In the previous decade, brewers pushed the envelope farther than it had ever gone in terms of alcohol content, barrel-aging and experimental yeast strains -- and beer geeks loved them for it. To peruse a list of the top-rated beers in the world was to see a list of the most intensely flavored and inebriating beer styles that exist: quadrupels; gueuzes; barrel-aged barleywines; imperial stouts; imperial IPAs; imperial anythings. But the craft beer market is still a market -- when shifted too far to one end, corrections must occur. Around 2010, drinkers began realizing that, lovely as they are for a nightcap, 15 percent ABV stouts aged in bourbon barrels are not conducive to many hours of drinking -- and they're shit to sip on the golf course. A gradual shift toward drinkable, low-alcohol beers that still maintained big flavor profiles had begun.
Today, we call these beverages "session beers." The term comes to us from across the pond, where British pubgoers began using it in the 80s to describe beer of low alcohol content (in England, strictly below 4 percent ABV) that would enable a drinker to imbibe multiple pints in an evening without getting stumbling drunk. Though big brews still reign supreme, session beer is becoming more popular in the U.S. thanks to the efforts of tireless beer geeks like Lew Bryson and his Session Beer Project (an "unorganized, unofficial effort to popularize and support the brewing and enjoyment of session beers") as well as major brewers who've begun selling low-alcohol, high-flavor versions of the most popular beer style in the country: IPA.
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"Session IPAs," as they're known, are differentiated from a very similar style known as American pale ale by being typically lower in alcohol and more hop-dominant in flavor and aroma profiles. Now, an argument can be made that this new "session IPA" category is simply a gratuitous rebranding of an existing style -- one that I'd agree with and promise to address in a future column. Not arguable, however, are the characteristics that make these beers so amazing in warm weather: insubstantial bodies, a snappy hop flavors and impressive thirst-quenching abilities.Below are my favorite session IPAs this year. Try them all in one day -- that's what they're made for.
Firestone Walker Easy Jack | 4.5 percent ABV Constructed with a blend of experimental hops that includes Mandarina and Melon from Germany as well as Mosaic from New Zealand and America, Easy Jack's aroma is something to write poetry about: candied tangerine peel, orange pulp, fresh grass, dried lavender, earthy honey, a backing of saltine crackers and white bread. But the real draw with this brew is, surprisingly, the body, which seems less dense than water and almost fluffy. Each sip is like licking goosedown.
Four Peaks Short Hop | 5.2 percent ABV Brewed to usher in the baseball season, this new seasonal from Four Peaks boasts a bit more bitterness and alcohol (5.2 percent) than others in this list. Grassy, resinous hops are at the forefront, but the malt backbone displays impressive depth for a beer this light -- thanks, no doubt, to the small amount of rye it's brewed with.
Stone Go To IPA | 4.5 percent ABV This beer gets its dank, pine- and peach-accented hop flavor through what Stone refers to as the "hop bursting" technique, a brewing process in which all or most of the beer's bitterness comes from late hop additions, like at the end of boil and in the whirlpool, instead of the more traditional approach. The method gives the beer tons of aroma and a somewhat mellow bitterness.
Lagunitas DayTime | 4.6 percent ABV With a new production facility in Chicago, Lagunitas increased brewing capacity and announced this brew, which premiered in very limited quantities last year, would become a year-round offering. That's good, because the hop aroma alone -- packed with grapefruit and so bright you need sunglasses to sniff it -- is worth grabbing a sixer for.
Arizona Wilderness Little Guy Rye | 3.7 percent ABV This lil' guy is brewed with Nelson Sauvin, a hop variety from New Zealand named for its similarity in character to sauvignon blanc grapes. That gentle fruity character provides enticing balance to a backbone of sharp rye malt and delivers one of the most impressive flavor-to-alcohol-content ratios you'll find in all of beer.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.