Seven New Session Beers to Try This Summer
For far too long, bigger was considered better in the landscape of craft beer. Soaring alcohol content and mouth-puckering levels of IBUs were de rigueur as brewmasters battled to be the alpha dog of everything imperial, barrel-aged, and boozy. “You can’t really slake your thirst with a dinner-caliber beer,” says Mystic Brewery founder Bryan Greenhagen. “The whole big, crazy-hopped, esoteric-ingredient thing has been a useful adventure, but seasoned drinkers get a little tired of it. At the end of the day, beer is about refreshment. It’s not supposed to be wine.”
Even though India pale ales remain the foundation of most craft consumption, the potency of those hoppy offerings has begun to ebb dramatically. Extreme beers are waning in popularity as “restraint” has become the buzzword of the moment. Just this year stalwarts like Stone Brewing, Firestone Walker, and Lagunitas have all tried their hand at low-alcohol session beers. The same holds true in New England, where brewmasters have started to follow the example set forth by High & Mighty’s Will Shelton, Allagash’s Rob Tod, and Notch founder Chris Lohring.
We went on a quest for some standout examples and found seven flavorful session beers perfect for the warmer months ahead. Here’s a look at some new brews just released or about to hit your local pub.
Jack’s Abby Session Rye IPL
Style: India Pale Lager
Alcohol by Volume: 3.8%
Now available on draft and in 16.9 ounce bottles.
Jack’s Abby has already accrued a number of accolades and built up a loyal following for its all-lager lineup. On May 19, this Framingham brewery released its latest quaffable concoction, which combines spicy rye malt with Centennial, Chinook, Columbus and Crystal hops. Their Rye India Pale Lager clocks in at a breezy 3.8% ABV and is an ideal partner for picnics, leisurely lunches, or in the case of assistant brewer Matt Cohen, a wedding.
“If you’re at your wedding and you want to have a couple of beers, you don’t want to be falling over by the end of the night,” founder Jack Hendler says. “So with this recipe that Matt [Hendler, his brother] created, he was trying to strike the right balance between something that had bold flavor, yet was lower in alcohol. The rye adds that spiciness that really blends well with the choice of hops. It’s got that real American sea hop character to it. The ABV will fool you. You don’t expect this sort of flavor with a beer that’s only 3.8% alcohol.”
Smuttynose Brewing Bouncy House
Style: India Pale Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 4.3%
Now available on draft and in 12 ounce bottles.
After five years of torpidity, Smuttynose is shaking up their lineup of everyday beers. Gone is the Star Island Single, a sessionable Belgian-style pale ale they introduced back in 2009. In its place is Vunderbar Pilsner (formerly a mid-summer seasonal) and Bouncy House session IPA. Brewed with Magnum, Calypso, and Saphir hops, as well as five types of malt, Bouncy House is a highly drinkable IPA with characteristics of pine, peach, and candied citrus.
“We decided we wanted to make a session because it’s the kind of beer we all wanted to drink,” says J.T. Thompson, Smuttynose’s Minister of Propaganda. “This is the first year-round beer we’ve done in five years, so we wanted to bring something new and unique to the mix.”
Notch Brewing Hootenanny
Style: Berliner Weisse
Alcohol by Volume: 3.3%
Available on draft and in 12 ounce bottles in late-June.
“Four years ago when I first started Notch, people thought the session beer category was just the dumbing down of more popular styles,” says founder Chris Lohring. “But what I was always trying to get across to people was that these were just styles we had ignored for hundreds of years. Lower alcohol Czech-style pilsners and Belgian saisons have decades of history. U.S. brewers just hadn’t paid attention to them.”
These days, Lohring has almost single-handedly built up the session category in New England. But Lohring admits his newest project, a German Berliner Weisse he’s named Hootenanny, might be his most ambitious undertaking to date.
“I’ve been wanting to do it for a number of years now, but I didn’t have the capacity at Mercury [Brewing Company] in Ipswich,” Lohring says. “The process is pretty complicated so I had to wait for Mercury to move into their new brewery. There’s a lot going into this beer [including all Massachusetts wheat from Valley Malt], not just brewer’s yeast, but an addition of lactobacillus. I’m not big on all sour beers, but I like Berliner Weisses because they have a clean tartness and they’re a wonderful thirst quencher in the summer.”
Night Shift Brewing Whirlpool
Style: American-Style Pale Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 4%
Currently available on draft and in cans in early July.
