Looking for a hop-drenched, in your face IPA but without the high ABV? Session IPA has got you covered. We’ll go through how to brew up a perfect Session IPA every time.
What is a Session IPA?
Session IPA packs all the hoppy goodness of IPA into a lower alcohol beer. It’s often called India Session Ale, or ISA.
Expect bright hoppiness – juicy, floral, resinous, or citrusy – with a light body and massive drinkability. They were invented to be session beers – where you can have a few on a work-night and not wake up groggy.
The BJCP references Session IPA under 21B, Specialty IPA, and puts it in the ABV range of 3.0 to 5.0%.
Session IPA should have a color ranging between 3 and 6 SRM. Bitterness can be medium to medium-high. Because of the lower strength, the body of the beer tends to be on the thin side. That said, with the use of a higher mash temperature and sound brewing practice, a nice mouthfeel is definitely possible.
What’s the difference between a Session IPA and an American Pale Ale (APA)?
American Pale Ale and Session IPA have a definite stylistic overlap, particularly around that 5% ABV mark. When many breweries started making Session IPA 10 years ago, they were conceived as extremely hoppy low ABV beers.
Since then, Pale Ales have gotten hoppier and hoppier. This makes any distinction between ISA and APA rather nuanced, and ultimately comes down to marketing.
Modern Session IPA should be lower alcohol and hoppier, with a lighter body and lower color than APA. Caramel sweetness, often found in APA, is also generally absent from Session IPA.
What makes a good Session IPA?
Session IPA has been essentially sectioned into two basic categories:
- New England Style Session IPA
- West Coast Style Session IPA
The overarching thread is a 3% to 5% ABV beer, light bodied, and hoppy. Let’s take a look at the differences and what makes each version great.
West Coast Style Session IPA
The original style of Session IPA was a pared down version of classic West Coast IPA.
One of the shining examples, and arguably the first true Session IPA, is Founders All Day IPA. Drinking that for the first time nearly 10 years ago was a revelation. Hoppier than most full strength IPAs at the time, it was perplexing how Founders packed that much flavor into a tiny little 4.7% package.
Since then, the style has shifted a bit, but has remained true to those original versions. And luckily, many brewers caught on to some of the tricks and methods of succeeding at the style.
This style of Session IPA is pale golden, occasionally with a tinge of amber, with brilliant clarity. On the nose, citrus, pine, and resin. The flavor is similar, with a good punch of bitterness (about 30 to 40 IBU) keeping things super dry and thirst quenching.
New England Style Session IPA
New England or NE Style Session IPA is just like its bigger sibling: hazy, juicy, tropical, and soft. Packing all that into a lower ABV beer is tricky, but some of the best breweries on the East Coast have succeeded masterfully.
Beers like Baby Genius by Bissell Brothers and Small Green Everything from Other Half are packed with flavor. Despite the low ABV, they still maintain a full and soft mouthfeel.
New England Style Session IPA favors juicy hops like Galaxy, Citra, Mosaic, Enigma, and new varieties like Sabro. This style of Session IPA is extremely fruity and refreshing.
A grain bill usually consisting of large portions of oats and/or wheat, the mouthfeel leans toward soft and full, despite the svelte ABV. On top of this, bittering hops are usually ignored altogether. Large whirlpool additions and dry hops give these beers massive hoppy punch.
How to brew Session IPA
Session IPA is brewed in the same way as West Coast IPA or New England IPA. Because of the lower ABV, there are a few things you need to consider to make sure there’s enough body to back the intense hoppiness.
Let’s take a look at the details of brewing this fantastic session style.
A simple base of 2-row should be accompanied by a bit of malted wheat for body. West Coast versions can use a small amount of light crystal malt (less than 3%) for a bit of sweetness and color. You can also add a bit of Vienna or Munich malt if you prefer a bit more color.
New England versions benefit from a healthy portion of flaked or malted oats. Keep the color very low or else the hazy nature of the style could make it appear murky.
|West Coast||New England|
|82% 2-Row||75% 2-Row|
|15.5% Wheat Malt||10% Wheat Malt|
|2.5% Crystal 20||15% Flaked or Malted Oats|
|Replace 5% of the 2-row with Vienna or Light Munich for added color.||Boost oats up to 20% for a creamier mouthfeel.|
The original gravity (OG) should be 1.040 to 1.050 with an SRM between 3.0 and 6.0.
To build some body in session IPA, mash on the high side. This means between 157°F to 160°F. A single infusion mash for about 60 minutes works perfectly.
The relatively hot mash temperature will produce sufficient unfermentable sugars in the wort. These are the sugars that typical brewer’s yeast can’t consume, leaving a bit more residual sweetness and body in the beer.
Target a final gravity of 1.012 to 1.015.
Hops take center stage in Session IPA. There are a few simple guidelines to follow to get the most out of your hop additions, no matter what style of IPA you’re brewing.
