Beer Scout: Session IPAs invade Asheville

SMALL BEER, BIG FLAVOR: Tim Weber of Twin Leaf says session-strength beers showcase a brewer's talent. Photo by Thom O'Hearn

“Let’s meet for a pint.”

In Asheville, it’s a way to catch up. It’s a way to do business. It can even be a first date.

Yet many of us have to drive to grab a beer with our friends — just check the Wedge’s parking lot when the weather’s nice. And craft beer is strong. IPAs, by far the most popular style in town, are between 6 and 7.5 percent ABV. Compare that to the standard American light lager, which clocks in at 4.5 percent or less.

What if there was a way to take that light lager ABV and combine it with the distinctive flavors and bitterness of an IPA? That’s the idea behind one of the fastest-growing trends in craft beer, what most brewers are calling session IPA.

Hi-Wire is getting a head-start in celebrating its second brewery by kicking off a brand-new series called Hop Circus. The first beer in the series, which debuts Tuesday, Feb. 3, at the brewery’s tasting room and is available around town shortly thereafter, is a session IPA that’s 4.8 percent ABV but “packed with Simcoe hops,” according to co-owner Adam Charnack.

“I think we’ve always been ahead of the curve having sessionable styles with our four year-round beers,” says Charnack. “It’s a natural extension for us to kick off a new IPA series with a sessionable version of the style. … If you like a beer, you should be able to have more than one,” says Charnack.

Hi-Wire is not alone. In the past couple of months, a handful of local breweries debuted creative riffs on session IPAs, from Asheville Brewing’s I9 (a low ABV offering dry-hopped nine times) to Burial’s Fixie IPA, a session IPA featuring not only hops, but coffee as well.

“For Fixie, we found that playing down the alcohol would allow the characteristics of the hops and the coffee notes to really come through without being over the top,” says Jess Reiser, co-owner of Burial.

Oskar Blues put it a similar way when describing its first new year-round beer in about five years years, Pinner, a session-strength IPA. “With the lower ABV, layers of flavor build on one another — with one sip citrus, the next sip pineapple, next sip papaya, next sip passion fruit, next sip toasted bread — and then it’s on to the next pint,” says head brewer Tim Matthews.

New Belgium assistant brewmaster Grady Hull said crafting New Belgium’s session IPA, Slow Ride, was a challenge, but the result is “amazingly flavorful” for its 4.5 percent ABV. “The fun part about making this beer was balancing eight different hop strains into something smooth, bold and sessionable.”

Beyond the Session IPA

Still, session beers don’t have to be all about hops, hops, hops. A few local breweries are advocates of other session beer styles.

At Twin Leaf, co-owner and brewer Tim Weber has kept Wee Nipper, an English-style bitter, on tap since the brewery opened. At just 3.8 percent, it’s one of the lowest ABV beers in town.

“I enjoy drinking session beers, but the main reason I wanted to make them in the first place was the challenge,” says Weber. “It shows off your prowess as a brewer to make something that has big flavor but that’s low in alcohol. … To have someone taste it [and not criticize it] for being thin or not having enough flavor, it’s impressive.”

While Weber admits Twin Leaf’s IPA is the brewery’s best-selling beer, he says the Wee Nipper has a loyal following. “We definitely have a few regulars who seek out this beer. … I also see it a lot, where people are going around town trying stronger beers, then they get here and they actually thank us for having a 3 percent beer.”

Morganton brewery Fonta Flora sees a similar appeal in sessionable ales, which the brewery calls “table beers.”

“Fonta Flora was actually designed around the idea of creating low-alcohol, high-flavor craft beers,” says co-owner and brewer Todd Boera. “For our location in particular — we’re at the bottom of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area — table beers allow our customers to enjoy craft beer but also enjoy an active adventure without being intoxicated,” says Boera.

Fonta Flora took home a prestigious gold medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival for its Irish Table beer. If you stop by the brewery, you may find it on tap, or you may find a table beer representing England or Belgium.

At Lookout Brewing in Black Mountain, owner and brewer John Garcia just created a hoppy pilsner for his patrons to enjoy during the Super Bowl. He says it has a big, bold hoppy aroma, despite packing just 3.9 percent ABV. “After all, it’s the Super Bowl. … Most of us will want to have a few beers during the game,” says Garcia.




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About Thom O'Hearn
Thom O’Hearn is a writer, book editor and homebrewer. Twitter: @thomohearn

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