Let me start by saying I love an IPA and it seems many of you do too! As the list of beer styles and alternatives to mainstream beers keeps growing, the popularity of IPAs has shown no sign of waning.
A recent 2022 report on the current trends in the craft beer market suggests IPAs still account for 40% of the total craft beers brewed.
Although some cracks have started to appear and the growth of IPA seems to have slowed down a little, sub-categories of the IPA are predicted for great things.
Sub-categories that have increased in popularity over the past few years include East Coast or New England IPAs, Hazy IPAs, Fruity IPAs, Imperial IPA, and now the Session IPA.
For those who like their beer a little less challenging on the palate, a Session IPA is the ideal way of still enjoying those hoppy aromas and flavors without the stronger ABV of your typical IPAs.
A beer you can drink quite a few of in one Session.
But isn’t it the idea that IPAs are meant to be big on everything? Isn’t that what distinguishes them from a normal American Pale Ale?
For many years the craft brewers of America seemed to be trying to out-hop each other and make IPAs that had insane levels of hops and bitterness, often with the super strong ABVs that nearly pushed them into the Double or Imperial Category.
So what’s changed, why are brewers now producing Session IPAs which have less bitterness, a lower ABV, and often less hops? Can a beer still offer the same experience as an IPA without those palate-challenging flavors and aromas?
It seems the brewers think they can, so let’s take a look at how a Session IPA stands out from your average American IPA and whether you should be trying to track down some of these newer sessionable beers.
A Quick Comparison Table of Session IPA vs IPA
|ABV||4 - 5 %||4 - 7.5%, some varieties can reach as high as 13%|
|BITTERNESS||Low||Low to High|
|ORIGIN||Introduced in late 19th Century England during a ban on drinking beer on working days apart from selected drinking slots or sessions.||19th Century England and popular as ales exported to India and other corners of the British empire.|
|BJCP CATEGORY||Doesn't exist as a subcategory||Category 21 - IPA|
What Is an IPA?
If you’re reading this article I’ll assume most of you are familiar with the term IPA, you have probably even drunk a fair few of them over the years.
But for any newbies to the craft beer scene here is a very quick breakdown of what defines an IPA.
IPA stands for India Pale Ale.
Although many people think it was invented for the purpose of exporting beers to India in the mid-19th century, it’s more likely the moniker India Pale Ale came after ex-pats returning from the UK created a demand for the hoppy beers they had enjoyed in India.
The style of an IPA, which was very hop-forward, was already a popular drink in England, but the long sea journey to India meant even more hops, as a natural preservative would be added to these pale ales and the alcohol content would be upped to keep the beer fresher for longer periods.
Hops, the flowers from the Hummulus lupulus plant, have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes due to their antibacterial properties.
These antibacterial properties of the hops, along with the higher alcohol content, explain why IPAs are so much more shelf stable than many other types of ale.
The IPAs of 19th Century England would normally use English hops such as UK Goldings, east Kent Goldings, or Fuggles, which tend to have a grassy, floral and earthy taste with a hint of spice.
In comparison, when US craft brewers started making American IPAs in the mid-80s they chose the bold American hops with big flavors of pine, citrus, and tropical fruits.
These hops also tended to be higher in alpha acid units, the part of the hop which acts as a bittering agent and adds to a beer’s bitterness level (measured in IBUs – International Units of Bitterness).
The extreme amount of hops added to the IPA by US craft brewers to take IPAs to the next level also means they need to add more malt to the ale to balance with the hops.
The more fermentable malt there is in a beer the stronger ABV it will have, with more fermentable sugars to convert to ethanol or alcohol.
Types of IPA
Many craft breweries will use different types of hops to create the many IPA variations available today.
Some may be referred to by the area where they originated, ie West Coast, East Coast, or New England, while other labels will refer to a certain characteristic of the beer, ie Black IPA, Juicy IPA, or Brut IPA.
The three most popular variants of IPA you are likely to see down at your local craft beer hangout or on the shelves of your nearest 7/11 are:
- Hazy IPAs
- Double or Imperial IPAs
- Session IPAs
A Hazy IPA gets its name from the haze which differentiates it from other normally clear IPA styles, as it is unfiltered by the brewers and retains some of that hop haze.
By comparison, an Imperial IPA or Session IPA can have many different characteristics but their name is determined by the brew’s ABV.
What Is a Session IPA?
Although it’s not officially recognized as a sub-category of the IPA style of beer by the BCJP Guidelines, for competition purposes any style of IPA can be brewed to “session” strength.
This brings up the whole subject of “session” ales and how the term “sessionable” can also be used as an adjective to describe just about any type of beer.
Session beers will typically have an ABV below 5% and often have lower calories too, although this isn’t always the case. Session beers are designed for it to be easier to drink more in a session, and, additionally, without the guilt of higher ABVs or higher calories.
They are basically the light beers of the craft beer scene in the same way Bud Light and Miller Light are the light beers of the lager world.
Many craft breweries now produce session beers for almost any type of ale. Pilsners, blonde ales, and lagers are all common types of session beers. You are unlikely to get a session stout or porter, but ale styles like pale ale and hefeweizens can be session beers too.
