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.
"The hottest beer in the United States is what's new," Widmer says. "It doesn't matter where I go. All craft drinkers are very promiscuous right now. The second most popular style is IPA."
Session IPA is a fast growing subsection of that category. Stone's Go-To has entered a market in which Founders Brewing in Kalamazoo, Mich., sells its 4.7% ABV All Day session IPA in 15 packs of cans. Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada, one of the largest craft brewers in the country, offers a new Nooner IPA that checks in at 4.8% ABV. Flying Dog of Frederick, Md., is launching an Easy IPA that clocks in at 4.7% ABV. Even Firestone Walker of Paso Robles, Calif. -- known for its strong Union Jack and Wookey Jack brands -- has offered Easy Jack at 4.5% ABV.
That's all less alcohol than a can of Budweiser, and any growing brewer knows that makes it far easier to convert light lager drinkers than offering them hefty, higher-alcohol IPAs that are tongue-scrapingly bitter. Even Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas, which has grown into one of the top five craft brewers in the country and the 11th largest U.S. brewer overall without a session IPA, eventually caved and went with a 4.6% ABV DayTime IPA. Notch Session out of Ipswich, Mass., has been making low-alcohol beer since 2010, but didn't produce its 4.3% ABV Left Of The Dial IPA until last year.
It's possible to hate IPA and love session beer; it's equally viable to love making good IPA but hate the thought of knocking down alcohol content. But a brewer that's never dabbled much in IPA perhaps best explained why going with a lower-alcohol beer or unfamiliar style is worth it. Irene Firmat, co-founder of Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Ore., launched that brewery's Session line of lagers in 2005 -- when session wasn't a word coming out of any brewer's mouth on this side of the Atlantic. While Full Sail had spent its life making more craft-style beers with higher alcohol content, it saw potential for craft beer growth in the supermarkets, old-man bars and sports venues that craft either disdained or didn't care to go. By making a beer of craft quality but big-beer alcohol content, Full Sail made its way into those unclaimed territories and saw its sales soar as a result.
"When we did Session in 2005, that was also a line in the sand for us. We saw the industry going all the way to an extreme, and we don't believe that," Firmat says. "We put a line in the stand and said 'Session stands for what craft beer should be: Inclusive, sophisticated, elegant, drinkable flavors'."
There's going to be a time when "session" beers -- and session IPA, in particular -- are no longer a trend or anomaly, but just a beer that a broad swath of drinkers enjoys. Until that happens, just marvel at the fact that -- for once -- big beer and craft beer are both jumping at the same good idea.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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