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Are ISAs for Real?

phillips bottlerocketThis is one of those rare moments when I actually don’t know what to think. India Session Ales (ISA), or Light IPAs. They are a thing now. A growing number of craft breweries in North America have been brewing up these oddly categorized beer. Phillip’s, Central City, Nelson and Spinnakers are Canadian breweries with one of which I am aware.

The idea is a hop forward bitter beer with lower alcohol content, usually under 5%. IBUs run in the 40s and dry-hopping is essential to bring out hop flavour and aroma. All on top of a light ale base.

I have no issues with the beer itself. I find them to be interesting beer, for the most part. The lighter base really allows the full character of the hops to come out. My question is with the name: India Session Ale. I understand what they are getting at – making clear this is a beer that is related to IPA. But is it?

I think I have two issues (maybe three) with the name. First, higher alcohol is a traditional aspect of the IPA style, arising out of its history. Lowering the alcohol, one might suggest, moves it into another style range. Second, the malt bill for these beer seem too timid to relate to IPA as well. While IPAs are hop-focused, the malt bill is also important, providing biscuit, sometimes toffee or toasty notes. The ISAs I have tasted do not have that characteristic.

Now let me immediately shoot down my concerns. First, England has been offering lower alcohol IPAs for generations. I also admit the boundary between pale ale and IPA historically was fuzzier than what we acknowledge today. Second, many American-style IPAs offer very little malt flavour, opting for a clean, crisp base.

You can see my dilemma. I don’t want to be a style nazi by insisting on tight, rigid rules for styles. Yet, I find there has to be some kind of intuitive logic behind the naming of a beer. For example, White IPA makes perfect sense to me. It perfectly describes what the beer is – a hoppy interpretation of a Witbier. Even the much-maligned moniker Black IPA, while not my preference, makes some sense. Does India Session Ale or Light IPA? I am not sure.

Often a wise strategy when uncertain is to let one’s tastebuds make the decision. You know what comes up for me when I drink a so-called ISA? My mouth tells me I am drinking a hoppy blonde ale. The base beer reminds me totally of blonde ale – soft, light and fruity. My tastebuds don’t jump to IPA simply because they pick up a high level of bitterness and hop flavour. Maybe your tastebuds do, and that would be fair.

brewdog trashyblondeI think that position is bolstered by the longtime presence of BrewDog’s Trashy Blonde. Not my favourite blonde ale, but there is no denying it has a hop kick to it. I suspect there are other breweries who through more than a small share of hops into their blonde ale. What is the difference between that and an ISA? I am hard-pressed to find one.

In a way this is a silly argument. What we have is a style-bending type of beer – a sessionable yet still hoppy ale. That is a good thing. I guess we still need to keep our eye on stylistic integrity.¬† If we throw proverbial rocks at AB-Inbev for calling Keith’s an IPA, we need to be careful that we are not breaking any of our craft beer glass panes while we are at it.

ISAs may or may not be a valid name for hoppy blonde ales. I am not sure. I think I should go drink one and ponder it a while more.

7 comments to Are ISAs for Real?

  • I am just thankful for lower alcohol flavourful beers, whatever you call them. Not everything you drink has to be 7%+ to taste good. Some of us hope to drive home eventually.

  • Sid

    Aren’t they really just Golden Ales, but with India in the name to make them sell?

    Or just call them what they are, IPA’s!!

  • Mark

    I thought up the same idea about 5 years ago, but thought they should be called American Bitter. I still think that is the most accurate description.

  • Ernie

    Are they not just an American pale ale?

  • Dave

    Here’s my take (not that anyone asked):

    New school US brewers are making double IPA’s and calling them a regular IPA in the unending pissing match for IBU superiority.

    A deliciously balanced Pale Ale won’t cut it in the minds of those breweries customers, hence a session IPA.

    This does differ from Pales given that the focus is on less caramel malts resulting in lighter colours, and the hop schedule is decidedly different, skewing to large volumes of late hopping in the >50 IBU territory. Little to no bittering addition at the beginning of the boil will add to the mouthfeel, while the huge doses of late hops coupled with large doses of high alpha, low cohumulone tropical varieties lend a decidedly oily finish when dryhopped continually over 3 or 4 days.

    I will say that the cutoff point in my mind is sub 4.2% a/v – anything over that for a session beer, and it’s pointless cause more people will just choose the higher alcohol beer and just have less of it. You kind of need to get used to having session beers regularly to appreciate the nuances in a 3.2% beer. It’s like going back to Tobasco after having too much Habanero Death Sauce.

  • craig

    ISAs are terrible – tried Bomber, Phillips, Red Truck …done – they aren’t at all for real. Beer like liquid that doesn’t even feel like it went through an actual brewing process… like canned Canterbury with hops passed through it.

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