However, you shouldn’t confuse a session pale ale with a session IPA, even though the lines often seem blurred. A session IPA will have a pretty big difference in flavor when compared to a session Pale Ale just as the full-strength beers will have.
Session IPAs are basically India Pale Ales with a lower alcohol content than your other types of IPA. However, most Session IPAs will still have a higher ABV than regular session brews of other beer types.
Even the English IPA, not a session IPA, can often have an ABV that in the US would deem it a session beer.
A session IPA offers a lower ABV without compromising too much on flavor. The brewers still use shed loads of hops, but, with less fermentable malts to fight their way through, a session IPA will typically use half the yield of hops of a normal IPA.
The hops are the ingredient that gives a session IPA the same floral, fruity, citrussy flavors and aromas of a regular IPA.
Session IPAs are generally milder and more fruity and have more aromatic flavors so they are not too hard on the palate or overly aggressive.
Their easy drinkability makes them ideal session beers but without losing too much of the IPA flavor. They tend to be a bit more balanced than most IPAs with subtle aromatic tastes and those bitter flavors of the hops.
Like IPAs, they use a variety of hops but the use is not too overpowering and doesn’t mask the other flavors of the beer.
Food Pairings of Session IPAs vs IPA
Session IPAs tend to pair well with seafood such as slightly grilled white fish, shrimp, calamari or crabs, etc, as these foods may brighten up the lighter flavors of a session beer.
Just like a crisp pilsner, you can also pair a session IPA with hot and spicy dishes like those found in Asia. The freshness of the hops in a session IPA will help to cleanse the palate and cut down on any intense spicy flavors.
For backyard alfresco grill sessions, a Session IPA will work well with most grilled or roasted BBQ offerings like burgers or other meat options such as lamb, pork, or beef.
On the other hand, oily fish and meat work well with a regular IPA. The thick and heavy nature of an IPA strikes a balance with the oil content of the fish or meat, making the beer-drinking experience even more wholesome.
Burgers, which can often be greasy in nature, also pair well with most IPAs.
One of my favorite styles of food to pair with an IPA is Mexican food. Whether it’s tacos, tortillas, wraps, or steak, they all pair well with most IPAs, especially some of the stronger flavors like a West Coast IPA, a Double IPA, a Triple IPA, or even now a Quadruple IPA (QIPA).
The Key Differences Between a Session IPA and IPAs
To sum up – by now you should know the main differences between an IPA and regular ales (more hops, more bitter, higher ABV) and the distinction between a session beer and a regular beer (lower ABV and often lower calories).
But how exactly does a Session IPA differ from a regular IPA? Do they employ different brewing methods or is it just a case of removing some of the hops? How do they deliver that same flavor you love in an IPA but with less alcohol?
Traditionally an IPA will have an ABV which falls between 5.5% – 7.5% ABV (as defined by the BJCP Style Guidelines of 2021). Although there is no official style of Session IPA, any Specialty IPA can be brewed to a session strength which the BJCP defines as 3.0% – 5.0% ABV.
Double IPAs often range from 7.5% to 10% ABV, whereas anything over 10% will normally be referred to as a Triple IPA or even Quadruple when it reaches 12 % ABV or higher.
Although these ABVs tend to be strictly adhered to when brewing for a competition, many of the Session and Regular IPAs often cross the line into each other’s categories which makes things even more confusing.
As a rule, I would always argue anything below 5% is a session beer – if you are drinking session beers that are 8 or 9% it’s not going to be a very long session before you fall over or feel full.
Both Session IPAs and regular IPAs are brewed in the same way.
Hops don’t actually play a role in producing alcohol but are merely added as a bittering agent at the start of a brew or added toward the end of a boil for flavor and aroma. Even dry-hopping a beer won’t make it more alcoholic.
It’s the lower malt and grain content of Session IPAs which makes them lower in ABV.
To make sure the excessive amounts of hops don’t overpower the malt flavors too much, session brewers will often use a wider variety of malts to add more depth and complexity to the beer.
Although it should never have the malt backbone of a pale ale, you still want those hops to shine through, just with a little more subtlety.
Session IPA vs IPA – Final Call
The arguments about what makes an IPA a Session IPA, and even whether it should exist as a style, have raged on for the past few years among beer geeks, and probably will for the next few.
Many beer connoisseurs would argue that an IPA, especially an American IPA, isn’t meant to be mild or subtle. The whole thing about the IPA style is those big bold flavors and aromas which some believe a lower-alcohol beer just cannot deliver.
What next – a no-alcohol or low-alcohol IPA (yes, it’s already been done. Sierra Nevada even makes hop water for those lovers of hops who need an alcohol-free alternative!)?
If you like your beers hoppy, with those bright citrus flavors and often tropical fruits, the good news is there are plenty of Session IPAs on the market which are lighter beers, in both calories and alcohol, without compromising those IPA flavors too much.
Some of you would even have difficulty telling the difference at all (though sometimes I find the extra alcohol content of certain IPAs isn’t that detectable either).
It’s only a couple of hours later that you feel like you’ve had a session with Mike Tyson in the ring!
Check out our guide to the Best Session IPAs available now in the US here.