What Is A Session IPA?

Published on July 13th 2022 by SNBC

While the India Pale Ale style (IPA) no doubt orbits around hops, you’ve got options like a color wheel — all the tints, tones, shades and welcome to the rabbit hole. That’s precisely why craft beer is a thrill. Brewers have furiously innovated around IPA in recent years, testing new ingredients, inventing dry-hopping techniques and even mashing up ale vs. lager. No matter what you’re craving or the vibe you’re feeling, there’s an IPA to match the moment.

Part of your IPA decision likely includes alcohol content, or the alcohol by volume (ABV) listed on bar menus and packaged beer. The occasion when you grab a 6.7% ABV Hazy Little Thing IPA may be different from the lofty 11% ABV Hoptimum Triple IPA. (Is this a quick happy hour, or are you anchored to an armchair for the night?)

And then there’s the Session IPA, which aims for low ABV yet lots of hop flavor so you can enjoy multiple in one sitting.

What Is A Session Beer?

Grab another round! Session beers are easy to repeat because of their lower alcohol content and general perception as being less filling. Whatever your “session” — an evening on the rooftop, gathered around a campfire, front row at the concert — you want a beer that keeps the good times going, not sends people packing.

A group of friends relaxing with Sierra Nevada beers at a campsite

At the store, you might spot beers with “session” in the name, but IPA doesn’t own that title and numerous other beers hit the mark. Our 5% ABV Summerfest lager is crisp, golden, and prime for session times. Or kick back with the citrus bliss of Sunny Little Thing, also 5% ABV.

Session IPA vs IPA

With so many IPA substyles, trying to define “regular” IPA is mostly futile. But consider two pillars of IPA: the West Coast IPA and the Hazy IPA.

The longstanding West Coast IPA is known for clean yet assertive bitterness, a nice malt balance, and piney-citrus aromas. The ABV can be steep, like our West Coast-inspired Torpedo Extra IPA at 7.2%. Conversely, our Hazy Little Thing IPA downplays bitterness, uses specialty grains for a silky mouthfeel, and its haze enhances those “juicy” hop flavors.

Session IPAs borrow those very attributes we love about other IPAs. After all, their goal is the same: huge hop expression. But nailing that super-low ABV creates a unique brewing challenge.

How Are Session IPAs Brewed?

The copper kettles at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in North Carolina

Scott Jennings, our Innovation Brewmaster, explains that a key pitfall of Session IPAs can be a “kind of empty, watery, thin impression.” Brewers have to compensate for that, he says, “and that’s typically done in the mash tun with grist changes and temperature manipulation.”

This mashing strategy creates a higher ratio of unfermentable malt sugars — stuff that yeast can’t eat — and they’ll contribute to more body in a Session IPA. Yet that’s just part of the equation, Scott says. Ingredients like oats and wheat, both high in protein content, can help impart a velvety texture to a Session IPA.

“So when you combine the two — those creamy elements from the oats and wheat, and the complex malt sugars,” Scott says, “then you get a rounded effect where you’ve got really a full flavor and mouthfeel.”

Hit that target and you’ve got a Session IPA that ranks among the best summer beers.

Summer Break: Sierra Nevada’s Session Hazy IPA

A can and full glass of Summer Break IPA

At just 4.6% ABV, Summer Break IPA is brewed for long days of play — whether that’s launching off the rope swing or lounging by the pool. Balanced by that all-important malt body, Summer Break’s six hop varieties (yup, six!) are carefully placed along the brewing process.

“We’re really looking to build in the brewhouse a very solid and very distinctly orange citrus character,” Scott says, “and then in the dry-hopping we’re looking to add on top of that, for aroma, the tropical elements and a little bit of pineyness.”

And for Scott, the bitterness level, measured as international bitterness units (IBU), is ideal for summer drinking.

“Thirty IBU is really the perfect place for Summer Break where you know it’s a hoppy beer, but it’s very drinkable because it’s not overly bitter — and certainly the bitterness doesn’t linger,” he says. “So that repeatability, that crushability is really a part of the balance.”

Grab this cannonball of hops before the seasons change.

Find Summer Break IPA


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