Beer drinkers are seemingly spoiled for choice at the moment, with new styles, flavor combinations, and brands hitting the shelves each and every day.
Of all the beer styles available, though, the IPA — or India Pale Ale — still remains one of the most popular for its intense hoppiness, high alcohol content, and diversity of flavors.
But now, a new style of IPA has seen a rise in popularity: the session IPA.
“Session,” when used to describe a beer, tends to mean a beer with a lower alcohol content, meaning you can drink more of them at a time — one session.
Session beers are perfect for those hot summer days when you might want to try a variety of flavors or have something to sip on without the worry of getting too drunk too fast like you would with a higher-alcohol beer.
Let’s take a look at the origins of session IPAs and just why this subcategory of beers is so popular.
How Did Session Beers Get Their Name?
One popular theory regarding how session beers got their name dates back to the First World War and wartime factory workers in England.
The English government was concerned about factory workers, especially those making weapons, consuming alcohol on the job. As a result, the 1914 Defense of the Realm Act limited the hours when alcohol could be sold.
Periods of time, or “sessions,” where beer could be sold in pubs were limited to twice a day — midday to around 2:45 p.m., and 6:30 p.m to 10:30 p.m.
Restricting the “sessions” in which workers could drink ensured they were at least slightly more sober when making weapons and bombs.
As sessions often fell between working shifts, commercial brewers needed to create versions of beers that workers could drink in average quantities and still be fit to return to work. This led to the creation of the term “session beer.”
Others argue the term simply refers to lower ABV beers, milds, and bitters drunk in U.K. pubs at lunchtime or in the early evening hours.
In either case, we’ve come to use “session” as a catch-all term to describe lower ABV versions of popular beers — it isn’t necessarily a style, but rather a descriptor.
Some might argue that to be considered a session beer, the drink’s ABV shouldn’t exceed 3% or 4%, just like those workers’ pints back in old Blighty. The BJCP however, defines a “session beer” as having anywhere between 3% and 5% alcohol by volume.
Still, some brewers make session ales with higher ABVs — but if you need a session beer with a 7% or 8% ABV, you might need to ask yourself a few questions!
What Makes a Session IPA?
An IPA became the favorite beer of many smaller U.S. craft beer producers in the 1970s. As independent brewers began experimenting with older, half-forgotten beer styles, they found the IPA style lent itself well to experimentation and creativity.
The addition of American hops rather than the traditional European hops also meant IPAs appealed more to patriotic American craft beer enthusiasts.
However, IPAs are generally quite strong, with an ABV of 6% or more, and have a strong, hoppy body and bitter flavor profile — not the kind of beer you’re likely to be drinking several of in one session.
And so the basic idea of a flavorful, tasty beer with that same hoppy goodness and a lower ABV led to the term “session IPA” being introduced.
One of the first session IPAs was the Founders All Day IPA — still the gold standard that most session IPAs are measured by today. With 4.7% ABV, it is slightly higher than a classic British-styled sessionable pale beer, but it still falls below that top end 5% ABV set by BCJP.
An IBU (bitterness rating) of 42 gives it a slightly lower level of bitterness than a traditional IPA, but still enough for the hops to remain the dominant flavor for most craft beer lovers.
What’s the Difference Between a Pale Ale and a Session IPA?
Session IPAs can be controversial beers among many beer gurus who argue that an IPA should be an unashamedly punchy, hoppy beer with an ABV aiming for the higher end of the scale.
Why “water it down” into a less bitter beer with lower ABV? Surely the British-styled sessional pale ale category already exists for this reason!
Cynics would argue the IPA moniker has simply been added to these more pale styles of beer as a ploy by brewers to cash in on the darling of the craft beer movement — the IPA.
It’s a fine line for even the most skilled brewers to craft a session IPA that doesn’t taste too much like a pale ale.
Generally, IPAs should be hoppier and drier than a pale ale. Pale ales typically use about 10% crystal malt, while IPAs contain less than 5% crystal malt, meaning they lack the caramel flavor often found in the former.
Higher levels of hop bitterness further define an IPA, and session IPAs should still aim for an IBU of over 40, as defined by the BCJP, to differentiate it from a pale ale.
The Bottom Line on Session IPAs
I personally love a good IPA beer — it’s one of my favorite types of beer.
In my opinion, anything which enables me to try more of at each session without getting too intoxicated is a bonus — as long as it retains the same hoppy flavor and a reasonable amount of bitterness, the ABV isn’t a big issue.
A session IPA is a type of IPA with less hops and a lower alcohol content, sometimes resembling more of an old-fashioned pale ale.
But here’s a crazy thought: If you like the taste, does the label matter?
Some of our favorite session IPAs include Lagunitas All Day IPA, Swamp Head Brewery Day Trippin’, and the original All Day IPA by Founders.
Note the names all include “day,” which emphasizes the lower ABV and their suitability for session drinking, all day!
One session IPA even cheekily refers to itself as a “breakfast” IPA: Southern Prohibition Devil’s Harvest. Now that’s my type of beer — a breakfast beer!