Friday, April 6, 2012

The DING Question: am I riddling the very fabric of the session beer universe?

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!


  1. I hope things go well with your session day.

    As I mentioned the other day (see mu url if you're bothered) I'm not sure the whole discussion is merited. There is a thing to decide how strong the beer is. It's the abv! If you're getting into arguments as to whether the beer is session beer or not you are detracting from the beer itself, just enjoy drinking it!

  2. Lew, I posted in DING's blog a few months back about my position that Session Beer ABV is less than standard. What is standard? Depends on the country, but in the US it is clearly defined. Here's my post:

    "In the US, 5% ABV has been the “standard” measure for a 12 oz serving of beer. This is well defined by the CDC ( So, if 5% is “standard”, session is certainly lower than standard, and 4.5% is a good starting point. In the UK, the separation between standard and session is 0.1% – I thought the US consumer could use a little more spacing in ABV, and took the lead of Lew Bryson on this."

  3. Isn't *any* number chosen for what is sessionable considered arbitrary? I also admire DING's passion and all but, unlike the freezing point of water or the speed of light, there is no scientific constant for determining what qualifies as a session beer. 4.0% is just as arbitrary as 3.9% or 4.2%. It seems like a trying to generate an issue where there really isn't one.

  4. Yes, if you want a cheap night out then go out with DING, he insisted on buying all my beers and the CEO of LoneRider brewing too!
    Secretly I think DING wants quality lower ABV beers so he can lose weight without giving up the taste ;)

  5. Nate totally beat me to my point. Whenever you draw lines in the sand like that they're indeed arbitrary lines. Although the question neither Ding nor Lew has really answered is how they came up with those numbers. Not just because "it's tradition" or playing averages or whatever. There has to be something a little more empirical behind it.

    Americans are much heavier people than the English, so we don't get quite as drunk as fast off 4.5% as they would. You could also factor in cultural changes, etc.

    I think the average American [craft] beer drinker could put away a few bottles or pints of 4.5% as easily as the average British publican can with 4%.

    The irony is American craft beer drinkers really aren't into sessioning beers. When we go to pubs we like to mix it up. A night out might consist of an IPA, stout, wheat, and maybe even a lager (or a cider). I frequent a lot of craft beer-only bars and I've never seen someone sip the same beer for hours on end or even similar beers of similar low ABVs for hours on end (unless you count the people that drink Bud Light while watching three football games in a row)

    So "session day" or "session beer" in America is, IMO, a bit of a futile exercise. Brewers really aren't making all that much low ABV beer because it travels poorly and has a short shelf life compared to even your average pale ale. Also the reason why real ale across the board is a rare commodity here. I do enjoy cask beer, but it's so hard to find. So it's a chicken-and-the-egg question: is cask ale so hard to find because no one brews it or does no one brews it because they know it will be so hard to find?

  6. Perhaps we could call a truce on the basis that an American pint (at 473ml) is that bit smaller than our UK pint (568ml). Consequently, a pint of US 4.5% is likely to be as sessionable as a UK 4.0%, so long as no-one's rushing ;-)

    Though the very fact I've used metric and not imperial to define pint sizes may spark its own debate...

  7. Why empirical? The line has a purpose: encourage good lower alcohol beer. It's 4.5 instead of 4.27 because a round half-point is easier to get. That's all. And besides, I'm not sure you and Nate are even arguing the same side.

    As for the rest of your arguments...sorry, but you sound like Andy Crouch arguing against session beer, and you both sound like someone from 1993 arguing against craft beer. "That stuff isn't here because it doesn't sell." Turn it on its head: it doesn't sell because it isn't here. "People in America don't drink that way." Well, yeah, you don't. And that's a tiny percentage of drinkers; light beer drinkers drink exactly like that; maybe they just want something else. I hung out with a bunch of craft distillers Tuesday afternoon, and we were all drinking 3.7% mild and 5.3% bitter all afternoon, one after another. If it's there and it's good, people will drink it. Bitter American is killing for 21st Amendment; Levitation is selling for Stone. Brewers are making more and more lower ABV and cask beer in America (maybe because there are more local brewers). Things are changing; that's what this whole arena is about, change.

  8. Truce is okay by me, as long as we don't go higher than 4.5%; I'll happily drink lower, in any size glass!

  9. Hey, folks: I'm going to Good Friday services and then to dinner: don't expect any comments to publish for at least six hours from now. Cheers, happy Easter!

  10. Lew, firstly let me say that I am absolutely delighted that you felt the same way about our meeting and my company, as I did about it and yours - if it's not too presumptuous of me, I'd like to think that if we lived closer together we would become firm friends! I hope that we can do that from a distance.

    Your riposte is eloquent and passionate (as I anticipated), but I am still troubled be at least two things.

    Firstly the general idea that the ABV is 'moveable'. The 4.0% limit was never arbitrary (separate post on that), BUT since it was FIRST, it should be respected. The problem with monkeying around with it is two-fold. In one instance it is extremely well-documented that when the ABV is moved in this manner, the ABV of beer that people claim to be 'session beer' starts to go up and up and up to the point where I have seen beer in the 8's and 9's quoted as such. This is absolutely preposterous, but I believe is a function of tampering with the original limit.

    Secondly (somewhat related to the first point) people start to claim/think/believe that session beer is based upon an individual's tolerance level and not the ABV - that's entirely false. ABV is actually the only true definer of session beer, and styles (although it is true only a few are traditional for session beer), are ultimately NOT the defining factor.

    The second macro-thing that bothers me is the omission of the word "American'. If we were to do that with IPA's and barleywines, those terms/styles would become meaningless. In the case of barleywines, without the word 'English' or 'American' preceding, we go from potentially one of the most enamel stripping, palate destroying, viscous, hop-attack styles known to man, to the sweetest, most syrupy, malt based style in the world in one fell swoop - COMPLETE opposites only related by huge ABV's. In fact, without the geographical designation on the front end of 'barleywine', you are likely to find two people that claim to love barleywines absolutely hating the beer put in front of them if it's from the wrong country! For me, American session beer and English session beer, whilst not styles, fall into the same conflict.

    I know this will never be resolved between us, and resolution is not what I'm looking for, but I will never back down on this issue because I am 100% right. I've been wrong about plenty before, will be in the future too, but this is too close to my heart.

    1. As an ex-BA'er myself, I definitely miss the discussion and perspective that you brought to the forums, mainly because I found your opinions thought out and informed. So, it's nice to see you still out and about in the world of beer.

      To your point: "...since it was FIRST, it should be respected," I would counter that with the fact that when basketball was invented, the set shot the standard way to score. The set shot can be respected as part of the heritage of the sport. However, a player in the modern game would not be able to rely on it. Respecting a tradition is very different than adhering to it merely for the sake of adhering to it, regardless of its origins or prior legitimacy.

      Hence, I would agree with Lew's stance that a 4.5% beer could and should be considered a session beer because it's a fair range to accept. People like many of the folks on BA who claim things like "that was a sessionable imperial stout" should be considered foolish for asserting a 12% beer is a session beer. A little gray area is, to most people, appropriate and acceptable and does no disrespect to tradition, or the practice of brewing lower ABV beers.


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