Friday, June 4, 2010

The Session #40: Session Beers

I haven't participated in our monthly 'blog carnival,' The Session, since November; a couple of them I wasn't interested in, I was really busy finishing up PAB4, and, well, once or twice I just dropped the ball. But this month, The Session is about just that: Session Beers. As our host, Top Fermented blogger Erik Myers, put it, "There are a thousand ways to approach this." Indeed.

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 That, in turn, was an expansion of my "it's just a bigger burrito" argument, originally made here in October of 2006.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:
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.

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.
Note that I did not saytake 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.

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?
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.

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" ( 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:

► 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 is. Here's another definition: low-alcohol, but not low-taste. It's subjective.
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.

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!


  1. I'm certainly sympathetic to your feeling as if you were being attacked. But don't you realize that phrases like "ball washing extreme beers" aren't positive or neutral, but antagonistic? And certainly you understand that while, technically, throwing more stuff in is all you need to do to make a bigger beer... but that the breweries in question are doing much more than that -- they're trying to do something that tastes good and offers a pleasurable experience? I don't see how you can view the bigger monkey/bigger burrito argument as anything more than an attack on brewers making extreme beers. How can it come across as anything other than "all they do is add more stuff?" Wouldn't you argue against a dismissive "smaller burrito" argument for session beers?

    Folks in the industry know you and view you as honorable and will cut you some slack, but whatever your intent was, your words conveyed something strongly antagonistic. Surely you can see why the brewers were taken aback.

  2. When you get such a festival going, then I will be there for sure! If you could have a section for cask then that would be grand as well.

  3. I have to disagree, Bill. If you go and read the bigger burrito piece -- the whole piece -- you'll see I took pains to explain that there is certainly more to making a good bigger beer than just throwing in more stuff. What I objected to was the number of big beers that are clearly the result of "just throwing in more stuff," and I don't think any brewer can object to that. A poorly-made big beer deserves no more sympathy from a critic than does a poorly-made small beer. A poorly-made small beer, a "smaller burrito," is no fun either, and I've had them, too. There's a LOT more to making a good session beer than just leaning-down your standard pale ale recipe: that doesn't work.

    As far as brewers being taken aback, there were plenty who were in strong support of what I said, and wanted to go further.

    As for the ball-washing phrase...I read that issue, and I'll stick with it. It was a sticky love message to extreme beers, with nary a word of balance in the whole thing but my piece...and people were still outraged that I said anything against big beers, and asked where the balance was in my piece. If anyone should be upset by the phrase, it should be the Alstöms, and they've got pretty thick skins.

    It is the job of a critic to be critical. We stir things up; ideally, we do this in an attempt to make things better. I'd point you to Inge Saffron's architecture criticism in the Inquirer as a good example of this. This leads to responses, and we either ignore them, or respond to them.

  4. Your criteria are interesting in the balanced enough... could a rachbier be a session beer (personally I can only drink so much of that style) or a gueze ...

    It makes it seem that you are going for a beer that is balanced between hop and malt, lower in alcohol content, pleasant tasting. The styles that readily come to mind are british milds, and bitters (not esb... ) as well as some german weiss beer. Perhaps a saison or a bier de garde as well.

  5. I've had a 4.2% rauch that I could drink all afternoon. Gueze...not sure. I have had a lower alcohol saison (McKenzie Brew House's Grisette) that was definitely all-day drinkable. But yes, mostly you're looking at a balanced beer. Unfortunately, "balance" is a word that means different things to different people in America!

  6. Velky Al,

    Any session beer fest should include a cask section: cask is great with session strength!

  7. As always I think you hit it out of the park. Well done.

    I can't tell you how many times now I'll go to a fine craft beer purveyor looking to nip into some pints the the boys and the choices under 6-7%, much less 4.5%-5% are just not there. I love Big Buxom Double Hopped Nuclear Barleywine Style Heidmincejuice or Triple Smoked Sour Tongue Pouncer as much as the next guy but as you note let's have some balance with the choices out there.

  8. Bravo.. Can't really add too much to what you said other then I hope you keep up this movement.

  9. Ever since we opened our new NABC brewery (and second on-premise establishment, Bank Street Brewhouse) last year, we've been touting a session series of our own: Three of them, a session beer made with each of the three yeast strains we use, which yields an English Mild, German light lager and Belgian "table" beer. Your piece reminds me to renew the focus. Response has been great. I'm on board with the session fest, too. Might have to swipe that idea (I'll provide appropriate props).

