session ipa
(Photo by Jon Page)

The more I learn about beer, the more I think it all comes down to culture. We think of beer as this knowable thing, this quantifiable thing. It must be balanced and harmonious; it should not have certain objectionable flavors; it should look a particular way. But these general platitudes are contradicted even within the orthodoxy. Beer should be bright and clarion—except when it’s a wheat beer or an American IPA, in which case cloudiness and haziness are acceptable or even mandatory. Beer should never have flavors of goat, horse, or funk—unless they’re in a lambic, when they play a starring role. Nearly every flavor that is objectionable one place is prized someplace else. What’s “acceptable” always comes down to the drinker: if a population likes it a certain way, it’s acceptable.

I was reminded of all of this when a colleague and friend, Mark Dredge, made the case that session IPAs are not sessionable. He’s making the case from the British point of view, and I can’t dispute a thing he says.

I’ve never tasted a Session IPA that’s sessionable in the British sense and they are almost ironically unsessionable; too dry, too bitter, too intense in aroma and flavour – they are unbalanced towards the IPA instead of the Session. And sure, the alcohol content is often (but not always) low enough that we could drink four or five or six, but they are so powerful in flavour that we soon want to move onto something else: they are session-strength but not sessionable.

If you want hops and sessionability then we don’t look to the US and instead we look to British brewing and the pale and hoppy session beers … which are at the tasty intersection between calm British sessionability and excitable American impact…. Many of these are really great beers, beers we can drink buckets of, nailing that malt and hop balance plus the delicious addition of beautifully fragrant hops, which is all enhanced by the subtle elegances of being pulled from the cask.

I have long been an American defender of European palates. I have spent many a session (and blog post) defending half-liter pours of Bavarian helles beer or imperial pints of cask bitter. Mark gives one of the best one-sentence description of the pleasures of cask ale—and helles lager: “There’s a simplicity to these beers that belies their depth and balance and makes their drinkability somehow increase as you go from pint to pint.” Totally true.

But I think it’s time I defend American palates for our European friends.

About the Session

The notion of a “session” is not unique to British culture, but it is more fully developed there. For centuries, ales have been brewed with this concept in mind, and the unlikely survival of cask beer is a hallmark of the session. The low alcohol is important, but the reduced level of carbonation and cellar temperatures make cask ale easy to drink in gulps. Everything is optimized for drinking a lot and drinking relatively quickly.

But while all of that’s true in the Britain, it’s a purely cultural model. People in other countries go out for an evening of beer-drinking, and they don’t drink cask ale. In Belgium, they don’t drink session-strength beer, either (unless you consider 6.5% “sessionable”). In the United States, we don’t usually drink six pints of beer in a sitting. We don’t, in fact, drink very much of our beer in pubs in the first place. This is a decades-long trend, one encouraged by handy packages like aluminum cans. Drunk-driving laws in the 1980s helped discourage heavy drinking at pubs and further sent people to their backyards and dens.

It’s also possible to go to a pub and drink only two or three beers over the course of a session rather than five or six. Our beer—at least the modern stuff—isn’t always meant to be drunk fast. If you’ve got a powerfully zingy American IPA in front of you, you’re probably sipping it and taking in deep sniffs of that wonderful aroma in between tastes. I drink these kinds of beers slowly because they’re intense. It’s a feature, not a bug—but that may not be obvious to British punters used to quaffing a different way.

We Like the Intensity

Palates calibrate. Anyone who has gone from the U.S. to Cologne has seen this going one way: the day you arrive and sample your first three kölsches, they all taste the same. But after a few days, you begin to see differences you couldn’t imagine having missed. It goes the other way, too; American IPAs require their own calibration. There’s an initial shock, but your senses adjust. They begin to find nuance among the Technicolor flavors.

It’s not entirely different from rauchbier, another intense style. Schlenkerla’s Matthias Trum described the process of calibrating to smoke. “If you’re new to the taste you will notice nothing but the smoked flavor. Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness. So the second Schlenkerla is for you, the first time drinker, a different beverage than the first one. And yet the third one is different than the second one.” Any American beer geek would recognize this description as applied to hoppy ales.

I know it doesn’t make any sense to someone from Bristol or Bayreuth, but we actually do find IPAs sessionable. Americans love sitting down with 16 ounces of tangerine rocket fuel. We don’t gulp it, and we don’t drink six. But to our palates, nothing makes the time pass more pleasantly. The session IPA trend is wonderful exactly for the reasons Mark thinks it’s wrong. We want them “unbalanced toward the IPA”—it’s the thing that makes us warm to the idea of a 4.5% beer. Finally, something we can taste.

Jeff Alworth is the author of the book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.