For a West Coast version, stick to around 30 to 40 IBU with classic American hop varieties like Cascade, Centennial, or Simcoe. You’ll want pretty hefty whirlpool and dry hop charges to maximize that dank, piney, citrusy flavor.
New England Style versions will be less bitter, 25 IBU maximum. Juicy and tropical hops like Galaxy and Enigma should be used in excess, hammering both the whirlpool and dry hop additions.
The hop schedule for Session IPA is as follows:
- Small 30 or 60 minute boil addition (this can even be omitted in the NE Style)
- Large whirlpool addition at 160°F to 170°F for 30 minutes
- Large dry hop 3 to 4 days before packaging
Be sure to use a brewing software like BeerSmith or Brewer’s Friend to calculate the bitterness (IBU) contributed from the whirlpool hops. Follow our guide below for all your Session IPA hopping needs:
There isn’t a lot of yeast character that makes it through in Session IPA. The massive hop rates combined with the low ABV doesn’t leave much room for the yeast to shine. We prefer keeping it simple, sticking with your favorite IPA yeast.
- Wyeast 1318 London Ale III for New England Style
- SafAle US-05 for West Coast Style
Pitch a healthy starter for a quick start to fermentation and to limit any potential off-flavors.
A bit of chlorides will help with the mouthfeel, where some sulfates boost hop clarity. Aim for a chloride to sulfate ratio of about 2:1 for the New England Style, and 1:1 for the West Coast style. Keep it to a maximum of 100 ppm sulfate. Calcium, about 80 ppm, will help with yeast health.
Use very clean, low mineral water as a starting point. Reverse osmosis (RO), distilled, or carbon filtered water are ideal. Chlorine and chloramine found in many municipal water supplies will destroy hop expression. Make sure your water is free from those or treated with a Campden tablet, if necessary.
Packaging and Conditioning
Kegging is the best way to package Session IPA. It’s a very volatile style packed with extremely oxygen hops. Shoot for about 2.5 volumes of CO2 for carbonation.
Once kegged, all those pungent hops need time to condition. Give Session IPA at least 1 week, but ideally 2, to condition at very cold temperatures. Since there isn’t much to the body of the beer, hop particles can give acrid, bitter, and harsh flavors when freshly packaged.
Session IPA Recipe
This is a take on a Session IPA leaning toward the New England style, kept simple and low-ester with Chico yeast. Quite hazy from the massive dry hop but with a clean and dry finish.
|Final Volume||Original Gravity||Final Gravity||ABV||IBU||SRM|
|7 lb||2-Row Malt||37||70%||1.8|
|1.5 lb||Wheat Malt||36||15%||2.0|
|1.5 lb||Flaked Oats||33||15%||2.2|
For extract brewers, use 6 pounds of Light dry malt extract (DME) and steep one pound of CaraPils and one pound of flaked oats for some extra body.
|¼ oz||Cashmere||8.5%||Boil||30 min||4|
|1 oz||Citra||13%||Whirlpool at 165°F||30 min||~3|
|2 oz||Enigma||13.5%||Whirlpool at 165°F||30 min||~7|
|2 ¾ oz||Cashmere||8.5%||Whirlpool at 165°F||30 min||~6|
|2 oz||Citra||13%||Dry Hop||4 days||–|
|4 oz||Enigma||13.5%||Dry Hop||4 days||–|
|4 oz||Cashmere||8.5%||Dry Hop||4 days||–|
SafAle US-05 – starter preferred
Use RO, carbon filtered, or distilled water. Aim for the following water profile, adjusting with calcium chloride and calcium sulfate:
- Sulfates – 60 ppm
- Chloride – 80 ppm
- Calcium – 20 ppm
- Magnesium – 20 ppm
- Mash pH – 5.2
- Mash with a single infusion rest at 160°F for 60 minutes. Sparge the full volume into the kettle.
- Bring the wort to a boil.
- Add 30 minute hop addition.
- Turn off heat.
- Chill wort to 165°F.
- Add whirlpool hops and hold temperature at 165°F for 30 minutes.
- Chill wort to 68°F.
- Transfer cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, leaving behind trub and hop matter.
- Oxygenate wort and pitch the yeast.
- Ferment at 68°F for 5 days.
- Add dry hops and leave for 3 to 4 days.
- Cold crash for at least 24 hours.
- Transfer beer to sanitized and CO2 purged keg, ideally with a closed transfer process.
- Carbonate to 2.5 volumes of CO2.
- Condition keg at 32°F to 35°F for at least one week, preferably two.
Take your Session IPA to the next level following our tried and tested method. Don’t be shy with the hops – just make sure you’re using only the freshest and most pungent varieties.
If you find your Session IPA is a bit harsh tasting, give it some conditioning time. All those beautiful hop compounds need time to settle in and simmer down.
Have fun brewing this low gravity, high enjoyment brew that’ll definitely feed your need for hops!