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The case for table IPAs

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We’ve been keeping track of the burgeoning session IPA trend for a few years now—we named Drake’s Alpha Session one of our Top 25 Beers of 2012—but I think it’s pretty safe to say that, at this point, the movement is in full-on trend mode. The only problem: For some, the name is a bit confusing.

There’s quite a bit of dirt that’s kicked up on the consumer end every time the term “session IPA” is mentioned. Some call the “IPA” part gimmicky and misleading; while others argue most examples aren’t truly session beers (commence the 4.0% vs. 4.5% ABV argument). I propose a solution. But first, let’s look at the numbers.

So, what’s a session IPA? Well, that’s a damn good question without an official answer. Based on the commercial examples out there, here’s what we know: Stylistically, session IPAs actually fall within the American pale ale category; they just hit on the statistical extremes of the style. Session IPAs typically clock in south of 5% ABV (pale ales range: 4.6 to 6.2%) and north of 40 IBUs (pale ales range: 30 to 45 IBUs). A lot of them are also dry-hopped, adding a bold hop aroma that intensifies the overall perception of hops.

Check out these commercial examples for side-by-side comparisons.

A classic American pale ale:

* Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: 5.6% ABV, 38 IBUs.

A classic American IPA:

* Stone IPA: 6.9% ABV, 77 IBUs.

A few examples of session IPAs:

* Founders All Day IPA: 4.7% ABV, 42 IBUs (the beer’s rereleasing in September in 12-pack cans).

* Boulevard Pop-Up IPA: 4.2% ABV, 42 IBUs (coming soon as the newest year-round addition).

* Rough Draft Weekday IPA: 4.8% ABV, 43 IBUs (one of my favorites, but sadly it’s draft-only).

As you can see, the equation for a session IPA isn’t: IPA’s IBUs + Pale Ale’s ABV = Session IPA. In the case of this new style, everything about the IPA is scaled down and, in the end, it’s all about perception. These quaffable beers are highly hopped (and sometimes dry-hopped) relative to their low ABV and malt base, which simply gives the impression of a smaller IPA.

There’s a precedent already set for this kind of style reduction. It’s called table beer. So, why not table IPA? The term is straightforward, it has established context and it doesn’t conflict with the south-of-4%-ABV session beer culture in the U.K., or those trying to establish a different session culture here in the States.

I had a session, I mean, table IPA with lunch just the other day. It was the perfect fit for a high-noon meal.


Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.


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One Comment

  • Joe says:

    I don’t really see a pressing need for any qualifier – table vs session, they mean the same thing and any preference for one over the other is likely just due to the preconceived notions of the person doing the naming. We already have a name for these beers – they’re APAs. Very bright and very hoppy APAs, but APAs nonetheless. It’s not all that different from the changes in hopping rates that have occurred in full strength IPAs through the late 1990s (and that continues today).

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