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"A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch." - James Beard


Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Beer Baron - Summer 2014: Rise of the Session Ale

It is summer, which in the world of craft beer means hops, hops and more hops. In the past decade, no style of beer has proliferated more than India Pale Ales, affectionately known as IPAs.

 The original English IPAs, brewed with more hops than normal to survive the voyage from England to India, spawned American IPAs – particularly from West Coast brewers – that were even hoppier, paving the way for Double IPAs and Imperial IPAs that were even bolder. The term “hop heads” was coined for those beer geeks who felt too much hops was never enough and suddenly, everyone knew what International Bitterness Units (IBUs) were.  It was Reefer Madness, but with hops.

In Ontario, one of the first really special craft beers was the Black Oak Brewing Co.’s 10 Bitter Years, an Imperial IPA released in 2009 to celebrate their 10th anniversary. At the time, it seemed pretty revolutionary. It was an 8% alcohol by volume (abv) hop-punch in the face and it was – and still is – glorious. A couple years and four hours southwest later, Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan released Hop Slam, a 10% abv ode to hops that currently stands as 28th on RateBeer’s Top 50.

All that is to say is that hops – and the IPAs that deliver them to you in abundance – are popular. Do you know what isn’t popular? Hangovers, drunk driving, needing a nap after one beer, drunk dialing, etc. There is certainly a time and a place for 10% abv beers but what if you like the wonderfully aromatic, floral, herbal notes of hops but don’t want to get drunk at 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon after mowing the lawn? The answer, 286 words later, is Session Ale.

As the name implies, Session Ales are designed to be “sessionable”, which means they retain many of the wonderful attributes of IPAs but make do with a lower alcohol content. You know, in case life gets in the way of being a beer geek. Just as 10 Bitter Years and Hop Slam are heavyweight contenders from Ontario and Michigan, respectively, Muskoka Brewery’s Detour and Founders Brewing Company’s All Day IPA are two local lightweight contenders weighing in at 4.3% and 4.7% abv.

As you can see, Detour is a slightly paler hue of gold but we aren’t here to look, we are here to smell and taste and enjoy.

Detour is wonderfully inviting on the nose, with delicate notes of tropical fruit – like a vacation you don’t have to plan or pack for, just enjoy. Once you dive in, there are tropical and floral notes along with a hint of honey and the typical grapefruit intensity present in most IPAs. There is just enough of a malty backbone to give it balance and then it all fades to a subtle, pleasant bitterness. To be honest, I love Detour. If I won the lottery and could just walk the earth, Caine from Kung Fu style, slapping Bud Lights out of people’s hands and replacing it with a Detour, I would.

All Day IPA comes across instantly more assertive, both on the nose with richer, malty notes to go with the piney and floral scent long associated with IPAs and on the tongue with the balanced but traditionally IPA combination of citrus and malt with a hint of caramel and a nicely bitter finish.

Where the Detour was lighter and more tropical, making it seem a little more unique, the All Day IPA was just that, a traditional American IPA scaled back to eight-tenths so that you could, conceivably, drink it all day long (consult your doctor). Kudos to each of the brewers for creating Session Ales with incredible flavour, aroma and complexity and kudos to us for making it to the summer of the Session Ale and may we never drink a light beer again.


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