With craft beer's growth in popularity and accessibility has come an increased emphasis on the fringes of the flavor spectrum. There are more breweries making extreme beers, pushing the boundaries of styles and bringing in new far-out ingredients; there has also been a big movement towards easy-drinking lighter beers, beers to drink casually in the afternoon.
The IPA is one of the most popular and distinctive styles in the craft beer world, typically bitter and dry with big punchy flavors of pine, citrus, tropical fruit and/or flowers, and it's also a style that lends itself well to experimentation. In recent months (and with an eye on the coming summer) Southern California brewers have released several new beers skewed towards the lighter side of hoppiness, which they have each dubbed session IPAs.
We picked up a few of the newest releases, Stone's Go To, Pizza Port's Ponto, and Firestone Walker's Easy Jack, to put them to the test and see which new light and hoppy brew is most worthy of your summer beer budget.
3. Pizza Port Ponto
The only beer that was visually different from the crowd was Pizza Port's Ponto. It was even lighter than the others, straw yellow to their honey gold and with noticeably fewer tiny bubbles streaming towards the surface. Ponto smells primarily of pine, with some floral and citrus undertones, and its taste follows suit. It doesn't possess quite the punch that Easy Jack and Go To have, but it does have a noticeable cracker-like malty backbone, and it finishes with a pleasantly mild lingering bitterness. It seems geared toward a more casual IPA fan.
One undeniable advantage it possesses over the others, though, is the pint can. Cans have exploded in popularity among craft breweries, and for good reason: They're better for travel; they're more efficient to stack and ship; and they completely block out light, which is especially damaging to hoppy beers. Beyond that, Ponto comes in 16-oz. cans, four ounces bigger than the standard 12 oz. bottles, but manages to maintain an almost identical price point to its competitors. It may not be our favorite session IPA of this bunch, but it might be the first beer we open on our next camping trip.
2. Firestone Easy Jack
Despite the origin story (which may actually be more myth than fact), the IPA is a style that's highly dependent on freshness: Hop character fades quickly, and old IPAs are generally a malty mess. All three of these beers have bottled-on dates printed somewhere on the package, which is a wonderful thing to see. We were able to find very fresh examples of both Go To and Ponto, but every bottle of Easy Jack we saw was at least five weeks old. Five weeks is still well within drinkable range (under four weeks is ideal and eight weeks is our hard cut-off), especially if the beers have been refrigerated for most of that time, but it would have been nice to be able to find some newborn Easy Jack.
Even several weeks older than the other session IPAs we tasted, Easy Jack is excellent. It's bold and citrusy, full-bodied and more substantial than its kin. It has a big hit of grapefruit and pine needles, with a hint of a floral note underneath and very little malt. In fact, tasted blind we would be hard pressed to tell you that Easy Jack was any lighter than a normal, full strength IPA. It has all the flavor and substance you would expect from an IPA, but with a low enough ABV to allow you to sip your way through multiple bottles without turning the BBQ into a bonfire. In short, it perfectly meets the goal of the session IPA style.
1. Stone Go To
Stone Brewing prides itself on being an aggressively hop-forward brewery, delivering diatribes on the subject both on beer labels and in front of rowdy beer-loving crowds, and so one would expect their entry into the session IPA category to be suitably punchy. They have even laid claim to the technique of hop bursting, adding an "unreasonable" amount of hops very late in the brewing process, at the end of the boil and during the whirlpool.
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Whether or not this technique is as unique as their marketing would lead one to believe is an open question, but what can't be denied is just how much glorious hop flavor they've packed into Go To. It's incredibly bright, both on the nose and on the palate, the kind of beer you can smell as soon as you pop the cap. The experience of drinking it is a little bit like diving headfirst into a pool of tropical punch - there are huge flavors of citrus, mango, peach, and melon.
Perhaps even more surprising than its dazzling hoppiness is just how quickly the flavor disappears. It falls off your palate almost as soon as you swallow, leaving little trace. If you like your IPAs amber and malty with that long, withering bitterness, this is not the beer for you. But if you're looking for the beer equivalent of a turbocharged electric motorcycle, a zippy hop-injected brew with no patience for malt, we can't recommend Stone's Go To highly enough.