Craft brewers pack hoppy punch into lower-alcohol beers.

  • Article by: MICHAEL RIETMULDER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 3:29 PM

Craft brewers are packing hoppy, IPA-style punch into lower-alcohol beers.

Bauhaus Brew Labs’ Wagon Party.

India pale ales are the EDM of the beer world: big, loud, in your face. The new mainstream. But there’s a conscious effort to tone it down a bit. At least in terms of alcohol content.

American IPAs often hover between 6.5 and 8 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), with some imperial IPAs hitting double digits. One of the latest trends snowballing in the craft beer world is the so-called session IPA — beers that hit that high hop quota to satisfy contemporary American palates while keeping the ABV closer to 4 percent.

“It is a little unfair that you have to go to a lighter hopped beer — or at least you used to have to — if you wanted to keep the alcohol content down,” said Dustin Brau, co-founder and head brewer of Brau Brothers Brewing Co.

That’s why his Marshall, Minn., brewery released its summer seasonal Hop­session Super Pale Ale two years ago. The brewery hosted an annual daylong hops festival in its then hometown of Lucan, Minn., and Brau wanted to give attendees their hops fix without leaving them in an inebriated puddle after having more than two.

“With Hopsession, we were admittedly a little bit of a sellout with the malt bill. This beer was designed with hops first,” he said of the 4.2 ABV beer.

From Founders Brewing Co.’s floral All Day IPA to Stone Brewing Co.’s more citrusy Go To — two powerhouses — many session IPAs unapologetically overload on hops, aiming to drop Hiroshima-sized hop-bombs in a less devastating format. But Kristen England is on the other end of the spectrum.

The head brewer at Roseville’s Bent Brew­stillery unleashed his balanced (a rarely appropriate descriptor when talking IPAs) Moar Scottish Session IPA this spring. The limited release, which is still on shelves, is a multidimensional, easy-drinking brew with its hop character more than adequately supported by a biscuit-y malt profile. Making a lower-alcohol beer that still has lots of flavor “takes a lot more than just chucking a bunch of hops in,” England said. “A lot of the session IPAs made in the U.S. are basically hop water. They forget about the entire malty character and put so many hops in that it’s basically hop soup.”

But they sell. Last year, Founders added its once-seasonal All Day IPA to its year-round lineup, and it’s reportedly become the Michigan brewery’s top seller. The session IPA bubble is part of a long line of subcategories of the hot-selling style, which includes rye IPAs, Belgian, red, black and white IPAs, England says. “It’s whatever the sexy, fickle IPA of the moment is,” he said. “Every year or year and a half you’ll see this trend of ‘What IPA can I do this time?’ ”

This may be the summer of the session IPA, but another hops-heavy subset is already fermenting: the so-called India pale lager. Breweries from San Diego’s Ballast Point to Sam Adams are making lagers hopped as heavily as West Coast IPAs and billing them as IPLs.

“Oh, yeah,” groans Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg when talk turns to the buzz phrase a week earlier. “Apparently everything that is strong now is related to India.”

Named Arminius after its hometown's unofficial mascot, the New Ulm brewery's newest addition has a statstical profile (6.5-7 percent ABV and 70 IBU) more akin to hop-happy Stone's IPA than the traditional German lagers that have been Schell's core for more than 150 years.

Most American craft brewers favor heavier, robust ales over crisp lagers in large part because of the lower brewing cost, Berg said. Lagers take longer to produce, tying up tank space. A brewer might be able to crank out an IPA in 10 to 14 days, while Arminius takes five weeks, he said.

Bud/Miller/Coors’ reign of yellow fizz hasn’t done the lager any favors in the eyes of the American public, either. Many craft-beer newbies favor high-alcohol imperial stouts and IPAs as opposed to lighter lagers or pilsners (a popular style of lager). “I still see people saying, ‘It’s pretty good for a pilsner,’ ” Berg said. “It’s like, stab me in the heart!”

But who knows. The rise of the session ale and even the hybrid IPLs could signal good things for lager-heads. Matt Schwandt certainly hopes so.

As brewer and co-owner of northeast Minneapolis’ Bauhaus Brew Labs, which recently launched its lager-heavy lineup in draft accounts, Schwandt is merging German-style lagers with new American brewing practices. While there’s a traditional IPA in his stable, he describes his Wagon Party “West Coast style lager” as having a hop profile akin to an American pale ale or California Common, while his Wonderstuff pilsener eschews the more traditional noble hops for more citrusy varieties.

“We’re trying to elevate the profile of lagers and show people that these are really interesting, flavorful beers that span the color and flavor spectrum just like ales,” Schwandt said.

It might make genre labeling messy. But as long as good beer keeps flowing, so what?

“Nowadays there’s so much fusion,” Brau said. “We might take an American hop and a Belgian yeast and a British malt — well, then what do you have? You have some sort of Frankenstein beer that tastes awesome.”

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