Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bitter American is back (and so is this blog!)

I was interviewed about session beers recently. I've kind of become the unofficial point person for session beer since starting this blog, so that's happened fairly often in the past four years. I've tried to be outspoken, because that's what session beer needs: vocal support (and your vocal support, too!), so brewers know that not everyone wants just more bigger, boozier, more extreme beers. Some of us also want great-tasting lower-alcohol beers that we can have at lunch and keep working (and I mean two full pints at lunch and keep working), or have a few of – or four or five of* – over two or three hours and not get silly. 

So anyway, I was doing this interview, and one of the questions was: "There's been a lot of talk in the media about the session beer trend taking off, though it's often hard to see when you go to a bar...and see 30 taps, 90% of which are 6% and up. Have you noticed any solid evidence that the session-beer revival is really happening here?"

Fair question, if that's what you're seeing...but it's not what I'm seeing. I'm seeing more talk about session beer – a lot more – I'm seeing breweries making more session-strength beers, I'm seeing breweries making commitments to session-strength beers – like Chris Lohring with his contract brand, The Notch, which are all 4.5% and under – and I'm seeing more people responding. 

Okay, I'm seeing that because I'm looking for it, to some extent, but I was looking for it four years ago, too, and it wasn't there. It's here to see now, and it is growing, and some of that's because the beers – like Yards Brawler, and Notch Pilsner, and Stone Levitation – are so good that we tend not to notice that they're so low in alcohol. Chris did a Notch Saison this summer that clocked in well below 4.0%, and it flew, though I suspect most people who drank it up never even knew.

Bitter American
One session beer's done so well that it's broken out of its seasonal slot and is going nationwide: 21st Amendment's Bitter American. I first had this delicious low-alcohol brew at 21st Amendment's San Francisco brewpub, and greatly enjoyed it. When it arrived in my Philadelphia market in cans, I was one happy camper, but my joy was tempered by its here-today-gone-next-month status.

No more. 21stAmendment has decided that Bitter American is selling so well that it will hold up as a year-round beer.Here's 21st Amendment Brewery co-founder Nico Freccia: "We got so many emails and tweets asking us to make this a year-round beer, we just couldn't ignore them. It's the perfect antidote to the big beers of winter and also the perfect summer brew." 

"Bitter American is a great beer during colder times when strong beers seem to be pretty prevalent," added founder and Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan. "When we first brewed this beer it really scratched the lower-alcohol-session-beer-itch that I would get when I was tired of drinking barley wines, imperial stouts and other stronger hoppy beers. I wanted and I think a lot of good beer drinkers want a session beer where you can enjoy a few pints of a beer with huge flavor but without all the alcohol."

I think they're absolutely right. It's a tasty, crisp beer (much like Narragansett Summer Ale, another session-strength can that should go year-round, though probably with a different name!), it's got eye-catching graphics, and people instinctively know they can drink the hell out of it.

There's your proof. Beers like this are gaining sales (and not at the expense of big beers, you extreme crybabies; everyone's gaining), and the whole idea of a lower-alcohol, higher-flavor beer is gaining momentum. Why not? Because some people think it should cost less? News for you: thousands of cans sold disagree with you. I do think we'll have to have this pricing issue out one of these days, but the people have spoken, for now: they're willing to pay for flavor, even if a smaller group apparently only wants to pay for alcohol.
So...the blog is back. Tomorrow, an interview with Victory brewers Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet about the mistake that turned their Dark Lager into a session beer, and why they're glad it happened. See you then!

*Some might call that 'binge drinking,' I tell them to check the total alcohol and the time...and leave me alone.


  1. Lew,

    21st Ammendment beers are now made up here in MN at Cold Spring (for us anyway). I had the bitter american at the brewery and it was quite lovely. The one I had last night, made in MN, was definitely quite different. It lacked pretty much all the malt character and was massively perfum-y. How is the canned stuff out there?

