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Drinkability and the Trend of Session IPAs

Alex Fossi, June 03, 2014 -   

Even if you aren't a big beer drinker, you probably have a least favorite beer ad. Personally, I have a special hatred for the Bud. Weis. Errrrr. ads with the chameleons or whatever they were. You know the one, I'm sure. The odd thing about that is that there was a time when that appealed to me, and that time was when I was twelve. I certainly hope that wasn't their intent, although males age 8-13 is one of the few demographics that eagerly consume advertising featuring animals making irritating sounds.

While I do occasionally spend sleepless nights pounding my face into tables trying to erase the "Errrrrr" in "Bud. Weis. Errrrrr." from my brain, it's still not my least favorite beer ad campaign of all time. Rather, that honor goes to the "Drinkability" campaign run by Bud Lite a few years back.

What the hell is "drinkability"? Any non-poisonous liquid has "drinkability", with the possible exception of a certain IPA from Henry Weinhard's. Drinks have the ability to be drinked, or something along those lines. While claiming that Bud Lite is a liquid that a human being could consume is certainly a bold strategy, I'm not sure it's the best way to sell the product.

Craft beer isn't immune from this sort of buzzword. Recently, the big thing is "session" beers, especially IPAs. I'm not 100% sure, but it seems that session is code for "you can just drink, like, a whole bunch of this". I find this somewhat insulting, because I can session anything if you try hard enough. I'll session w00tstout if I want to (NOTE: I do not want to). 5% ABV beers were a thing that existed previously; we just didn't need to be specifically instructed to drink them in multiples.

Now we have session saisons, session pale ales, session IPAs that taste like hop water, and hoppy pale ales that taste like IPAs. I saw a session black IPA the other day. What's the thought process there? Let's take a style that involves adding flavor with roasted malts, but then dial back the malts and lower the %ABV to the point where all you taste is hops anyway. It's drinkable! It's only a matter of time before someone makes an imperial session IPA and style labels cease to mean anything.

Of course, style blurring is nothing new. Far be it from me to tell brewers not to label beers as they see fit. The problem is just that the word "session" means pretty much nothing to me as a consumer -- if I know the ABV and try the beer, I already know if I consider it sessionable. Breweries use all kinds of terms to describe their beers -- East and West Coast IPAs, Caribbean-style hops, <insert adjunct here> stouts, and bourbon-barrel everythings. Let's try and use an adjective that tells me more than "there is less of the alcohol in it".

This is a relatively minor quibble. Really, it's nothing new for breweries to capitalize on trends in the beer-drinking community. A few years ago, someone (allegedly) made a half-decent pumpkin beer. It sold well, and now we can expect our shops to be overrun by a deluge of pumpkin beers each fall (a season which begins in mid-July, apparently). More recently, the same thing happened with bourbon barrel-aged beers.

Now, it looks like everyone and their evil twin will be making a session IPA (actually, to give credit where it's due, Evil Twin was one of the first breweries to produce one, and they deserve some credit/blame for the current trend).

It'd just be nice if more breweries picked descriptors that told you what sets their beer apart. I know what a session IPA is. What's your session IPA about? I've had All Day, Go To, Nooner, and so on. All I'm asking is that you give me a reason to try yours too, something beyond the fact that I can drink them in bunches. I'd rather have a name that tells me something about the beer, and I'll decide for myself if it's session-worthy.

Now, don't get me wrong -- my dislike for the label doesn't mean I dislike the beer, necessarily. Here are some collected thoughts on one I did enjoy.

Firestone Walker Easy Jack

Appearance: As soon as you start pouring this, you'll begin to see the difference between this and the other Jacks. It's light golden-yellow, with fairly thin carbonation. 3/5

Aroma: Orange and tropical fruit. Remarkably similar to a heavy-hopped IPA and even some of the lighter imperials. 4/5

Taste: Zero backbone, no malt, and very little bitterness, none of which really say "IPA" to me. It does have a good flavor, but it's all up-front flavor hops, without any lingering flavor or bitterness. It's not bad, just different. Going from an IPA to this is kind of like switching from bourbon neat to an old-fashioned; there's not much of a kick to it, but it's a good taste in its own way. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thin and watery, crisper than I would have expected given that it didn't look that carbonated. Drinkable. 2.5/5

Overall: If I compare this to a standard IPA, especially one like Union Jack, it's a disappointment. I enjoyed it in a fashion, but it doesn't measure up to the style it purports to be part of. If you like the aroma/flavor hops, you'll enjoy it; if you don't, there's pretty much nothing to recommend about this beer. 3.5/5

You can find Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.

Header image thanks to Instagram user TheKegTap.

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