On the label of Sierra Nevada’s Summer Break, daredevil hops tire-swing into the river—a nod to the six different varieties the brewery packed into its new hazy IPA.
Sierra Nevada, a fun seasonal, and lots of hops—that all checks out. However, throw “Session” into the name, and leery eyebrows raise. At an easygoing 4.6 percent ABV, keen drinkers may have doubts.
Scott Jennings, Sierra Nevada’s innovation brewmaster, explains how the production team conquered the technical pitfalls of light IPA with Summer Break.
“When [alcohol] is reduced to a really low level in a beer, in order to avoid that kind of empty, watery, thin impression, you have to compensate,” Jennings says. “And that’s typically done in the mash tun, with grist changes and temperature manipulation.”
Sierra Nevada cranks up the heat, knowing its effect in the end.
“When you are mashing at temperatures outside of the optimal range for the amylase enzymes, then you will have a less efficient conversion of starch into sugar,” Jennings says. “You’ll have a higher ratio of unfermentable malt sugars in wort, and they’ll carry through to the finished beer, and that’s where a lot of that body is coming from.”
Yet that’s just part of the equation, he says. To get the overall balance they want, Sierra Nevada weaves in oats and wheat for a higher protein content, which helps impart a velvety texture.
“So, when you combine the two—those creamy elements from the oats and wheat, and the complex malt sugars—then you get a rounded effect, where you’ve got really a full flavor and mouthfeel.”
And let’s not forget the haze. Beyond the visual impact, Scott knows we taste the difference.
“Those flavor impressions that we like to call ‘juicy’ are going to express more completely in a hazy beer than a bright beer,” he says.
Summer Break’s hop design leads with Strisselspalt because of its low alpha-acid content. The aim, Jennings says, is to put a hefty weight of hops up front without producing a harsh bitterness. It also has a practical benefit.
“Wort in the kettle at the start of the boil wants to foam up a lot,” he says, and constantly adjusting the steam—down, up, down, up—is tedious. “The resins that are present in hops, they act almost like an anti-foam, so it reduces the surface tension in the wort.”
From the kettle, the wort flows through the hopback, stuffed with a complementary blend of hops, including newer varieties such as Mandarina Bavaria. On the cold side, strategic placements of Mosaic and others target maximum expression.
“We’re really looking to build in the brewhouse a very solid and very distinctly orange citrus character,” Jennings says, “and then in the dry-hopping, we’re looking to add on top of that, for aroma, the tropical elements and a little bit of pineyness.”
For Jennings, the bitterness level is ideal for summer drinking.
“Thirty IBU is really the perfect place for Summer Break, where you know it’s a hoppy beer, but it’s very drinkable because it’s not overly bitter—and certainly the bitterness doesn’t linger,” he says. “So that repeatability, that crushability, is really a part of the balance.”
So, whether you’re lounging poolside or racing down Slip ‘N Slides, Summer Break makes a good sidekick. Or grab the tongs and fire up the grill.
“When it’s light until nine o’clock, we eat dinner a lot later,” Jennings says, “so a lower-ABV beer is really perfect for that.”
Summer Break and a steak. Who’s in? Track it down with Sierra Nevada’s Beer Locator.