  2. A very unbalanced beer. It probably has it fan though.

  3. Don't get the perfumey thing in the cans we're getting, but yeah, different beer at the brewpub.

    And probably does. Yeah, I think we can pretty much take that as given.

  4. I personally love this beer, I had it for the first time over the summer and have been hooked since.

    I found this site on Facebook, and thought I'd check it out. Thank you for being the voice for session ales out there! All too much any more, people are getting into craft beer for the wrong reasons, and it's blogs like this about beers like this that remind me why I went for local, well made beers when I turned 21 and not the mass produced garbage.

    I look forward to checking back often, and reading more on great session beers.


  5. Kristen, I know a friend in Atlanta who is also getting 21A cans from Cold Spring, for what it's worth.

    As far as the cost aspect. Levitation is a great beer, but I have a hard time paying $10.50 for a six pack of it. Alchohol level means nothing to me, I actually prefer session beers (currently drinking a 3.5% American Bitter Homebrew, which is awesome). My issue is the obvious one: less grain, less hops, less yeast and even less water is needed to brew these beers so why am I paying the same as I would for Stone IPA?

    Surly sells Bitter Brewer for $1 less than Furious, seems much more reasonable to me. Now, if they woud just make it year round :)

  6. Cost? Your issue may be obvious, but the real costs aren't. Yeast is almost free on the scale Stone is brewing. The difference in malt and hops is minimal when you take it as the cost of a barrel brewed: labor, energy, debt service, transportation, packaging are all exactly the same for IPA and Levitation. Best estimates for the difference in cost of materials between a pint of session beer and a pint of 7% IPA? About a nickel. If Surly is selling Bitter Brewer for a buck less...they're not charging the same mark-up, which is, of course, their option. But if you're expecting a big cost difference with similar but bigger beers (i.e., not sours, which are a whole different thing), it's not really there. There's probably more of a difference with lagers, and no one really expects to pay more for them.

  7. OK Lew, you make some good points, but a nickle seems a bit off to me. When you figure in the cost per grain and hops (I'll give you the yeast aspect), Levitation probably uses 2/3 the amount of product as does the IPA. As a business owner myself, that is significant at any cost. If I knew what they were paying, I could probably lay it out. With that said, I am not expecting the beer to cost 2/3 as much...but Surly's example of Bitter at a dollar less than Furious seems much more reasonable.
    Distribution can also play a roll in this, which I also understand.

  8. And, for what it's worth, I buy Levitation often...because I love the beer. But, the cost just comes to mind for me, that's all.

  9. When you say a dollar difference, I assume that's on a glass at a pub, not on cans. That would be a $24 difference in a case, and I don't see that!

    I talked to two Pennsylvania commercial craft brewers yesterday about this, and the answers were so interesting that, sorry, I've decided to write about it and sell it, rather than giving it away here. Short version: malt costs vary a lot, based on what malts you're using, and small beers tend to get more malt love because of the extra flavor they impart. The nickel a pint difference isn't my opinion: it's the opinion of just about every commercial brewer I've talked to (some wanted to go as much as a dime), and bars won't bother making a difference on a nickel a glass. Hops and malt are about 20% of the cost of a beer when it leaves the brewery (before wholesale and retail markup), so even changing that a lot doesn't change the price a lot.

  10. OK, I rarely get out for a beer, so I am talking in the aspect of the whole six pack for a buck less. I have never worried too much about the cost in a pub, since I don't get out much. If I am out, I much prefer smaller beers for the driving factor.

    I can understand the malt cost difference, and as a homebrewer tend to get better malts for my small beer to help the character as well.

    I bought some Levatation yesterday since I have been thinking about it. And to be completely honest, I have a hard time spending $10.99 on any six pack (especially something that is not local).

  11. A buck less for a sixpack doesn't sound bad to me, actually. $11 for a sixer is starting to get a bit salty, agreed, but that does seem to be the way things are headed. Can't find much for under $8 anymore.


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