Don’t get me wrong I love a great IPA, sometimes even a Double or Imperial IPA.
American IPAs offer those bold, beautiful floral, and citrussy aromas and taste with that big hop profile.
And it seems I’m not alone, recent data from the trade magazine “Beverage Industry” states that the IPA continues to dominate the craft beer market with a 46% share of the overall craft beer sales.
However, sometimes you just want a beer you can drink for a single session without feeling like you have had a big night out. A beer that is easier to drink, lower in alcohol, maybe even lower in calories but still has that same flavor as an IPA, just a little less of it.
Enter the session IPA.
The last few years have seen a surge of craft breweries releasing more session beers, in particular the session IPA.
Many of the larger and more mainstream breweries that are well known for their American IPAs, West Coast or Hazy New England are now brewing Session IPAs.
Spoiler alert: They’re pretty damn tasty
Let’s take a look at what makes a beer a session IPA, and we’ll rank some of the best Session IPAs you can find in a store near you below.
What Is a Session Beer?
The word session has generally been used in the beer industry to describe any beer that is lower in alcohol content.
It can be applied to any style of beer, not just an IPA, but the session IPA is, without doubt, the most popular of the session beers here in the US.
While debating with a few of my beer-loving buddies, we decided that session is about more than just a lower ABV. Session is about the drinkability of a beer. The word sessionable is often used as an adjective to replace “easy to drink” in many beer descriptions.
Many would argue an adjunct lager like Bud Light is the best session beer. It meets all the requirements, is lower in ABV (therefore fewer calories), and is very easy to drink.
But we craft beer drinkers like our bolder flavors/aromas and if ever a beer needed a toned-down, sessionable version it’s the darling of the craft beer scene, the IPA.
The current number 1 IPA in the world according to the esteemed beer review site, ratebeer.com, is AleSmith IPA. A San Diego classic, it has an ABV of 7.3% and a bitterness rating of 73 IBUs.
Hardly easy-drinking stuff – drinking 2 or 3 in a single session can be a challenge for both your tastebuds and your sobriety.
With an average ABV of 8%, most IPA can blow your palate out after just one beer. A session IPA tends to be a bit softer around the edges.
Think of Session IPAs as the Goldilocks of the IPA world, not too hoppy, not too bitter, and not too high in alcohol, instead, they are just right.
As a style they are not officially recognized by the esteem BJCP Beer Style Guidelines of 2021, instead, they are categorized under the style of ” 21B – Speciality IPA” which deems that any specialty IPA which is to be described as session should have an ABV between 3% and 5%.
As the Specialty IPAs category includes IPAs as diverse as a Black IPA, Belgian IPA, Red IPA, White IPA, Rye IPA, and Brut IPA there are very few other style guidelines to follow.
Basically, the main difference between a session IPA and a regular IPA will be the lower ABV.
Although they will still generally be a more hoppy beer than an American Pale Ale (which also has session variants) and have those same big floral and citrussy, sometimes piney, aromas, they will normally be less dominant than in a regular IPA.
If you like your hop-forward beers, Session IPAs are now available all year round. You can take them on a trail with you, enjoy them after a long bike ride or run, and even pack for those long football parties, with the lower calories, carbs, and alcohol ideal for more active lifestyles.
The Best Session IPAs
With every mainstream craft brewer now brewing session IPAs all year round, let’s take a look at some of these fantastic beers.
We have tried to limit the session strength to the 3.0-5.0% ABV dictated by the BJCP guidelines, but some may have crept up to around 6.5% ABV, however, these can still be deemed sessionable compared to their older siblings, the American IPA.
1. Bell’s Brewery Light Hearted Ale by Bell’s Brewery, Michigan
It was way back in 1997 that Bell’s debuted their, now iconic, IPA Two Hearted Ale, and there’s even an Imperial IPA version called Double Two Hearted Ale (11% ABV) which is only available in the early fall months.
Fortunately, Bell’s session IPA offering, Light Hearted Ale is available all year round and was first launched in 2020.
Clocking in at just 100 calories, 8.7 grams of carbs, and a lower 3.7 ABV, the latest addition to the Two Hearted family retains all the flavor and punch that has made Two Hearted Ale a firm favorite of American beer geeks across the States, including many rival breweries.
To be honest, Light Hearted Ale packs in more flavor than any 100-calorie beer should be able to offer.
