When judges rate beers at competitions like the Great American Beer Festival, they are typically looking for how well a particular brew fits its style definition. Does it taste, smell and feel like it is supposed to? Is it cloudy or clear? Does it have the right color, the right kind of head? But when the judges sit down this year to rate entries in the brand-new Session IPA category, they'll be looking for something that's a little harder to define: drinkability, as well as a lower alcohol content. All of the beers must be under 5 percent ABV.
“It's a tricky category, but it's really fun,” says GABF competition manager Chris Swersey, who notes how popular session IPAs have become.
The Brewers Association, which runs GABF, created the Session IPA category this year because 45 to 50 of the 94 entries in the more general, umbrella-like Session Beer category were IPAs in 2014. It was a good decision: The Session IPA category got about 150 entries in its 2015 debut. “It’s impressive," Swersey says. "That’s an awful lot of beers for a first-year category.”
Session beers are usually defined as such because a person could drink a couple of them during a “session” without getting too drunk. Certain styles can be challenging to brew as session beers, though, because lower alcohol means less malt. And less malt usually means fewer hops to balance out the malt — and less flavor.
Over the past couple of years, however, consumers have been clamoring for full-flavored IPAs with a lower ABV – and breweries have been rising to the occasion. In Colorado, several big beer-makers have turned out new ones, including Oskar Blues (Pinner Throwback IPA), Ska (Rudie), New Belgium (Slow Ride), Left Hand (Introvert) and Odell (Loose Leaf). Many of the large national craft brewers have done the same, including Sierra Nevada (Nooner), Firestone Walker (Easy Jack), Stone (Go To IPA) and Lagunitas (Day Time).
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Here's part of how GABF defines the category: “Session IPAs are gold to copper… Hop aroma is medium to high with qualities from a wide variety of hops from all over the world. Low to medium maltiness is present… Body is low to medium. Beer entries which exceed 5.0% ABV should be entered in another category… Entries containing less than 4.1% abw (5.1% abv) which could be appropriately entered in any other classic or traditional category should be entered in that category and not entered as a Session Beer.”
Even trickier, however, is the regular Session Beer category, which has been in place for a couple of years. That's because there are a wide variety of styles thrown into that one category, with the only defining factor being that they have a low ABV. “It's diverse. It's more like a best-of-show category. For example, you have stouts competing against marzens,” Swersey says. “So the judges have to bring a lot of their knowledge to bear. But the ones who do it usually ask to do it because it's challenging.”
It's also done on the honor system, meaning GABF doesn't test the ABV on the entries. “That would be a practical impossibility,” Swersey says. Rather, GABF stresses that the judges be on the lookout for beers that might taste “a little hot” for the style. “If you aren't paying attention, your taste buds may lead you to that bigger beer.”
This year, there were about forty entries in the Session Beer category, which the GABF defines as, in part: "Appearance may vary from brilliant to hazy to cloudy with style of beer being made to lower strength. Aroma depends on the style of beer being made to lower strength. Any style of beer can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style’s character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 4.0% alcohol by weight (5.0% alcohol by volume). Beers above these limits that are entered into this category may be disqualified before judging or after results are announced."