I recently went to a lecture called “Hops & History” at the Museum of the Rockies. Hey, the museum has a mission to educate the masses, and I’m all about education. So I had to go. Didn’t hurt that everyone got free beer.
Topic of the night: Session Beer.
As the presentation started to wrap up, the guest speaker, a brewmaster from Map Brewing Co., opened the floor to questions. It was then that some smart ass stood up and posed the following:
“Would calling a beer an Imperial Session IPA be just about the worst name ever?”
The brewmaster tilted his head and looked quizzically at the smart ass. One could see the wheels turning in his head. After a moment, he went off.
“Well,” he began, “since session beers are, by definition, low in alcohol by volume, and Imperial beers are, by definition, high in alcohol by volume, it would seem those terms are incompatible.”
“And,” the brewmaster continued, his face starting to turn red as sweat beads formed on his shiny forehead, “because session ales are supposed to have a balance between the amount of malty flavor and hop bite, while IPAs are historically highly hoppped beers with low malt levels — except for the Imperial IPAs that need extra malt to balance the high level of hops — I’d say that even calling a beer a session IPA is inaccurate.”
“Therefore,” he said, veins now bulging from his cranium, “I guess I’d have to agree that calling a beer an Imperial Session IPA is about the worst name a brewer could ever use. … In fact, an Imperial Session IPA would probably be the mega-jumbo shrimp of beer.”
And there you have it. The mega-jumbo shrimp of beer.
Amazingly, there are some beers out there that try to slam style names together. Why? One can only guess it may be an attempt to break into the burgeoning craft beer market through naming but not know-how. Why else would a brewmaster, who seemingly should know better, conflate incompatible nomenclature?
So let’s get back to the concept of the session ale. The Beer Advocate defines it this way:
“Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish — a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.”
Having multiple IPAs, which usually check in at around 6-8% ABV, would make most beer drinkers incapacitated. Just ask my IPA swilling friend. Likewise, enjoying 3-4 Imperial ales at 8-12% ABV each will knock you out. How, then, could either be a session beer?
But do a Google search for “session IPA” and you’ll likely see an ad for New Belgium’s Slow Ride. There will possibly be a link to a “session IPA” from Full Sail Brewing Co. And you might even see a discussion thread from RateBeer under the title “Best Session IPA in the World.”
The bigger problem is that all of the above are reputable and significant members of the craft beer industry. If they’re getting it wrong, all they’re doing is misinforming the public.
Now try searching for “Imperial session beer,” and again the results will flow like tears from John Boehner’s face. Only the aptly named Miss Gnomer Imperial Session IPA from Boise Brewing seems to have a clue. In the description, it says the beer checks in at 6% ABV and is well-blanced. Talk about a Miss Gnomer indeed.
However, according to RateBeer, it works because “a session IPA is really just a Pale Ale.”
So why not call it was it is? Perhaps because the craft beer world seems to be obsessed with the IPA these days. Every crafty-come-lately is jumping on the IPA bandwagon. The result? Mis-named and mis-labeled beers. And, more importantly, the high probability that the IPA you’re drinking really isn’t an IPA, and probably isn’t very good.
The same thing happened in the wine industry. Twenty years ago, Merlot was hot. And then the market got flooded with crappy Merlot. In 2004, the movie Sideways was released, and suddenly everyone wanted to drink Pinot Noir. Now, four out of five Pinot Noirs tastes like watered down cran-grape juice.
It sucked for me because I was drinking Merlot before it became popular, and Pinot Noir was my favorite wine until Sideways ruined it. Clearly I was country before country was cool.
But I’m also a stickler for names. With a last name like mine, you either live in the world of constant corrections, or you give up after it has been misspelled for the 479th time. Thanks to having an English teacher mom (who doesn’t hesitate to point out typos or grammar errors in my posts), I live in the crazy world of corrections.
I also spent more than a decade working in marketing, and now teach branding. With apologies to that Shakespeare fellow, a rose is not a rose is not a rose when it comes to naming beer.
An IPA is not a session ale. A session ale is not Imperial. But an Imperial Session IPA is a mega-jumbo shrimp.
And yes, the smart ass who asked the question … was me.
— Eric Van Steenburg