Night Shift’s trio of brewers (Michael Oxton, Michael O’Mara, and Robert Burns) have come a long way from since their initial nanobrewery in Everett. On May 21, they officially moved into their new 16,000 square-foot facility complete with a spacious taproom, a vast production area, and even a canning line. Their debut aluminum offering is what Oxton calls an “American-style pale ale,” brewed with wheat, oats, pilsner malt, Mosaic hops, and a new Australian variety of hop, Summer.
“We’ve only been brewing Whirlpool since March,” Oxton says. “Initially, it was just a small pilot batch, but it was one of our most popular growler beers ever. Whirlpool was such a huge success that we decided to do a much bigger production run of it and we haven’t looked back since.”
Named after its delicate and lengthy production process, with hops only added during the whirlpool stage (none in the boil), Night Shift’s session pale ale has a pronounced nose of lemon, peach, and tangerine. “Since we started, we’ve had a session beers in our sights,” says Oxton. “It took us this long and a lot of experimentation to nail down a recipe that we thought was interesting and sessionable, while still being flavorful.”
Bissell Brothers Baby Genius
Style: Blonde Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 4%
Draft and cans available in early-July.
At just 24-years-old, Noah Bissell is craft beer’s newest wunderkind. Bissell Brothers, his 10-barrel brewhouse, focuses their efforts on one flagship beer, The Substance, a vegetal hop-bomb that’s already been crowned the heir to The Alchemist’s Heady Topper. Limited by just two 20-barrel fermenters, Noah and his older brother Peter have had difficulty keeping up with demand, but starting this summer, with the addition of a third fermenter, the duo is going to delve into the burgeoning session beer category.
“The goal is to make a hoppy blonde ale with a relatively low alcohol level,” Bissell says. “As a small brewer, you’re always looking for the next big hop before everyone starts contracting it and you can’t get it anymore. So, we’re using all Australian hops with high alpha acids, which I’d never really used before Baby Genius. The hop bill is Ella, Galaxy, and Summer, which gives the beer a fruity, floral, melon-y profile. Australian hops are familiar enough without being alienating, but different enough to where it’s going to taste much different than other beers on the market.”
Aeronaut Brewery’s A Session With Doctor Nandu
Style: India Pale Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 4.5%
Available on draft on June 21.
Aeronaut Brewery, the Somerville think tank, food hub, and cutting-edge craft brewery, is set to launch on June 21. Its first offering will be dubbed A Session With Doctor Nandu, a nebulous ale cofounder Benjamin Holmes is hesitant to saddle under the constraints of any one particular style. “I think IPA is a dubious title because traditionally an IPA is always a higher gravity beer,” Holmes says. “This will almost always be served from a cask, so it’s really more of a sessionable real ale with Northwestern hops.”
Named after Holmes’s childhood friend who is currently finishing his doctorate, the session ale is brewed with Centennial and Mosaic hops. But Aeronaut’s real intention is to use the beer as a “blank canvas” to showcase different yeast strains and methods of dry-hopping.
“We actually have another session pale ale called Rendezvous with Doctor Nandu, predictably, that’s the same beer with a French saison yeast. The insane thing is that it tastes completely different. It tastes like Belgian table beer. And at ACBF (American Craft Beer Fest), I’m going to pour eight firkins of Doctor Nandu filled with four different styles of dry hops. So, not only is it a ‘session’ in the sense of a doctor’s visit or a ‘session beer,’ but it’s also a slate for a brainstorming session.”
Mystic Table Beer
Alcohol by Volume: 4.3%
Now available in 750 ml bottles
Mystic Brewery in Chelsea will celebrate its third anniversary come August, but until recently, founder Bryan Greenhagen was having a difficult time imbibing his own beer after a long day of brewing. “We make all these provision strength beers, and when you work all day, but you still have to be able to get home to take care of your kids, you can’t really throw back something like Saison Renaud,” Greenhagen says. “… So we designed Table Beer more in the vein of a field Saison.”
Using the same basic blueprint from Mystic’s Belgian farmhouse ale, Greenhagen combined barley, wheat, oats, spelt, and traditional European Hallertau hops, but managed to chop off three percentage points from the original ABV. In less than a year, Table Beer has become Mystic’s hottest offering.
“Every single time we brew it the entire batch is gone immediately,” Greenhagen says. “We could sell three times as much as we are right now, but I’m hesitant to turn it into something like Allagash White, which is 80 percent of what they brew. I’m not dogmatic about it, but I’d like to maintain a more balanced portfolio.”