The Surprising History of the Session IPA

History by the Glass by | Dec 2016 | Issue #119

IPAs of varying descriptions are all the rage nowadays: Shelves sag with Double, Imperial, Black, White, and even Session IPAs. New variations are seen as innovative and exciting. But it’s all been done before, as has almost everything connected with brewing.

Far from being new and exciting, session-strength IPAs have been around for a long time—as long as IPA itself. There’s even an argument that the original IPAs were session beers because by the standards of the day, they were ordinary-strength beers.

Early Victorians had a totally different concept of what constituted a strong beer. In general, 19th century beers were stronger than they are today. For example, in the 1830s, a London X Ale, the weakest type of Mild, was around 6 percent ABV. A strong Stock Ale was over 10 percent ABV. An IPA of 6 or 7 percent ABV isn’t particularly strong in this context.

But many early IPAs weren’t even that strong. In The Scottish Ale Brewer and Practical Maltster by W.H. Roberts, there’s a detailed table of 42 IPAs brewed in the 1840s, presumably in Scotland. They include beers both for export and the domestic market. The weakest export example is just 5.23 percent ABV, the weakest domestic one 5.02 percent ABV. That’s about as weak as beer got back then, other than the table beer they let the kids drink.

In the table I’ve listed the 11 weakest export versions. The average is for all 42 IPAs. At just over 6.5 percent, it’s not what Victorian drinkers would have called strong. It’s barely more than the weakest Mild or Porter.

If IPA of the early 1800s was session strength by the standards of the day, examples from later in the century would count as such today. The big London brewers all started making Pale Ales in the 1860s. With gravities around 1065º, these were a similar strength to Burton-brewed IPA. But toward the end of the century some introduced a new, lower-gravity version. They called it IPA.

Whitbread IPA, first brewed in 1900, was such a beer. It had a gravity of just 1050º, and an ABV of 4.6 percent, making it the company’s weakest beer. X Ale, its Mild, was 1056º and 5.7 percent ABV. Anything under 5 percent ABV was very weak in pre-WWI London. It may have been low in alcohol, but it wasn’t light on hops. I’ve run the recipe through my brewing software and it comes out at a respectable 68 IBU.

WWI was cruel to British beers. And they never quite recovered. Gravities in the 1920s averaged more than 20 percent less than in 1914. If you thought Edwardian Whitbread IPA was a proper session beer, you’ll probably think the post-WWI version has taken the concept way too far. At a mere 3.7 percent ABV, it didn’t have much of an alcohol punch. But it still registers at 51 IBU on my brewing software.

By September 1944, when Allied armies were storming across France, Whitbread’s IPA had become a shadow of its former self at just over 3 percent ABV and 31 IBU. Not so shoddy for a low-ABV beer, though.

Here’s the question: Which of these Whitbread beers is a “real” IPA? Do any count as Session IPA? Or are they all just Pale Ales with pretensions? How do you define what is and isn’t an IPA? After much agonizing I’ve come to the conclusion there’s only one consistent method: going by what the brewer calls it.

Intrigued by Whitbread’s IPAs and a homebrewer? Visit my blog for the 1909, 1924 and 1944 Whitbread IPA recipes. 119fermentedculture2