Although it lists only malts, hops, and water as the main ingredients, nothing too calorific there, there is a healthy dose of Centennial and Galaxy hops, giving every sip a balance of citrus, floral notes, pine, and malt.
Bell’s Light Hearted Ale is an incredibly refreshing ale and the best news is it’s now available in 43 states and Puerto Rico. You can even use Bell’s Beer Finder to locate one near you now.
2. Lagunitas DayTime IPA by Lagunitas
Lagunitas IPA is one of the most well-known IPAs in the world, and, now the company is wholly owned by Heineken, it’s one that enjoys the widest distribution of any of the beers we have listed here.
You’ll probably even find a few bottles of their beer when holidaying in far-off destinations like Europe or S.E Asia.
With a listing of only 97 calories, 3 measly carbs (“less carbs than a banana and easier to peel” boasts the Lagunitas website) and an ABV of 4% you could be forgiven for thinking this beer will have less taste than a can of cheap soda.
Fortunately, this Session IPA, while lacking some of the body and mouthfeel of other Session ales we looked at, is jam-packed full of the flavors you expect from a Lagunitas beer and combines drinkability with those intense flavors.
Herbal and tropical notes come from the plentiful Centennial and Citrus hops, with oats that have been added contributing an almost pillow-like fluffy feel to the palate. Very easy to drink with just a modicum of bitterness that you don’t always find in a Session beer.
Lagunitas quote that it’s the perfect beer for when there’s still work to do or even work to avoid.
3. Jai Low by Cigar City Brewing, Florida
Jai Alai from Cigar City Brewing, the big IPA brother to Jai Low, still enjoys a reputation as one of the country’s most successful IPAs.
In 2019, this signature IPA from the Tampa-based brewery was the second best-selling 6-pack of craft beer in the US, a position it still holds today.
A year later in 2020 Cigar City launched Jai Low as a 4% ABV Session IPA for the unsuspecting beer fans of this Tampa-based brewery. In the press release, they referred to it as “a moderate-bodied, lower alcohol approach to hop-forward beer”.
Chief Brewmaster Wayne Wambles at Cigar City claims he used a British ordinary bitter as inspiration for Jai Low, which expertly balances the hop character of an American IPA with the session ability of English beer styles for a flavourful yet light and fruity IPA style.
Tropical and bright with a full flavor, Jai Low lowers the intensity of their regular IPA. Citrus aromas and flavors with a bread-like maltiness combine with a moderate level of bitterness of just 35 IBUs.
Distribution-wise, Cigar City is now available in over 30 states through the CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective distribution network.
You could always use the Beer Locator which can be found on the Cigar City website to track down your nearest stockist of this fine session IPA.
4. Sierra Nevada Summer Break by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., California
Only a summer seasonal at the moment, be sure to try and pick up a can or two (preferably a 6-pack) of Sierra Nevada’s latest hazy session IPA next Summer Break.
Only available from April to June (surely it should be called Spring Break?), this Hazy IPA is ideal for those longer days with its refreshing taste of hoppy notes of mango and passion fruit with a smooth malt flavor from the oats, 2-row malts and wheat used in its grain bill.
As you would expect from Sierra Nevada, it’s loaded with hops including Amarillo, Chinook, Comet, Mosaic, Simcoe, and the rarely seen Strisselspalt hop variant for a session ale which screams flavor but still maintains an easy-to-drink IBU of just 30.
Luckily Sierra Nevada distributes this quality Session IPA to all fifty states and even internationally too. Just remember to grab it while it’s about for that short 3-month period.
5. Founders All Day IPA by Founders Brewing Co., Michigan
Founders are one of the true pioneers of the session style of beers, having first released their All Day IPA back in 2010.
They now produce an All Day Series which includes an All Day Session wheat ale (All Day Vacay), a session cold IPA (All Day Chill Day), and a session Hazy IPA (All Day Haze) in addition to their groundbreaking All Day IPA.
Very big in IPA flavors with a clear-clear headed ABV strength, Founders is considered by many to be the gold standard of Session IPAs. It’s more aggressively hopped than many Session IPAs but also has a very tropical taste to it.
Aromatics of grapefruit and mango dominate the nose of this beer with flavors of pineapple chased by a resinous pine.
The moderate bitterness, though, reminds you this is an IPA, if only a session IPA. What’s impressive is just how much character this beer delivers in such a modest session IPA.
6. Summit Triumphant Session IPA by Summit Brewing, Minnesota
Summit Brewing knows a thing or two about brewing hoppy pale ales and IPAs, after all, they brewed their very first way back in the 80s.
