The art of easy drinking: What is a session IPA?

“We had a great session down the pub on Friday”

“That beer is so sessionable” 

Session Beer. Session IPA. Session Bitter. What is a session IPA? What do we actually mean by a ‘session’, or referring to a ‘sessionable’ beer? As you might imagine, “what is a session IPA?” is a hard question to answer and it’s tricky to nail down an exact definition, since one person’s ‘session-strength’ beer is another’s strong beer. Is it just about alcohol anyway?

The term ‘session’ may have come from the days of more restricted pub opening times in the UK, when most pubs had to close between the hours of 3 and 7pm. You had the ‘lunchtime session’ between 11am and 3pm and an ‘evening session’ between 7 and 11pm. It’s a good shout, though not entirely provable, but a likely place of origin. Certainly, there were mentions in the 1930s of a ‘session’ at the pub and this 4-hour drinking block of time would require a beer that wasn’t going to send you tumbling onto your backside when it was chucking out time. It also needed to be a beer that was eminently drinkable. Now lots of beers are drinkable of course, they can be sour, strong, bitter, sweet etc. etc…. but can you drink a lot of them? If we refer to the normal way of buying drinks in a British or Irish pub, then we generally buy in rounds. So, if there are four of you, expect to have a minimum of four pints. Everyone takes their turn buying everyone else drinks. You never receive a beer in a round and not take your turn at the bar. That would be epitome of bad behavior! When you have to drink enough to fulfil everyone’s duty to take on round-purchasing responsibilities, then you need a certain type of beer.

So what is a Session IPA?

A session beer must be easy to drink, but not bland. It has to achieve the fine balance of being flavoursome, but not palate-fatiguing. It shouldn’t be overly bitter or too sweet. It needs to show balance and go down with ease and invite the imbiber to have another without too much internal debate. This, for us Geese, is the main thing a brewer should be concerned with. Can I have three or four without too much trouble?

What is a session IPA’s alcohol strength?

The thorny issue of alcoholic strength cannot be avoided any longer, and here is where many will part company. A quick search online will reveal differing opinions on how strong a session ipa beer should be, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Many session bitters are 4% and under, and this is maybe where some traditionalists draw the line. There is the ‘Session Beer Project’ run by Lew Bryson in the US, that celebrates session beers on 7th April every year. His upper limit is 4.5% ABV, but as he says: he’d rather drink it than fight over it. The Big American competitions that strictly define beer styles take yet another view that seeks to broaden the definition. The BJCP allows for session IPA beers that are 3-5% ABV and the Brewer’s Association that oversees The Great American Beer Festival as well as the World Beer Cup has a Session IPA category that defines it as 3.7% to 5% ABV.

Well, that’s enough numbers and opinions for now. What’s really important is what makes a good Session IPA, and how does it compare to regular IPA? For me, it needs to have a lighter body, but not be watery in any way. It still needs a bright and flavoursome hop profile. The hops really need to sing, but not overwhelm the tastebuds. Bitterness should be there but needs to be dialled down a notch. It should be a pleasantly pithy hit and balance the fruity new-world hops. This is not simply an IPA with less alcohol; it should be a beer that keeps plenty of hop flavour wrapped up in a harmonious and easy-drinking package.

You know what? I’ll think I’ll have another…