For four years, Ipswich’s Notch Brewing has been spreading the gospel of session beer. Coined to describe brews you can drink more than one of in any given session without feeling tired or getting drunk, the term “session” is loosely defined. Generally, beers that qualify are 4.5 percent alcohol by volume or lower.
Notch’s business model is based on selling only these beers, in styles that range from Pilsners to Belgian Tafelbiers, traditionally enjoyed by Belgian families at mealtime. Notch has pushed session hard, but when the brewery debuted Left of the Dial IPA as a year-round beer last March, founder Chris Lohring wrote a blog post explaining why he didn’t explicitly call it a “session” IPA.
“It’s simply an IPA, because when I formulated the recipe, I wasn’t thinking of how I could dumb down a 6 to 7 percent ABV IPA,” Lohring wrote. “I thought about what I want in an IPA in the first place, and built it ground up.”
Lohring has been using “session” for close to 20 years, gleaned from brewers he apprenticed under. In the last few years consumers and other breweries have taken note of the trend. This summer, several major breweries are releasing session IPAs marketed as hoppy, flavorful beers you can take to the beach or drink with lunch. I recently tried four of these brews.
Firestone Walker Easy Jack: Introduced this year, Easy Jack is a summer seasonal weighing in at 4.5 percent ABV. My bottle pours the color of pale straw into a tulip glass. To the nose wafts serious pine and some grapefruit, a product of Bavarian Mandarina, Hallertau Melon, and New Zealand and American Mosaic hops. Behind this pungent aroma is a beer with a full body and good balance.
Founders All Day IPA: Founders is known for brewing exceptional high-alcohol beers, but the Michigan brewery may be doing the most to bring session IPA to the masses. All Day IPA is readily available, and consumers can now purchase it in 15-packs of cans, the extra portability being useful for hikes and trips to the cabin.
All Day IPA pours with a bit of an orange hue. There’s a ton of grapefruit in the nose of this beer, much more citrus than in the last. The taste is where these beers differ drastically. All Day IPA is illustrative of what a session IPA might be. It’s bitter stacked on more bitter, fading away to a dry finish that leaves you feeling a little empty. To say this beer lacks balance would be an understatement. At 4.7 percent, more malt would have been welcome.
Notch Left of the Dial: It’s useful to talk about the Notch beer after the last. To me, the Founders brew feels like an IPA with something removed. Left of the Dial, however, reads more like a balanced beer of any style. A darker pour than the others, there’s more malt character from start to finish. I get citrus in the nose and slightly bitter cereal as I drink.
Lohring says that given the popularity of the IPA category it made sense to classify this as an IPA, but he thought about being cute with what to call this one. Out of the 24 beers Notch has brewed, only four of them have been what Lohring would characterize as “hoppy.” Left of the Dial is a hop-first beer, for sure, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with that fact. At 4.3 percent ABV, it is the lightest and most balanced of the beers reviewed here. It’s something I would happily pack in my cooler.
Lagunitas DayTime: Lagunitas had a really big 2013, with a greater than 80 percent growth in sales from the previous year, more than any other American craft brewer. Much of that growth is based on the California brewery’s expansion of hop-forward beers to the East Coast. So it’s a bit surprising that DayTime, Lagunitas’s session IPA, is more about fresh hay taste and less about whack-you-in-the-face hop aroma. When tasting this one I wrote, “This is good, but maybe not the IPA taste I was looking for.”
On the company’s website, the beer is described as being “dosed with the latest cutting-edge, experimental, yet-to-be-named hop varieties for juicy aroma and resin-y hop flavors.” As such, this beer is “super-limited.” It’s good, but maybe not worth going to great lengths for.
Primarily because of balance, my two favorites of the four tasted were the Notch and the Firestone Walker. Notch’s Lohring stresses that the session brews can extend well beyond IPAs, adding, “I’m happy that brewers are finally getting on the bandwagon and showing consumers that flavor is not reserved for high alcohol beer. It’s energized the category.”
I know I’ll be reaching for a couple of these brews before my next backyard barbecue.