Meet the Man Who Helped Create the Session IPA Boom

In the past few years, no brewery has grown quite like Founders. Back in 2010, the company was just a small Grand Rapids brewery, which, despite seeing steady growth since opening in 1997, had never produced more than 25,000 barrels. The brewery was best known for big beers like its Breakfast Stout and bourbon barrel-aged KBS – both highly-rated, high-alcohol brews.

Then came Founders All Day IPA. First brewed in 2010 and packaged in 2012, All Day has become so popular it not only put Founders on the map, it put the entire style of “session IPA” on the map. Founders’ low-alcohol take on the already super India pale ale sytle is currently available in over 30 states, quickly becoming ubiquitous in many areas as an easy drinking IPA alternative and landing spots on draft lists, even in dive bars.

Though in a modern craft beer community that features thousands of brewers it’s hard to pin down exactly who “started” anything, All Day IPA was one of the biggest players in what has become a session IPA movement – with seemingly every brewer on Earth trying to catch up. Everyone from Stone to Anheuser-Busch has launched a session IPA in the past year. The Great American Beer Festival is even adding “session IPA” as a category for the first time ever in 2015.

The man behind all this session IPA madness is Jeremy Kosmicki, Founders’ brewmaster and the guy who created All Day IPA. We spoke to him about what makes these beers so popular, why a session beer can never be a “great” beer, and the reason he thinks he deserves a Nobel Prize…

You started working on All Day IPA back in 2010. Can you explain the backstory a bit? What inspired it?
Most of us here at Founders were certified hop-heads by then, and enjoying Founders Centennial IPA was part of the day. At 7.2% ABV, that could catch up with you quick, and it often resulted in a drop in our production level. I wanted a beer that satisfied my craving for American hop flavor and aroma, but wouldn’t slow me down if I had a couple throughout the day.

When you actually started developing the beer, what was the process like? You mentioned it was pretty involved and took a lot of experimentation. What makes brewing a good session IPA so difficult?
It’s all about the balance. It’s fairly easy to throw enough hops at a beer to make it taste good if you have a solid malt base and alcohol to support it. The trick is to remove that malt body and alcohol, and have the beer still burst with hop flavor without getting too bitter or dry or harsh on the tongue. It still has to be refreshing and crushable.

How different (or the same) were those first All Day IPAs compared to what is on the market now?
I tried a few different hop combinations, but settled pretty quickly on a few of my favorites (Simcoe and Amarillo). Then it was just a matter of adding them at the right time and in the right amounts to get all the flavor and restrain the bitterness. Most of the tweaks came on the malt side, and they were generally minor, but we really wanted this beer to be perfect, thus the patience.

The “session IPA” style is huge now, but its origins are a bit up in the air. Is it possible you invented the style? Had you heard of session IPAs before All Day?
I don’t know if I’d claim inventing the style. I had never heard that phrase used when I began working on the recipe, but by the time we had ours in packages I had seen a few on the shelves already. We were probably the first brewery to really go after this style from a production standpoint though. We were all totally behind this brand from the start. There were actually some heated discussions about the naming of this beer, and some people here were leery of using the phrase “session” on the label, as it didn’t really have a positive connotation to it at the time. We finally settled on “All Day IPA: A Session Ale.” So we didn’t actually use the term “Session IPA” on our packaging.

What do you make of the explosion in the style? Are breweries just jumping into the trend to make a buck or do you think there is a real love for session IPAs?
I’m definitely happy to see more hoppy, sessionable beers in the market. I think it’s where people’s palates and lifestyles are at right now. I do think some brewers should spend a little more time dialing in their recipes though. It’s just not as easy as simply watering down your IPA recipe and releasing it because it’s a hot style.

Do you think sessions IPAs are just a fad or do you think the style has staying power?
Definitely not a fad for me. It’s hard for me to envision a beverage more refreshing and satisfying than a well-made session IPA.

In some ways – and I know this is a horrible thing to say to a respected craft brewer, so pardon me in advance – I see a similarity between All Day IPA and Miller Lite. Before Miller Lite, full-bodied lagers were America’s go-to beer and then Miller Lite upended that and became so popular everyone was scrambling to make light beers. Then, in part, the negative reaction to light beers is what led to the craft beer revolution and the prevalence of huge IPAs. Obviously, people could stand for a lighter IPA and, thus, the session IPA comes along. Do you see any validity to this comparison?
Not a bad analogy. Lite provided beer drinkers with a lower alcohol, lower calorie option but I don’t think consumers really cared too much about what it tasted like. I’m guessing the flavor difference between Miller and Miller Lite is not as significant as the difference in flavor between All Day and Centennial [Founder’s main full-alcohol IPA]. All Day still allows people to enjoy what they love about craft beer flavor, but it’s definitely its own beer.

Do you think we’ll see a session IPA backlash? Or have we already gone through that with the ridiculous prevalence of imperial beers over the past decade?
Big stouts and Imperial IPAs aren’t going away and they will still be enjoyed by many people (myself included). But All Day is the beer you want to have a 15 pack of in your fridge for the weekend. Crack open a Double IPA when you need to kick the buzz in. All beers have their time and place.

Founders and a lot of other American breweries made their reputation on big, huge beers. If you look at sites like Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, all the “top” rated beers are big beers. Can a session IPA be a “great” beer?
Probably not. Most of the beers at the top of those lists are rare or highly sought after beers whose main purpose is to dominate your taste buds. Those beers are fun to taste and scrutinize as they are packed full of amazing and sometimes overwhelming flavors. All Day is going for something else – pure refreshment and satisfaction. Big hop aroma, and a balanced hop flavor that finishes clean.

What do you think the legacy of Founders All Day IPA will be?
I’m actually expecting a Nobel Prize at some point for my work in helping to control the amount of drunkenness in the world. The volume of All Day is really driving Founders growth and allowing us to enter new markets. We have an amazing portfolio of beers, and hopefully if someone tries and enjoys an All Day, they’ll be interested in giving some of our other brands a shot as well.

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