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There was a time, not too long ago, when the craft beer market was inundated with hefty Imperial, double, and triple-strong beers. Inevitably, drinkers' response was to cry uncle. Enter the session beer—a moderate-alcohol brew you can keep sipping all day.
Just because you want something a little less alcoholic doesn't mean you're eager to go light on the hops. If you like your beers fruity, resiny, piney, and crisply bitter, these hop-driven session beers are the ones to seek out for your summer satisfaction, whether you're mowing the lawn, hanging out on the beach, or hosting a barbecue.
Central Waters Hop Rise Session Ale
Brewery owner Anello Mollica explains that Hop Rise is "a beer we really brewed for ourselves. We make a double IPA called Illumination, and we really love that beer at the brewery, but it's 9% ABV. As the owner of the brewery, [lower-alcohol Hop Rise] is the beer that I'm grabbing all the time."
Hop Rise is easily the most aromatic of the beers we tried for this piece. It's hopped exclusively with Simcoe hops, resulting in flavors that are characteristically bright and tropical: think mango, passion fruit, and apricot. As the beer warms, there's a piney undertone that we liked.
As pairings go, Mollica tells us: "we're in Wisconsin, so cheese is big for us." He recommends a sharp cheddar or blue cheese to complement this year round session ale.
Two Beers Trailhead ISA
A growing number of breweries are offering an India Session Ale these days. "Some call it an IPA Light," quips Two Beers Brewing founder and brewmaster Joel VandenBrink. "I prefer to call it a hoppy beer with an alcohol content under 5%". This one happens to be 4.8%.
VandenBrink is an avid backpacker. "With the physical exertion and altitude of hiking, I wanted something lower in ABV so I could drink one without getting too much of a buzz. We created Trailhead ISA and put it into lightweight, crushable 12 ounce cans just for this reason."
The beer is perfect for much more than just an outdoors excursion. Bright citrusy aromas give way to strong grapefruit, tangerine, and floral flavors (all hallmarks of "C" hops like the Columbus and Cascade featured in Trailhead) as well as balancing biscuity sweetness. It's not aggressively bitter; this is a session ale that will appeal to hopheads and non-hopheads alike.
Noble Brewing Company Pistol Whip'd
You may notice that one of these things is not like the others. Yes, Pistol Whip'd is a Pilsner. It's also crisp, 4.2% ABV, and super hoppy. The session world tends to lean toward the top-fermenting types, but we threw a pilsner as a reminder even those in the bottom-fermenting bracket can sate the session craving for hopheads.
Pistol Whip'd displays some classic Czech pils characteristics. While bitterness level is markedly lower than the ales on the list, the hops are given a clean, ester-free backdrop against which to shine and the beer finishes dry leaving plenty of lingering hop flavor. New Zealand Motueka hops add underlying spice and floral character reminiscent of Noble hop varietals, with plenty of spritzy lime and a bit of tropical fruit in the mix.
In keeping with the season's bounty, Noble's Head Brewer Evan Price suggest sipping Pistol Whip'd with seafood: "I love it with seafood like ceviche, crab, and shrimp."
Pistol Whip'd is one of the most enjoyable pilsners that I've had in recent memory. Price agrees; "It's still my favorite beer that we've ever made!"
Green Flash Citra Session
I sought out this draft-only release from San Diego's hop darling Green Flash Brewing Company at the Surly Goat in West Hollywood, CA. Citra Session is a part of the brewery's Hop Odyssey program in which they're releasing a new hop-focused beer every other month for a year. Green Flash Director of Beer Education Dave Adams sums up the session beer's popularity: "I think the pendulum is swinging from crazy, big beers to more session-able, easy drinking beers. The fact that we found a way to pack tons of flavor into a 4.5% beer is definitely an accomplishment."
Fresh from the tap, the scent is all peach and passion fruit. The bright flavors of lemon, grapefruit, and mango are classic Citra, and it's all wrapped up with a bracingly bitter finish. For the strength (4.5% ABV) and composition of this beer, achieving this level of IBU (45) is a testament to the brewery's experience manipulating the brewer's favorite flower to support their bitter agenda.
While some might prefer something slightly less intense on a summer day, there are plenty of hopheads that will appreciate a session ale that doesn't shy away from the palate scraping. Luckily, Adams tells us that the beer will most likely see an encore release next year.
Founders All Day IPA
The demand for the aptly named All Day IPA, like many of these examples, came first from within the brewery at Founders. Head brewer Jeremy Kosmicki attributes its introduction to "my selfish need to constantly drink hoppy beer." Well, we applaud this so-called selfish pursuit.
"Being a brewer, I find myself drinking beer quite regularly. As much as I love big American IPAs, it's hard to stay alert when you're drinking 7 or 8% ABV beers all day. So I set out to make a beer that was bursting with hop flavor and aroma, yet balanced and low enough in alcohol to be completely 'crushable'."
Classic IPA aromas of grapefruit and orange peel are abundant here. And though the beer has a thinner mouthfeel than a traditional IPA, it offers plenty of citrus and piney, grassy flavors. This 4.7% ABV is a success of an day-long drinking beer.
What's your favorite hoppy session beer?
Beers (except Green Flash Citra Session) all provided as samples for review consideration.
About the Author: Stef Ferrari is a Brooklyn-based Certified Cicerone, food writer/photographer, and author of a forthcoming beer industry guidebook with Wiley & Sons Publishing. In addition to her passion for craft beer, cocktails, and fine food, she considers ice cream to be life's greatest pleasure and spends most spare moments in pursuit of the Mr. Softee truck. Find her on the web and on Twitter at @stef_ferrari.