“All the IBUs, half the ABV” is how the American beer writer Brian Yaeger describes the newest (?) beery trend in the United States: the “India Session Ale”.
As you’ll have gathered, the ISA is meant to have the flavours of an American-style IPA, but at a more “sessionable” gravity. “Sessionable” is in the eye of the beer holder: I’d curl my lip at any beer over 4.2 per cent describing itself as “sessionable”, but to many Americans the term means anything under 5 per cent. However, what worries me most is the idea that a beer with 50 IBUs, and hopped with at least six different and powerful varieties, including Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Chinook, even if it’s only 3.5 per cent alcohol, like Ballast Point of California’s Even Keel can in any way be regarded as a session beer. Indeed, at least one “India Style Session Ale”, from the 10 Barrel Brewing Co in Oregon, is 5.5 per cent ABV.
As I wrote in this space nearly four years ago, I love session beers, but to me an essential part of what makes a good session beer is its restraint. To quote myself:
A great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention … A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings.
I’ve not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to try any of the India Session Ales (also known as “American session ales”, “Session IPAs” and “Light IPAs”) Brian Yaeger talks about in his piece, but in April I did get to try something I suspect may be similar, DNA New World IPA, the collaboration beer made by blending concentrated “essence of Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA” shipped over from Delaware with beer brewed at the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford.
I drank it on draught at the Britannia in Allen Street, Kensington (not as good a pub since they knocked the two bars into one). While it was less hoppy than 60-minute IPA, at 32 IBUs rather than 60 (and lower in strength, at 4.5 per cent ABV), there was still masses of floral flavour and aroma from both the Dogfish Head addition and the dry-hopping with Simcoe hops the beer had been given in Bedford, so that this was very clearly an American IPA, not a British one. I enjoyed my pint. But I only wanted the one. Palate overload set in after just that single glass. And that means that, regardless of its strength, DNA New World IPA cannot possibly be a session beer.
Don’t, please, think I don’t like, and enjoy, big, floral, hoppy American IPAs: I do, very much. I think Sierra Nevada Celebration is a world classic (and as I’ve finally now drunk Pliny the Elder, thanks to the very nice Jeff Alworth, who sent me a bottle as payment for looking over a couple of chapters of his forthcoming Beer Bible for e’s and o’s, I can say I believe Celebration to be better than Vinnie Cilurzo’s version of the Double IPA). But there’s a time and a place, and the time for big, hoppy beers ain’t when you’re having a session with friends.
Still, the ISA style has received a big vote in favour from Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing in California, whom I respect greatly, whose own company makes Levitation Ale, a 4.4 per cent ABV amber ale with 45 IBUs, dry-hopped with Amarillo, and who told Brian Yaeger that an ISA should be:
“kettle hopped (for bitterness up front) and dry hopped (for flavour and aroma after the boil) using similar quantities and varieties as a standard American IPA. The brewer’s challenge here is twofold: first is achieving a good flavour balance in a beer that is so low in alcohol that there isn’t much else to balance the hop character with, and second, ensuring that the dry hop character doesn’t become overly vegetal, due to the lower alcohol content of the beer.”
Yaeger lists 14 different beers he believes can be categorised as ISAs, all between 40 and 60 IBUs and 3.5 to 4.7 per cent ABV, of which four are from California and four more from either Oregon or Washington, which suggests this may well be, like the American IPA itself, a West Coast-powered phenomenon. As yet, only one brewer, my (brief) research indicates, is brewing an ISA outside the United States, and no surprise, it’s in Victoria, British Columbia, just a short (for North America) drive north of Seattle. Many of these beers seem to be summer-only seasonals, with Trader Session IPA from Uinta Brewing in Utah, 4 per cent ABV, 42 IBUs, described as ” one of the few year-round session IPAs”.
Is this a style that is going to catch on outside the US? After all, that other oxymoron, the “Black IPA”, was laughed at by many when it first arrived, but is now brewed by some very respectable brewers far from its North-Western US birthplace. There is already, I suppose, Dead Pony Club from BrewDog, at just 3.8 per cent ABV, to suggest that at least someone in the UK is already brewing an “ISA”. And Fuller’s Wild River, 4.5 per cent ABV and flavoured with Liberty, Willamette, Cascade and Chinook hops, would probably come under the “ISA” definition if it were brewed in San Diego rather than Chiswick (though while I’m sure John Keeling at Fullers probably thought he was brewing a British taken on an American Pale Ale, I’d be very surprised if he thought in terms of an ISA. To almost all Britons, an ISA, pronounced Eye-sa, is an Individual Savings Account.) All the same, some of the beers Yaeger talks about have been around since at least 2006, which suggests this is a style that has yet to take even its homeland over yet.
Before everyone piles in, of course, we’ve been drinking “session IPAs” in Britain for many decades: most of the first sessions I had as an under-age teen drinker in pubs like the Red Lion in Stevenage High Street were on (cask) Greene King IPA, yours for just 3.6 per cent ABV, and there were and are plenty of other low-gravity IPAs made by British brewers: Wadworths, Palmers and Charles Wells to name just three. But these are IPAs in the British sense, not really distinguishable from an ordinary bitter: indeed, more than 40 years ago, when I was knocking back several pints of Greene King IPA on a Friday night with mates, before weaving to the chip shop and the bus home, we never called it “IPA”, we only ever said “four pints of bitter, please”. It’s only in the past couple of decades, I think, that it has become normal to refer to the Greene King brew at the bar as “IPA” rather than “bitter”.
If low-gravity high-IBU ales do arrive in strength in Britain, however, while I think I might have the odd one occasionally, if it’s the only beer I’m planning on having and I have work to do later, I certainly won’t be settling in for a session on them.