Session IPA, the hottest sub-category of beer’s hottest style, has me thinking.
A question runs through my mind nearly every time I sip on one of the low ABV, highly hopped brews and like deja vu, a wave of reactions are signaled from my nose and taste buds: doesn’t this taste familiar?
(Tongue somewhat planted in cheek)
The creation and purpose of these beers is simply an extension of trends we see with hop-forward brews. As aroma hops continue to take up more acreage on farms across the country and drinkers favor certain flavor characteristics, the session IPA is a perfect storm of raw ingredients and expectations.
But do these beers often taste the same (to me, at least) because they’re using the same hops? Or, at least, how the hops are used? Typical brewing practice for these beers relies on “hop bursting,” adding a large quantity at the end or after boiling in order to maximize aromatic oils and minimize bitterness.
Across the most widely distributed session IPAs (so we’ll also assume some of the highest selling ones) four hops lead the way: Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe. Why might these beers share a similar profile? Here’s a breakdown of eight session IPAs and hops that appear in their recipe:
|21st Amendment Down to Earth||Y|
|Oskar Blues Pinner||Y||Y|
|Saranac Gen IV||Y||Y|
|New Belgium Slow Ride||Y||Y||Y||Y|
|Harpoon Take 5||Y||Y|
|Founders All Day IPA||Y||Y|
|Stone Go To IPA||Y||Y|
|Firestone Walker Easy Jack||Y|
If you caught my post on current trends in hop usage, the chart probably makes sense, especially when it’s led by five beers featuring Mosaic, 2015’s “Hop of the Year.” Not surprisingly, Easy Jack – cited as a “best beer” in both 2014 and 2015 by my own analysis – uses Mosaic along with two of the more “exotic” varieties found in these recipes, Bavarian Mandarina and Hallertau Melon.
Of note, Oskar Blues doesn’t list the “six to eight” hops used in their boil of Pinner, but highlight Citra and Mosaic as the pivotal pieces of their dry hopping, which makes sense as drinkers definitely want the brewery to milk as much out of those two hops as possible.
Looking at this bunch, arguably my favorite of the lot is Harpoon’s Take 5. While the taste may offer a recognized experience, the “New England” take of a stronger balance between hops and malt is nice. But the biggest difference is what separates Take 5 from being hop water.
Brewers at Harpoon mash their grain for Take 5 at higher temperatures (160 to 161 degrees F) which leaves more unfermentable sugars that contribute to a fuller body. In a category that’s constantly expanding – 161 entries in GABF’s session IPA category in 2015! – small changes like that can certainly help a beer stand out from the pack.
Which leaves me pondering more about the style: if so many are ending up with interchangeable tastes, why aren’t more breweries taking another route?
As aroma hops continue to be thrown into more of our favorite IPAs and pale ales, would it make sense to counter the culture and (gasp) use more “traditional” hops as the basis for these beers? Would being a showcase for Cascade, Centennial or Chinook offer something new that people would want?
Because these beers are super easy to drink, and I could definitely go for something new.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac