One afternoon last summer, a friend and I found ourselves debating a particular characteristic of beer. No, it wasn’t one variety of hop over another, or whether we liked our Imperial IPAs more or less sweet, or the quality of the latest offering from one brewery or another. It was alcohol content. At the time, we both found ourselves planning trips to multiple day music festivals, and given the length of the events and the fact that both festivals allowed certain amounts of beer to be brought in, we were considering what beer to pack away in our respective coolers. We were looking for something to enjoy at times throughout the festival, but considering that we both knew we’d want to take in as much music as possible, we were both also wary of the knockout punch higher gravity beers can deliver. After all, it’s tough to enjoy your favorite band’s last set, much less their second encore, when your body is telling you that it would rather just give it up and call it a day.
Lower alcohol content beers, of course, are nothing new. Even today, certain “styles” can lend themselves to lower abv offerings. Many porters, pale ales, and ambers clock in at around six percent or less. Certain types of stouts do the same. However, in the land of craft beer, higher alcohol content beers – say, north of six percent at least – are very commonplace. At the least, these beers certainly seem to be the ones that catch the most press attention. Just think of some of the last Imperial stouts or IPAs you tasted or considered buying. Chances are they were well north of eight percent, and I bet they were closing in on ten. The large number of higher alcohol content beers on the craft market led one beer writer and blogger to help begin a movement a few years ago centered around the term “session beer”, defining such as any beer that, among other things, meets a specific requirement of coming in at 4.5% abv or less. While that very specific definition might seem a little strict to some, the conversation that the movement started is worthy of consideration. Especially when, let’s say, you have a three day music and camping festival coming up. (Or camping trip, or day at the beach, or just lunch with a friend.)
The idea behind lower abv craft beers has definitely received a fair amount of attention since then. Some of the reaction has been skeptical in nature, as some beer lovers have wondered why there might be a need to limit craft beer in any way. Nevertheless, the trend has plenty of momentum, and there are even entire breweries that now specialize in offering lower gravity beers. But across the board, the same styles, such as the ones mentioned above, always seem to get the most discussion. Crazily enough, one style, perhaps the style with the most numerous examples on the entire planet, seemed to be on the outside looking in when it came to versions that sport a lower abv. And while some claim that such beers are more akin to a Pale Ale than any “new” beer style, eventually, a market for what has become known as the “Session IPA” seemed to find a niche, and breweries like Founders and Lagunitas have since introduced their own versions. But one brewery in particular, known far and wide for its stable of IPAs, has brought new attention to the Session IPA due to the recent release of its own offering. Yes, Stone Brewing has entered the Session IPA market, with its “Go-To IPA”. This evening (Friday 3/28), those of us in Roanoke will get a chance to taste this beer on draft at Local Roots Restaurant.
If there is a common thread with many session IPAs, it is that they seem to benefit from fairly extensive levels of dry hopping – additions of hops late in the brewing process – which mainly affect the aroma of a beer. This technique seems to have somehow gained a slightly different approach in Stone’s Go-To IPA, if not just a different name, something Stone calls “hop bursting”, but it certainly sounds like some form of dry hopping. As the description on the bottle states, “an irrational amount of hops are added during the final phase of the brewing process to coax out extreme flavors and aromas”. No matter or what you call it, late additions of hops can definitely turn up the volume on those amazing aromas that hops give to beer, to the point that they seem to literally jump out of the glass when poured. Stone’s Go-To IPA is a great example. It’s not often that you can so easily smell the pine like, grapefruity aroma of an IPA at nearly arms length, but with Go-To, the aromas seek you out almost immediately after the beer is poured.
It is sometimes said that the flavor of many heavily dry hopped beers lean towards being overly grassy, a characteristic that definitely shows up in some amount with hop forward beers. But with Go-To, this lays well underneath a more predominant layer of the grapefruity kinds of tastes you expect from most IPAs, edged by some pine and finished off with a palate cleansing and lingering amount of bitterness. This all makes for a more complete “Session IPA” than many I’ve tasted.
As my friend and I, both admittedly huge IPA fans, talked that day about lower abv beers, the discussion eventually got around to “sessionable” versions of the style we love so much. At the time, there were already a few choices to choose from, and this summer, many other breweries are readying similar releases. Stone Brewing is one of the first to hit the market this year with their “Go-To” IPA, just in time for me to start thinking about music festival season.
Check out Stone’s “Go-To” IPA, going on tap at Local Roots Friday, 3/28.