PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- How do beer lovers know when the IPA has gone mainstream? When experimental craft brewer Stone and big-beer mainstay Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) each release a low-alcohol IPA in the same year.
Welcome to the summer of the session IPA: When India Pale Ale's bitterness and aroma are as strong as ever, but its alcoholic punch softens a bit. Anheuser-Busch InBev's Goose Island craft subsidiary announced its Endless IPA Session Ale earlier this year and released it in April. At 5% alcohol by volume and 35 international bitterness units, it's every bit the lightweight it's meant to be, but its citrusy amarillo hops still get the aroma and bitterness across. Stone, meanwhile, launched its Go-To IPA that's even less potent at 4.5% ABV, but incredibly bitter at 65 IBUs thanks to a late, plentiful addition of hops.
Why would two companies sitting on opposite ends of the beer industry spectrum embrace the same idea at the same time? Because mellow IPA is meeting braver U.S. beer drinkers where they're at right now -- and neither lager-loving big brewers or high-alcohol craft brewers can afford to ignore it.
Market research firm Symphony IRI saw a 36% spike in IPA sales at off-premise locations (bottle shops, supermarkets, Target (TGT), Walmart (WMT)) during the first half of last year. Meanwhile, sales of IPAs jumped 39% in 2012 and made up 18% of all craft beer sales -- jumping ahead of seasonal offerings as the overall top-selling craft beer style. In five of the last seven years, the top-selling new craft beer brand has been an IPA. In 2012, four of the Top 10 new beer offerings were IPA -- including Boston Beer Company's (SAM) Samuel Adams Whitewater IPA and A-B's Shock Top Wheat IPA.
Big brewers still hold roughly 74% of the overall beer market, but have watched craft beer gain share and flagship brands like Budweiser, Bud Light and Miller Lite lose ground as drinkers seek more complex styles. That's lead bigger brewers to try their hands at wheat beers like Shock Top and more experimental styles like the MolsonCoors/SABMiller-owned Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy.
Craft brewers, meanwhile, have watched drinkers gravitate to those styles and have begun dabbling in more accessible styles themselves. That means cans, lower alcohol and tweaking their all-powerful IPA to draw in new drinkers. Kurt Widmer, whose Widmer Brothers brewery just released a year-round IPA called Upheaval, but has been dabbling with a session IPA, says it's just about giving drinkers what they want.