Turns out that I've got a pretty acute sense of hearing.
Back in February of 2009, not long after I started this blog (itself an outgrowth of a two-year series of session beer-related posts on my main blog, Seen Through A Glass, that started here), I wrote a piece for Ale Street News in which I suggested that the faint, first rumblings of the collapse of extreme beers could be heard. Earlier, I did a piece titled "Extremely Annoying" for BeerAdvocate magazine (which you can find here, and thanks to Teri Fahrendorf for that!), a single contrarian voice in an entire issue devoted to -- pardon the expression -- ball-washing extreme beers in which I suggested that making extreme beers wasn't that big a deal: throw more stuff in, get a bigger monkey. That, in turn, was an expansion of my "it's just a bigger burrito" argument, originally made here in October of 2006. In short, and in a nod to Barbara Mandrell, I was session when session wasn't cool (that's assuming, of course, that it is now...but we'll get to that).
At the time, I was excoriated for this. Sam "Mr. Extreme" Calagione wrote a response to the Ale Street piece, crying that I'd dissed extreme beers, that I was wrong, that I was portraying an opinion as a trend (one thing I definitely did not do, Sam), and that I was saying imperial beers must die so that session beers could thrive (Oh, please. I bent over backwards to avoid that impression: "I’m not saying the imperial beer is dead, and I hope it never dies." Direct quote, dude). There were angry responses to the BeerAdvocate piece before it even saw print. And The Brothers Alström penned an editorial in which they accused unnamed people of dismissing extreme beers (“their target enemy”) to call for more session beers: unnamed, but when you’re the guy behind The Session Beer Project, quoted and cited in every recent major piece on session beers, it’s hard not to feel targeted yourself.
I wrote a really, really long response that I never posted. Here's some of it:
At no time did I ever intend or say that this [increased] attention [to session beers] should come at the expense of extreme beers, I didn’t even wish for it. In fact, two years ago, when that was obviously unclear, and I felt uncomfortable with the people who were allying themselves with me on that basis, I made this statement on my Seen Through A Glass blog:Told you it was really long: that was about a third of it. But writing it was cathartic: I got over it, and moved on.
I guess I'd better clear this up now. Just because I'm starting this blog partly as a platform for this loosely defined Session Beer Project, it does not mean that I do not like big beers, do not like experimental beers, do not like (deep breath here) extreme beers. I do like them – to a point.Note that I did not say “take away attention from the so-called extreme beers to give session beers a little tiny bit of equality of attention.” Nor did I say I intended to stop talking about extreme beers, and I have not; just put ‘tasting notes’ in the Search box [on STAG, not here], and you can see how many big beers, beers with unusual ingredients, sour beers I’ve reviewed, and liked (or not liked; I never said I’d give them a free ride, either). I have occasionally drawn direct comparisons between the two categories, because they represent two poles of craft beer, but I’ve presented them simply as two choices, not Good Choice, Bad Choice.
The main point of the Session Beer Project is to give session beers a little tiny bit of equality of attention, attention that's mainly going to the so-called extreme beers right now. Because, really: most of the world, every day, drinks beers that are under 5% ABV. Really.
I always planned, intended, and promoted The Session Beer Project as something that would add to the excitement and acceptance of beer in general, that would bring to the fore an under-represented, under-appreciated meta-category of beers. If I ever wanted it to come at the expense of another category, fear not, true believers, I was with you: let it come at the expense of macro-brewed light lagers (if only because they have so much to give!).
There’s plenty of room for both session beers and extreme beers to thrive, because they are so entirely different – they do not compete! That is the beauty and main raison d’etre of the Craft Beer Revolution: difference, variety, choice. It always has been, and I have been saying that for years, while other voices talked about quality, and smallness, and artisanal craftsmanship. Those things are great, but they are part of the variety that is the overarching theme.
To sum up, I wasn’t talking about crushing imperial beers to make way for session beers; I never have. I was only speculating about whether they might be coming to the end of their fifteen minutes of fame…which would only mean that it was some other beer’s turn, and I’ve observed that session beers have been doing well in my local market lately. No beer stays on top forever, whether in sales or hype. That’s been true since way before the Craft Beer Revolution.
Can we stop the rabble-rousing? This is not about “Session Vs. Extreme Beers,” there’s no “versus” involved. I want to see craft brewers do well. I want to see the variety of beer choices increased, everywhere. I don’t want whole categories of craft beers slammed. (Okay, maybe American hefeweizen. And pumpkin beers. Maybe.) What I really want is for session beers to get some more attention – and that’s working, and I do see a few more session beers on taps – and maybe for the brewers and promoters of extreme beers to be a bit less defensive. Is that too much to ask?
That's when things started to percolate. I started getting e-mails, and seeing results on my Google Alert on "session beer" that were more than yet another blogger saying something like "at 8.5%, it's no session beer" (guys...you say that way too often), and hearing from brewers who were making session beers. Philadelphia Brewing has two great year-round beers that are session-strength (Kenzinger and Walt Wit), as does rival Yards (Brawler and Philly Pale), right here in America's Best Beer-Drinking City™. Chris Lohring, who's boomeranging back into brewing, has started Notch, an all-session brand that's currently in joyously experimental test marketing in the Boston area.
I heard the first faint trickles back in 2007, more of them last year. It's still no flood, or even a stream. But session beer is catching on in the American market.
So...I should maybe stop there, but I won't. Instead, a bit of a manifesto. I'll start by reiterating the session beer definitions I've been working with here:
For our purposes, 'session beer' is defined as a beer that is:I think any definition should stick closely to that 4.5% ABV figure. I'll admit, it's my figure, but I reached it after much consideration. Simply, it's like speed limits. No one goes 55 mph in a 55 mph zone; you'd get run off the road. By saying 4.5%, we're letting you know that your 5.4% pale ale simply is not a session beer, quaffable and delightful though it is...which a 5% definition would make harder to sustain. I'd like to see American brewers working to get good flavor under 4.5%. It can certainly be done -- I've had them -- and you can do it without tart/souring or hopping to the bejayzus, although that works too (Lambrucha and Stone Levitation being excellent examples). Work with malts and yeast, and you can achieve amazing things; I've had them, too.
► 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
► flavorful enough to be interesting
► balanced enough for multiple pints
► conducive to conversation
► reasonably priced
If that seems vague...it is. Here's another definition: low-alcohol, but not low-taste. It's subjective.
But don't get completely caught up in the number game. Zythophile blogger Martyn Cornell told me that defining “session beer” was not about alcohol percentages. “What makes a good session beer,” he said, “is a combination of restraint, satisfaction, and ‘moreishness.’ Just like the ideal companions on a good evening down the pub, a good session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying, and pleasurable.”
That's what this is all about. Session beer is about enjoying the totality of beer, the entire beer experience and culture. I have a dream about a session beer festival. It's not a bunch of brewers and sales reps standing behind a bunch of tables hawking 3 oz. samples of 4.5% beers to standing crowds who dawdle in front of the tables, pissing off everyone in line behind them. It's a hall, where a variety of bars serve a wide variety of session beers...but the real focus is on the people drinking the beer, and what you're talking to them about, or the next hand of pinochle, or a quiet contemplative smoke of a nice pipeful of good tobacco (yeah, really; they can have their own room), or a round of pool. We'll stay all afternoon and into the evening, have four or five pints each, and it will never get out of hand, just loud and happy with the sound of chatting and laughter, the clink of glasses.
The Year of Session Beer is not here yet. It's coming. When it gets here, we're going to drink to it. Cheers!