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Beer Review: SweetWater Hash Session Turns Waste Into Want

A truly edgy IPA that packs some punch

My bouts of panic and agitation were often side effects of a weirdly specific formula. The first ingredient was a hangover, nerves jangling like a janitor’s key ring. The second element was shopping, particularly at retail behemoths like Ikea or a football field–size grocery store.

Strolling endless aisles, hurly-burly with humans, fluorescent lights, and Phil Collins tunes gone Muzak, would make me go mad on the best of days, not just while sweating out 2 a.m. whiskey. My sensorial overload is compounded by overwhelming variety, 13 distinct LED light bulbs to parse, nine varieties of fluffy toilet paper, 16 kinds of sour cream, all vying for my credit card.

Hangover. Huge choice. It makes me lose marbles I never knew I had, heading home empty-handed for a hot date with covers pulled over my head.

It’s how I imagine some drinkers feel when picking an IPA. The bitter juggernaut is flattening our drinking landscape, juicy and hazy, golden and bitter, wild and funky, filled with tropical fruits filched from a Caribbean resort’s breakfast buffet. There’s a tidal wave of IPAs, most different by a splash of this, a splash of that. If everyone else is brewing an IPA with tropical Citra hops, then how does a brewery stand out?

"We’ve wanted to brew a session IPA for a long time, and access to hop hash finally allowed us to deliver one in true SweetWater style."

Georgia’s SweetWater might have the solution. The brewery's story starts in 1996, when Freddy Bensch visited Atlanta for the Olympics. Local beer back then was mainly middle of the road, accessible and not all like the aggressively hopped, higher-alcohol beers to which he grew accustomed as a college student in Boulder. "I just thought we could bring West Coast-style beers to Atlanta and it would do really well," Bensch told Where.

He tapped college roommate Kevin McNerney, and in 1997 the friends founded SweetWater, named after a stream situated in a local state park. Steered by the motto "don’t float the mainstream," the brewery has slowly, steadily risen to one of the country’s biggest (No.18 last year, according to the Brewers Association), buoyed by always fresh, hop-focused beers including the 420 Extra Pale Ale, fragrant with Cascade and Centennial hops, and its floral citric IPA, unfiltered and heavily dry-hopped. SweetWater’s experimentalism bobs in the Dank Tank series, which has previously featured the Goulash black IPA, Fresh Sticky Nugs red IPA, and Johnny Hasha double IPA with a most rebellious ingredient: super-concentrated Citra hop resin.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of SweetWater.

See, after hops are harvested, they’re kiln-dried, ground down, and pelletized, emerging looking like chlorophyll-rich food for your pet rabbit. The process safeguards hops year-round, but it also leaves behind loads of sticky, oily residue. Where most see a waste by-product, SweetWater saw "hop hash," as the brewery likes to call it. (It takes 50 pounds of hop to make one pound of hop hash.) Johnny Hash became a huge hit, leading SweetWater to uses the pungent resin in Hop Hash double IPA (7.8 percent ABV) and Hash Brown, a.k.a. an India brown ale (6.2 percent ABV). They’re great IPAs, gusting with all the dank glory a drinker desires, but they’re also heavier hitters, not suited for anytime consumption.

Hash Session is an engaging new entry in an overcrowded field.

As if reading my thoughts, man, SweetWater just released Hash Session, its springtime entry into the mega-crowded session IPA market. To recap: A session IPA delivers a tornado of flavors and aromas, all the orange, pine, and peaches present in a higher-strength package, just at lower concentrations of alcohol. Drain a couple, and you can still recite ABCs back to front.

"We’ve wanted to brew a session IPA for a long time, and access to hop hash finally allowed us to deliver one in true SweetWater style," head brewer Nick Nock said in a release. He built the beer, a bantamweight 4.2 percent, with a bit of wheat and Maris Otter malt, lending a lingering white head and a smooth, substantial mouthfeel, more than expected for a light alcohol load. The session IPA’s a bit chewy, gritty even, a not unpleasant emblem of hop hash. The resin, from Amarillo hops, imparts all the penetrating aromatics for which IPA lovers go ape, a focused charge, floral and orange-y, amplified by dry-hopping with watermelon-like El Dorado and citrusy Ahtanum. The bitterness bums a long ride on your tongue, right through each drying sip. I don’t mind, but I can see how it could be a turnoff.

Ripped from its backstory, Hash Session is an engaging new entry in an overcrowded field, even if it’s not quite head and shoulders above its contemporaries. It’s the use of hop hash, turning waste into want, that give Hash Session an edge. It’s novel and delivers on its unique narrative, successful lip service, a rare trick in today’s gimmick-mucked market.

And that should eliminate any panic next time you’re shopping for a session IPA six-pack.

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