Monday, April 14, 2014

Session IPA: When Craft Beer Gets Crafty

Up until a few weeks ago I had never tried a Session IPA. The way I saw it, if I wanted to drink something hoppy I could drink an actual IPA. On days I wanted something lower ABV I could grab a wheat beer and be perfectly content. But then Stone's Go to IPA came out and I couldn't fight it any longer. I bought one and excitedly popped the bottle open the following night. It was the worst craft beer I've ever had in my life.

Originally, that's where this post was headed. I was going to tell you that Go to IPA had zero malt presence and that their hop bursting technique produced nothing but a weird sour citrus flavor. They say it produces "glorious hop qualities"; I say it creates a flavor profile that has been achieved by less than mediocre homebrewers for years. I was going to shake my digital head in disagreement like an irate Natty Boh bobblehead doll , but then I realized it might be too harsh to make an assumption about a particular beer when I've never actually had another within the "style" to make a fair comparison. To alleviate that shortcoming, I tried Lagunitas Daytime IPA (the best I've had at this point) and a few others over the past month. Most were okay given the style, but all are beers that have no reason to exist other than to capitalize on a segment of the craft beer community that will drink absolutely anything IPA related.

It's true I love to beat up Stone. This isn't the first time I've knocked on them and it probably won't be the last. But that's not what I care about in this instance. This isn't about one beer or one brewery. It's about the bigger picture. Session IPA is bad beer and it's a symptom of a larger problem I think a lot of the community ignores. Diversity in craft beer doesn't matter as much to brewers as they would have you believe. But so what, you say? People like IPA's so why is Session IPA bad beer? Well, it's not just because I've had a few and don't like the taste. I'm not a huge fan of Barleywine either, but I don't go around saying Barleywine is bad beer. I say Session IPA's are bad because the recipes don't even make sense. Regular IPA's work (American in this case) because the heavy bitterness they provide is usually, if brewed well, balanced by an ample sweet malt body. Yes, our IPA's lean heavy towards the bitter end of the spectrum, but they only work because the malt gives your palate a reprieve at the end. These Session IPA's don't work that way. We have brewers trying to give us the hop bombs we love, but are reducing the malt body in order to achieve a "session" level ABV and it doesn't jive. IPA's aren't just hoppy,something brewers all know but are happily ignoring, and yet that's all these Session IPA's achieve. Some come off as bitter hop water, and others have fantastic hop flavor but with nothing to support the finish. It's almost as if the liquid you have in your mouth evaporates on the finish at times. One second you brain is amped up for an IPA based on how hop forward the beer is and the next you're wondering if you actually were able to swallow anything the body is so thin.

The fact that we're so eager to latch on to poorly constructed beers like these speaks to the bigger issue of consumers drinking anything IPA related and brewers happily going along. Ray Daniels, Directer of the Cicerone Certification Program wondered aloud on twitter a few months ago if  "we’re creating a beer culture where IPA tyranny just replaces American Lager tyranny." After tasting Go to IPA, it's impossible not to wonder that very thing myself. What is craft beer coming to when Stone, a brewery known for criticizing big beer for putting out "fizzy yellow stuff", proudly releases a beer that on its best day is nothing more than "hoppy yellow stuff"? Taste is subjective, I get it, but bad beer is bad beer and we have to be smart enough to call brewers out when it's warranted. Now is the time to start screaming... so go ahead...I'm waiting.

Another couple of related quotes I came across recently were reported by Christopher Staten of Draft Magazine while attending the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference. The first quote scares me when I think about it in relation to Ray's quote above. Chris reported that IPA's currently account for 40% of the current craft market. It's fine if a lot of us like hoppy IPA's. It really is. I love them as well. But we don't have to love them all. We're allowed to be discerning. It's true that Stone makes great beer. It's also within the realm of possibility that they make bad beer from time to time. Knowing that they have the capability to produce top notch product, why are we so willing to accept mediocrity? I know we all want to be supportive and see the industry succeed, but all blind support does is produce a domino effect of foul beer. Brewery A puts out a Session IPA that overeager consumers love despite the obvious flaws. Brewery B sees the success and decides they want in on that niche market and puts their own Session IPA out that's even worse technically, but earns just as well all because they put the label "Session IPA" on the bottle. Before you know it, every brewery in the country is putting out their own version of a misguided style and that 40% keeps growing and we're left with an industry dominated by one umbrella style of beer and yet still claims that "craft beer is about standing up to and challenging monocultures".  If that's true why are we are so eager to accept and buy into a beer style that is so fundamentally flawed? And if we're for challenging monocultures, why aren't we more willing to challenging our own?

One the most often repeated reasons cited for enjoying craft beer is the fact that it provides variety. For a lot of us I think that's true. Many of us really do get the best craft beer has to offer. But some of us, let's call it 40%, pretty much dabble in one style of beer and one style of beer only. If you don't want to drink anything outside of IPA's I'm not going to ask you to stop. That's all you. But please, please don't just crown everything your favorite brewery releases as the next great thing. If Coors put out beers like some of the Session IPA's I've tasted we'd dog them to hell and back and ask why they're trying to dumb down the taste for the consumer. But let a craft brewer put out something as sloppy as a Session IPA and suddenly we're on to the next big thing in craft beer. Pretty crafty of the craft gang, no?

Craft beer got this far because we expected more out of beer. Now's not the time to get complacent. You have a voice and it's time to use it. We cheered our craft brethren into the mini-powerhouse that it is today. Now that we're here we have a question to ask ourselves. Do we want to be cheerleaders or do we want to be educated consumers who use their voice to move things in a positive direction. Three decades of blood sweat and tears seems like an awful lot to waste just to trade in All-Lager America for All-IPA. I thought we wanted more than that. 


  1. Amen. The craft beer world gets a lot of credit for "blurring styles" but some puzzle pieces just don't fit together. "Session" shouldn't be a style, it should just be a statement of low ABV (we'll leave alone the debate on how low for now), which means some true styles don't mesh well with it. I mean what's next? A session Barleywine? No, because as you stated, IPA is the golden child of the brewing community right now, but if it was Barleywines you can bet someone would be trying to brew one.

    Low ABV works well with English stouts, milds, bitters; some german beers, and belgian table beer. But trying to force low ABV on a style that it's not meant to be a part of recipe just throws the whole beer out of whack.

    As far as Stone is concerned, I thought their Enjoy By was pretty good the first time I've had it, but now that it's come through the area several times, and I've seen the fervor it causes when it hits the shelves I'm a tired to the build in hype of it. While others are clamoring to get a bottle of it, I just quietly walk past them and pick up a bottle of Arrogant Bastard at half the price.

    1. Is there such a thing as a Sour IPA yet?

    2. Yes. Green Bench Brewing in St. Pete has their Surrealist IPA (a sour IPA) and Colliding Galaxies IPA (a double IPA). Both are excellent.


    1. Weird. Even if its sour, seems odds to barrel age an IPA. Would like to try that though just to see what the heck is going on.