Oh say, can you still see straight at the end of a beer-fueled Fourth? If you decided you couldn't abandon drinking your favorite IPA all day, despite its relatively high alcohol level (most IPAs clock in at about 7% ABV, or more), here's some advice about how to keep those bombs bursting in air and not in your head as your hangover starts during the fireworks finale. Welcome to a session ale.
Sit down for a quick history lesson, but as with most things related to alcohol, that's a history that hovers in a haze and is argued over in many a blog and barroom. Most feel the term goes back to England, when there were actual sessions/time periods one could legally drink, and the goal was to keep it up for the entire session. You couldn't do that with a beer too strong. Generally this would be something under 5% alcohol. For instance Lew Bryson, a Philadelphia-based blogger who has written "The Session Beer Project" since 2009, wants the line to be drawn in the foam at 4.5%.
In general, though, it's all part of the pendulm's swing back from the monster imperial hop bomb direction brewing boozily undertook the past few years. (Note: wine has the same thing happening, too.) Brewers decided they wanted to see how much flavor they could fit in your pint with the smallest amount of alcohol. This is particularly tricky if you love hoppy beers (pretty much anything called a West Coast IPA): for those hops to stay in balance, you need more malt, and that malt provides the sugars the yeast eats and turns into the alcohol.
That said, there's a host of craft beers now available that can do the trick, giving you oodles of flavor and leaving you upright (what Corona accomplished, at least the latter half of those two things, for generations of Californian beer drinkers). Try one or several of these (in ascending alcohol concentration order) on the Fourth and you'll be fine.
Drake's Brewing Alpha Session Norcal Bitter Ale 3.8% ABV
There's hops but this beer is after an English bitters style--think Fuller ESB or Redhook ESB back before Anheuser-Busch bought them out and ruined them. It pours a light gold, is easy on the nose, and follows up with just enough hops.
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Easy Jack Summer Session IPA 4.5% ABV
Perhaps the best balanced of the tasting, with a nice hop attack on nose and then pretty solidly bitter yet with enough malt body to hold it all together. F-W only puts this out for summer, so that's a big hint.
Stone Brewing Co. Go To IPA 4.5% ABV
The folks who make Arrogant Bastard turn around and make Self-Effacing Wallflower. Well, not quite--they developed something they call "hop-busting," which seems to mean adding tons of hops very late in the brew process, and it certainly make this the most pungent beer of the list, with a hop smell that might remind you of hop's illegal cousin in 48 states, cannabis.
Lagunitas Brewing Co. Day Time Ale Fractional IPA 4.65% ABV
This pours looking like a pilsner, a very pale color, light straw, but is very refreshing--definitely a good warm summer's day ale. Plus they have the best marketing line, "Sometimes you want a beer, then you realize how much crap you need to do before you call it a day."
Surf Brewery Shaka Citra Single Hop Session IPA 5% ABV
Pushing the session label, but it's a good chance to find out what a single hop beer tastes like, and Citra is a classic (Sierra Nevada loves it) for it's tropical fruit and citrus profile. This one comes in 22 oz. bombers, so you have to session with someone to do it properly.
Golden Road Point the Way IPA 5.9% ABV
Golden Road's flagship beer got a make-over when a second brewer took over last year, moving from 5.2% to a practically Brobdingnagian 5.9%. Not surprisingly it's probably the fullest flavored of this group, while remaining totally drinkable. Think of it as your halfway house to the fuller session experience if you can't make the leap all at once.