Best practices for session IPAs and expressive new hops.
Two correlated trends are making a mark in the beer industry and are worthy of exploration: session IPAs and the newer hop varieties.
Hops—which give beer bitterness, among other attributes—continue to gain importance in craft beer’s growth. Similarly, session IPAs continue to gain traction, and the latest data from the Brewers Association show that 2014 IPA sales were up 47 percent by volume, 49 percent by dollars. And by the end of the year, Technomic’s MenuMonitor reported that menu incidence of the style was up 56 percent from two years ago, with most of that growth in the past year.
To foster an understanding of how these trends are interwoven, consider this: Hops are one of the four main ingredients that go into making most beers, along with water, malted barley, and yeast. They’re typically understood as being the source of beer’s bitterness, but they’re also a lot more than that for styles like IPAs. Depending on when you add hops in the brewing process, you can focus on preferentially extracting bitterness or on keeping more of the volatile flavors and aromas.
As IPA sales continue to soar, it parallels consumer interest in those hop flavors and their aromas, the most common being notes approximating citrus, pine, flowers, and herbs. Those citrusy hops, in particular, are the ones that really got the American IPA train rolling early on.
Session IPAs also offer up those hop-derived flavors and aromatics at a more modest level of alcohol. And newer hops can contribute intriguing sensory notes ranging from passion fruit to blueberries to coconut. Both styles present challenges and opportunities on the restaurant front.
In his book IPA, author Mitch Steele summed up session IPAs: “One of the more recent trends in American brewing is to brew a beer at less than 5% abv (alcohol by volume) and hop it like an American IPA.”
The session aspect of the session IPA traces back to British drinking culture, where lower-alcohol options, often under 4% abv, tend to be far more plentiful than in the states. (For comparison, typical American IPAs are 6–7.5% abv.) Session IPAs reduce the amount of malt used, in turn reducing core sweetness and trimming down the alcohol level.
The past few years have seen considerable movement in this direction, with one major craft brewery after another announcing its own session IPA: Lagunitas DayTime, Stone’s Go To IPA, Firestone Walker Easy Jack, Sierra Nevada Nooner, Boulevard Pop-Up, and so on.
Already, there are hundreds of commercial session IPAs on the market.
One of the biggest success stories has been the All Day IPA from Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Released in small amounts in 2012, All Day is a 4.7% abv offering that uses Simcoe and Amarillo hops. In early 2013, it saw a much broader release and was bumped up to year-round availability that July. As Dave Engbers, Founders’ president and co-founder, put it, “As soon as the beer hit, it just absolutely took off.
“This beer was brewed for the hardcore beer-enthusiast community, but what we have found is that it also kind of bridges the gap for a lot of folks new to the category. And that’s great,” Engbers says.
The significant hop additions of the session IPAs tend to keep them priced similarly to other standard brewery offerings. But from a service standpoint, the low-alcohol content means customers can consume more drinks without being as affected by the alcohol. Engbers notes, “You want a beer that’s got a lot of flavor, that your customers will order multiple times during one seating.”
Founders’ All Day IPA has been a huge success, becoming the company’s top-selling release and its first beer to be packaged into cans, and is currently available in bottled six-packs as well as an atypical 15-pack.