Homebrewing a Hoppy Session Ale
It’s late winter. March. There’s a snowstorm forecasted for the weekend. Two actually. Though I love drinking dark stouts and porters in the winter months, I’ve had it. I want out. Suddenly it dawns on me like a July sunrise over Portland Harbor. The best way to herald in the warm weather just around the bend? Homebrew a crisp, hoppy session ale as a makeshift rain dance to bring on the sunshine.
No beer says summer like a bright, low-alcohol session ale. Few other beers have seen more success in the past few years than session beers. And for good reason. A well-crafted session ale offers bold hop flavor without the knockout punch of all that alcohol. It can be generously imbibed on a hot day and still keep you on your toes.
A session ale is roughly defined as a beer below five-percent alcohol by volume. It’s a beer one can tipple over and over in a… well, a session of drinking. Its origins come from the low-alcohol beers that workers were served during and after work shifts. Maine boasts a glut of brilliantly crafted session ales: Simmer Down from Sebago Brewing, Rally from Austin Street Brewery, River Trip from Allagash Brewing, and Maine Island Trail Ale from Rising Tide Brewing, to name just a few.
With these sumptuous beers as inspiration, I set out to create a session ale homebrew recipe of my own.
SESSION ALE RECIPE
6 lb American 2-Row Malt
Beer is essentially four ingredients: water, grains, hops, and yeast. Portland, Maine, boasts one of the best water supplies in the country, so the H2O is taken care of with tap water from Sebago Lake watershed.
Next, the grains. For me, the grain bill is the most intimidating component of a session ale recipe. Add too much and your alcohol content rises above the five-percent threshold. Adding too little results in a watery beer. And, adding a grain with too much flavor will overshadow the hops. I clearly needed help from the pros to dial in my grain bill.
“Most importantly select a base malt that has the flavor profile you’re looking for,” explained Nathan Sanborn, Co-owner and Director of Brewing Operations at Rising Tide Brewing. “Beyond that, use a light hand. I think that where people often go wrong is over-using specialty malts.”
Sanborn went on to explain that Maine Island Trail Ale features only American two-row barley. Using strictly two-row sets the stage for MITA, as it is affectionately known among locals, to have a clean, clear finish.
Taking this tip into consideration, I decided to use two-row as the foundation for my recipe. Next, I needed a specialty malt to boost the body of my session ale. This lead me to reach out to Jason Perkins, the renowned brewmaster at Allagash Brewing Co.
Perkins noted that “for specific grains that help with body, we’d point you to oats, raw wheat, rye, or spelt.”
Considering this list, I decided that oats were the way to go. Adding a light amount of oats would give my homebrew more body and a light haziness without imparting flavors that will take away from the hop profile.
Speaking of hops, with the grain bill set, it’s time to talk lupulin. I’m all in on the juicy hop craze. For my palate you can’t go wrong with Mosaic and Citra hops. Mosaic hops have a beautiful tropical fruit profile, while Citra hops impart an aggressive citrus bang. So I go with equal parts Mosaic and Citra. For a fruity, bubble gum flourish, I decide to add an ounce of Azacca hops.
The real challenge for me wasn’t in choosing the hop varietals; it was deciding when to add the hops. Again, I turned to Nathan Sanborn at Rising Tide.
“We tend to push most of our hopping late, so we get the level of bitterness we’re looking for while retaining as much other hop aromatics and flavor contributions as we can,” he said. “Additionally, we will chill our whirlpool down to about 160 degrees for additional flavor and aromatic contributions with substantially reduced bittering.”
The longer a hop is boiled, the more bitterness that is pulled from the alpha acids. With this in mind, I made a bold decision: only add hops after the boil. Since homebrewing is all about experimentation, I wanted to see what happened if I added hops at zero minutes of the boil, then at 175 degrees and again at 160 degrees as the wort cooled, saving some Mosaic and Azacca hops for dry hopping.
This hop schedule should ensure big fruity hop aroma and flavor with very little bitterness, all playing nicely over the clean grain bill.
As for the yeast, I’ve become partial to London Ale III (Wyeast 1318). To my palate, this yeast is fruity without being oppressive. It helps bring out the juicy character of hops and produces a drier finish in my homebrew than the common American Ale yeast strand (Wyeast 1056). But, in the spirit of experimentation, go hog-wild to find the yeast that works best for your taste buds and the environment in which you brew.
So there it is, my session ale ingredients: two-row barley and oats for the grain bill; late addition Mosaic, Citra, and Azacca hops; and London Ale III yeast. (See sidebar for amounts and hop schedule.) I’m now ready to homebrew my session ale as an offering to Freyr, the Norse god of summer to bring on the sunny days ahead.
— Text & Photos: Dave Patterson. Dave is a novelist and freelance writer from Cape Elizabeth with a mighty thirst for craft beer. His debut novel, Soon the Light Will be Perfect, is available at all major booksellers.