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.
As for food pairings, the hop bitterness of these beers will tend to balance out sweetness and fatty richness in food, though the lower alcohol and impact suggest pairing with lighter courses. That hop bitterness will amplify spiciness, and Engbers suggests pairing session IPAs like Founders’ All Day with Mexican, Thai, and curry cuisines—where the heat will be ratcheted up a bit.
Freshness is hugely important for these beers, as they again rely on those more volatile hop contributions for their core flavors and aromatics. Those can quickly fade even after a few weeks, in some examples, and thoughtful beer rotation is crucial here.
The specific hop characteristics of each will ultimately determine best pairing options. Sean Z. Paxton, formerly a professional chef who is now the Homebrew Chef and a consultant who’s worked on numerous pairing dinners with craft brewers over the years, shared suggestions.
For a citrusy beer like the Stone Go To IPA, he recommends that chefs look to the orange, lemon, and grapefruit notes of that beer for pairing alongside salads or lighter meats such as chicken, a natural fit for the citrus. The herbaceous notes present in many of these session IPAs can work well with customized lettuces and herbs. Paxton pointed to arugula, oregano, and basil as having worked well with these beers. Citrus notes can be met with grapefruit and orange segments added to salads, or by adding some orange or lemon peel into vinaigrettes.
However, he warns that the volatile nature of the hop qualities in these beers and the lack of underlying malt make session IPAs less than ideal for cooking with. “Anything above a warming of the beer, I really don’t recommend,” Paxton notes, although he added that doesn’t mean chefs can’t work with it. “That beer could be great for a vinaigrette; that beer could be great in a ceviche; it could even be great brushed on something at the very end—just to add that little bit of flavor.”
While craft beer only accounts for about 10 percent of the beer volume produced in the U.S., craft breweries use more than half of the hops that are grown in this country. The upward IPA trend certainly figures into that, and, because hops are being prized for the flavors and aromatics they offer more than ever before, we’re seeing shiny new brews.
The breeding and cultivation of new hop varieties have grown increasingly important within the craft beer industry. Citra hops could be pointed to as one of the first to make a major impact in this way, released around 2007 and showcasing expressive citrus and tropical fruit aspects. The floral and tropical Mosaic was commercially released in 2012. I’ve had experimental-hop beers from Sierra Nevada that tasted close to blueberries—and to black gunpowder tea. At last year’s Craft Brewers Conference, I tasted beer with a hop profile like candied lemons, which used a brand-new German hop called, aptly, Lemondrop.
A few examples of beers showcasing some of these newer hops are featured in this month’s Sips Appeal selections, and the beers that highlight these hops are using them for those fresh aroma and flavor profiles rather than just for bitterness, so the rules on freshness and cooking still apply.
Chef Paxton recommends, when it comes to this sort of uncharted territory, to take the time to taste these new beers and think in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary notes—in the same way one might with most ingredients. If a new hop offers up notes like pineapple, try it alongside basil or mint components. If the hops have hints of mango, maybe try it with some ginger.
These hoppy beers open a wide range of new sensory turf to consider.