Still independently owned and operated, the latest addition to the Summit beers family is this low-calorie (only 95 calories per can), low-ABV session IPA, which is still a full-flavored beer with a perfect balance of malt and bitterness added to the refreshing notes of ripe pineapple, grapefruit, and apricot-like stone fruit character.
The balanced bitterness comes from the complex selection of hops which include UK Golding, Cascade, Pilgrim, Amarillo, and some experimental hops.
Combined with a grain bill of US Pale Malt, Malted wheat, Dark Crystal, Carafoam, and Victory specialty malts, the result is a brew that has all the taste of a traditional IPA but with a fraction of the ABV.
Flavors of bread crust and sweet citrus are followed by a clean, bitter finish.
7. Oskar Blues One-y 100 Calorie Hazy IPA by Oskar Blues Brewery, Colorado
Oskar Blues added this super refreshing session IPA to their portfolio in 2019 as a year-round, low-cal, low-ABV beer. As the name One-y 100 Calorie suggests, it only contains 100 calories per can yet still manages to deliver that IPA flavor we all love so much.
Known for their other big, bold IPAs such as Can-o-Bliss and Deviant Dales, Oskar Blues followed the same path with their session IPA to deliver a beer with punchy hoppy flavors without the higher ABV or calories.
One-y 100 Calorie is dry hopped with El Dorado, Comet, and Citra with Mosaic and French Aramais hops being added in the whirlpool stage. A grain bill of pale ale malts along with wheat balances the hops with a fluffy, malty backbone.
A fruity beer, there are notes of citrus, peach, honeysuckle, and mango along with a haze from the hops and a nice, biscuity flavor.
Check out Oskar Blue’s brew Finder to local the calorie crusher One-y Calorie Hazy IPA near you.
8. Beavertown Neck Oil Session IPA by Beavertown Brewing, London, UK
You may be wondering how a craft beer from the other side of the pond sneaks into a review of American Session IPAs, but this one is just too good to pass up – it even won the Gold Medal at the 2020 International Beer Challenge.
If you regularly frequent any craft beer tap rooms or craft bars here in the US you will probably have come across Beavertown’s range of beers, which can be easily recognized by their distinctive off-the-wall graffiti can labeling.
Neck Oil is Beavertown’s first take on a Session IPA and, despite its relatively low ABV, has a robustness with a tinge of grapefruit that can stand up to any regular IPA.
One of the more aggressively bitter Session IPAs, you may find that, despite this beer being light and crisp, a session may only mean one or two cans before it challenges your palate.
Using Columbus, Centennial, Simcoe, Amarillo, Galaxy, Vic Secret, and Mosaic hops, it’s certainly a hop-forward beer like the boozy brews we are used to here in the US, but with that all-important lower ABV putting it firmly in the Session IPA category.
9. The Coachman Session IPA by Societe Brewing Company, San Diego
This session IPA from San Diego-based Societe Brewing was the first beer to win a Great American Beer Festival Gold in 2015 when the session IPA category was introduced. To date, it’s one of the only 2 breweries to win a Gold Medal for a Session IPA.
With hints of orange and lemon zest mingling with floral notes of the hops, it is balanced with a doughy malty base, with some describing it like tangerine marmalade spread over a cracker.
The beer judges at GBAF described it as about as well balanced as a Session IPA. High praise indeed!
Although not as widely distributed as some of the larger breweries’ Session IPAs we have featured, if you are ever in downtown San Diego you really should check out their tap room where you will also find some great tacos produced every day on-site at the brewery by the Chachos Taco Crew.
Beer and tacos – a combination that is hard to beat!
10. Knickbackrelax Crushable India Pale Ale by AleSmith, San Diego
For our final Session IPA, we go back to the AleSmith Brewery of San Diego, which you may remember produces one of the most consistently highly rated IPAs in the world, currently standing at number one on the ratebeer.com website.
The only beer in our list which doesn’t feature the words Session IPA on its packaging, AleSmith instead describes this as a “Crushable” IPA, and it certainly is, with an ABV of just 4.2% and a low IBU of 13.
Calorie-wise, it comes in at just 120 cals per can but is loaded with flavors such as juicy notes of grapefruit, mango, and coconut, with a light body and a crisp, smooth finish.
It may lack the bitterness of some Session IPAs but makes up for it in the fruity flavors, and it is certainly a beer that won’t challenge your tastebuds too much on your next session.