what you read, please help us spread the word. Cheers!