  10. Lew,

    I might reverse your wording on 'session' casks.

    It's session strength beers that are great as casks. 'Smaller' beers often show their best when properly cask-conditioned. Many US breweries, however, seem to be reserving casks only for their biggest (shall we say extreme) beers.

  11. Lew, after slogging through a lot of big beers last night at Savor, it was great to read this. I love the session beers of the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic. They are a fact of life that no one gets excited about, they just make sense.

    We've talked this subject a lot at Mad Fox while we're working on the beer program. Kolsch, Special Bitter and Mild are the easy ones, but there are a lot of styles that will fit well below 5% ABV. We'll expect to sell 20% or more of our beers in the session range.

    But, big beers sell and people get more obsessive about Imperial IPA than a Best Bitter. It's all about having a choice. My choice is a session beer.

    Cheers, Rick

  12. Session beers, like Pale Ales, just don't have anything to say any more.

  13. Someone's been reading!

    Seriously, though, that's the whole point: session beers let you do the talking.

  14. "it should be the Alstöms, and they've got pretty thick skins."

    It's like you've never even read the beer advocate forums! Ha!

    Also, both they and Sam Calagione clearly have alterior motives. The Alstöms are looking for page views and magazine sales, and rabble rousing is the easiest way to get it. DFH has a lot of mind share to lose if extreme beers' 15 minutes of fame comes to an end. So while I can sympathize with the "let's all get along" sentiments, I'd say they're rather unrealistic.

  15. Quite an article there, and a lot of it resonates, particularly in the 2006 article.

    You don't by chance had a link to the the editorial by the Alström bros do you?

  16. No, never did find an online version of it. Sorry.

  17. It's probably better that way. The session festival is a great idea, by the way.

  18. Either I've been reading or I'm THAT bartender.

  19. Lew, I think the key to a session beer is the ABV. Everything else is open for grabs. Some English bitters are, or were, intensely bitter, such as Young's Bitter (the Ordinary) or Holt's in Manchester. Still, their low ABV ensured many would regard these as session beers. Some English sessions, notably mild ales, are less bitter but decidedly sweet, which some might think better for a session, but they have plenty of dextrine and other taste in their own way. Some sessions are very mildly flavoured, at the extreme end of the low-flavour range one might mention the light brands of the big brewers. In the middle are all kinds of options, from, say, Anchor's Small Beer to some of the craft sessions mentioned by other readers. It's a question of taste what one likes. The Anchor Small on draft is just about the most perfect session I know in America, but there are countless others. After one beer or two, the strong flavours of a beer often are minimized (palate dullness): this is partly why assertive flavour and sessionability are not inconsistent.

    I tend to agree with readers who state that often the offerings in the specialty retailers seem to be on the higher ABV range. I enjoy those beers myself, if well-made, but often want another option.


  20. It's not just the readers saying that, Gary!

    All of this, on my part at least, has always been about getting more attention for smaller beers, more 'love,' more opportunity. It's an encouragement for brewers to make them (and experiment with them), for bar owners to offer them, and for drinkers to try them. That's all I ask: that session beers get a place at the table without being scorned for being small.

  21. Indeed Lew I know that was your main point, and I can only agree. The odd thing is, you would think the brewers would have an incentive to make more lower ABV stuff because they would sell more. Multiple unit consumption. I always felt this was the reason U.K. beer gravities fell so much in the 20th century. Rising taxes was a part of it, but surely the idea of selling two beers to deliver the effects (more or less) of one was a commercial proposition sufficient unto itself. And I respect greatly the art and craft in making stronger specialties, but with you I am saying, make some lower ABV products more available.

    In Germany, almost all beer in the 1800's was session beer (around 4%), there were only a few strong specialties. In England though, it was the other way around, porter and stout and especially mild ale were much stronger than the lager norm. England has come around to the German model more in this regard, even for the surviving bitters (although German beer has crept up to about 5% on average I'd say). Even in Belgium, I understand that strong beers are not that old, that they came in around WW I when laws were passed to prohibit spirits manufacture. So this shows that consumption of moderate-gravity beer has an old tradition, and that is because there is an inherent logic to it, on both sides of the bar one might say.


  22. The strong reaction by the strong beer people raises an eyebrow. You touched a nerve there, Lew, with your inoffensive opinion. Perhaps someday we will learn the source of their unease.


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