The DING question has to be faced, and now, the day before Session Beer Day, seems to be a good time to do so. DING (he uses the sobriquet whenever he talks about beer, so I’ll do the same) is a session hardliner: he firmly believes that 4.0% is the top limit for session, period, and seizes every opportunity to make his point. Tirelessly. He believes that the 4.5% cap I’ve put on it here on the blog — and I’d remind everyone again that it’s just me and my reasoning — is not only wrong, but breaks tradition to the point of allowing much stronger beers to call themselves “session beers.”
I disagree, of course. Yet I have to echo DING’s sentiments from a post on his blog two days ago, where he talked about meeting me for beers at Memphis Taproom recently (we wound up drinking Half Acre Daisy Cutter, and enjoying the hell out of it; not every beer is session beer, even for us, you know?): I found him to be affable, authentic, passionate, and not at all the wild-eyed fanatic some think he is. Simply put, the man knows his beer, loves beer and pub culture passionately, and is simply stating what he believes. We got along famously. Also, he insisted on buying the beer, which means he’s a damned gentleman!
That said...I felt I had to respond to his post, and address the whole 4.0 vs. 4.5 question, as there are partisans. DING strongly questions the arbitrary nature of my number, and that’s what I want to address: my definition of session beer, and what it means, and where we go from here.
To begin: while I have said all along that the 4.5% cap I chose to make part of my definition was arbitrary, that's not the whole story. I could, after all, have been completely arbitrary, and capped "session beer" at 6.5%. That would have been arbitrary and indefensible.
However, most reasonable folks have recognized that if we’re reducing this argument to an ABV number, setting a limit at 4.5% vs. 4.0% is a lot different than 6.5% vs. 4.0%. It’s hardly like DING’s absurd (deliberately so, I have to assume!) scenario of half a percent difference being tantamount to “an Englishman…calling a black beer, brewed with roasted malts and an average ABV of 8% a ‘Hefeweizen’”. That’s a bit off the mark, and reminiscent of the “beer as a gateway drug to heroin” argument we used to hear. It does fall neatly into the dogma of his contention that apparently the Beer Gods have decreed that 4.0% is THE one, true limit for session beer, and that it is, in fact, the ONLY definition of session beer: the ABV.
As an American, I disagree. DING has also said that we have no beer culture in America; again, I disagree, and the linkage of these two disagreements is the key. The beer culture of the UK (from an outsider’s perspective, admittedly) is in two parts: swilling piss-lager, and appreciating their wonderful contribution to beer, cask ale. (DING, in aside, said we can’t graft or create a beer culture, yet the UK’s cask beer culture apparently needed CAMRA to keep it alive; grafting doesn’t work, but apparently resuscitation is allowed, and that may be a good thing, since their politicians are apparently looking to kill their pub culture as well…but that’s another story.) Our beer culture, I would argue, is also in two parts: swilling piss-lager, and appreciating the entire spectrum of the world of beer.
Like America itself, we are an immigrant beer nation. We have not limited ourselves to one or two areas of beer — real ale in the UK, a spectrum of lagers in Bohemia, altbier in Düsseldorf and kölsch in Köln, wild and strong ales in Belgium — but grabbed all of it, embraced it, and taken our own spin with it. Some of those ‘spins’ have been so successful that they’ve returned to their origins and thrived there; see the stronger ales hopped with American strains in the UK, or the hoppier beers Belgian brewers are making.
Have we made mistakes? Certainly! Do we go in many directions at once? Why, to quote one of our great poets, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” But that is the heart of this. “Session beer” is not English “session ale”, it is large, it contains multitudes. We embrace the Belgian tafelbier, the German alt and Helles, the Czech Desítka, as well as the English session ales.
To encompass all these types of tasty, low alcohol beers — these contradictions, these multitudes — we need a term, and not, as some have said, a “style,” but a group, a class, a meta-style. It is a shorthand for this wonderful arena of lower alcohol, the “left side of the dial,” as Chris Lohring put it. It is not just about English session ales, but in America we do speak English, so the term is ready to hand: session beer.
Do we “misuse a well-established one that means something else” as DING asks? Since the earliest uses of “session ale” only appear about 30 years ago, not back in the misty ages of antediluvian English brewing, I’d say “well-established” is a stretch. But even so, I’d say this was not a misuse, but a typical American adaptation. DING doesn’t seem to mind quaffing American “IPA” or “barleywine” or “imperial stout” that comes in several full percentage points above their British counterparts (acknowledging that the origins of those beers in the ‘misty ages’ may well have been stronger also), it’s just this particular half-point of ABV that puts a beer in his bonnet.
I’d also remind him that when he says the following, he’s speaking in a foreign land:
Notch Brewing have also drawn the line at 4.5%, but have taken it further than Lew by using the terms “American Session Beer” and “American Session Ale”. This is much more to my liking, since it clearly distinguishes that the definition being used is ‘American’ in origin and therefore should not be confused with the original, authentic one. I can live with that as long as the ‘American’ aspect is emphasized to distinguish it from the real McCoy.
We’re in America. We don’t need to preface things with “American,” it’s understood: we live here. That's not chauvinism, every country is that way. They don't call it "Canadian bacon" in Canada. And again…we’ve already distinguished it from the British session ale. That’s because it was never my intent to encourage the enjoyment and appreciation and brewing (and ensuing innovation) of English session ales alone, but rather to encourage the enjoyment and appreciation and brewing (and ensuing innovation) of all types of good lower alcohol beers. To make that more easily understood, I adopted a top limit of 4.5% ABV — and said this was “for our purposes” — and have stuck to that
Now, about Session Beer Day…DING has also taken me to task for “reporting breweries and bars that are going to promote session day by using beers well OVER his limit of 4.5%. Without strict adherence to the traditional limit, things just spiral out of control, and pretty soon we get 5.0, 5.5, 6.0 etc. being included and the whole concept of session beer once again becomes meaningless and lost.”
Well, not true. If the brewery or bar has included beers within the session limit of 4.5% and under, I’ve “reported” them; if they haven’t, I haven’t had anything to say about them. I have noted the over-the-line beers, as recently as a week ago: “New Holland Brewing jumped in with a special price for the day at their pub. And yes, I know Full Circle weiss is 4.9%; don't be a hater, just get the Doug E. Fresh at 3.0%! Thanks, guys!”
That’s it: I don’t want to just rant and rave and be all “Get off my lawn!” But I will point out when people go over the 4.5% line and call it “session beer” or “sessionable.” Done so already, you’ve seen it here (it didn't hurt, either: Mustang is celebrating Session Beer Day with Session 33, a 4.0% beer: cheers, guys!). And here. I’m not being a hater, but neither am I going to let anyone dilute this. Trust me; it’s working too well already to give up.
That’s what I’ve got for you. Get out there and drink session beer…of all kinds…as long as you keep it at 4.5% and under. And while you’re drinking, let’s do what folks do while they’re drinking session beer: let’s discuss. Cheers, see you tomorrow at the amazingly successful Session Beer Day!