|Is this the drinker of so-called "Session Beer"?|
Or is it already here? It's an interesting point that came up in the discussion that Session Beer Day engendered -- which is, after all, the whole point of this thing. It came up again at the Session Beer Panel I joined at Farmer's Cabinet during Philly Beer Week, when Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell told us all that in his opinion, session beers were unnecessary, ridiculous, and somehow a kind of treachery to the great bigger beers that brought us all into craft beer.
It made me think. Is there really a need for a Session Beer Day, a call for more session beer, or even the term?
Because apparently the thinking goes 'Hey, we're already there.' What's the biggest-selling craft beer? Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Well, it's 4.9% ABV. What about other big-selling and readily available craft beers? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? 5.6%, bigger than 'normal,' but hardly a headknocker. New Belgium Fat Tire? 5.2%. Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat? 4.4%. Not even craft, how about imports? Guinness? 4.2%. Newcastle Brown? 4.7%.
Good God, maybe they're right! Those mostly don't fall into my definition of "session beer," or into that of the hardline Brits' at all, but still -- the argument goes -- they're not that far off. In asking for beers under 4.5%, they seem to think, we're really just pushing things a bit far and asking for something that isn't really needed...or wanted. We're creating a desire that doesn't really exist, calling for something that isn't really needed.
Not surprisingly, I disagree. First off, go into any specialty beer bar and check the ABV levels. With a few exceptions (like Memphis Taproom, Deep Ellum, The Diamond, Piper's Pub, and some others), it has been my experience that the beers on tap start at 5.6% and go up from there. I'm talking about places that have 24, 50, even 90 taps, and there are scarcely three of those taps that are under 5%. If there is a beer under 5%, it's one of the ones listed above. Nothing wrong with those, but...how come all the variety and fun goes to the big beers? And how come the folks who want big beers get plenty of choices -- most of which seem to be pretty similar, but still -- and we get a bare handful?
The Session Beer Project, before I took on the cause of lower-alcohol, was originally about getting attention for the everyday beers, the flagships, the forgotten favorites that didn't get press love because they were...successful, and made every day or every week. As I used to say about the futility of writing about Budweiser, it's not the flavor (or lack of it), it's the monotony. What would I write? "Hey, this batch tastes just like the last one."
But then I realized that there was a segment of the market that got even less love, even less attention: the lower alcohol beers, those under 5%. And as Fortnight Brewing recently put it so well in their mission statementesque website, strongly declaring why they would not put "session" on a beer unless it were 4% or less (which is fine with me; 4 < 4.5!), you want a "lower alcohol" beer to be definitely lower in alcohol than a standard beer:
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention both define “one drink” to be a 12-ounce glass of beer of about 5% alcohol. So if 5% is the standard, it makes sense to believe that for a beer to be a session beer, it must definitely be below this limit. How low is often up for debate, and we won’t bother getting into that.I do get into that, of course, but I'm a writer: it's my job. And I have taken on the project of getting attention, respect, and love for those lower alcohol beers. It doesn't surprise me that there's resistance -- though the smattering of hostility the idea has encountered baffles me, frankly -- but now that things are starting to turn...that doesn't surprise me, either.
After all, craft beer -- microbrewed beer -- encountered plenty of resistance when it started. Who needs it? We have beer. "What's wrong wit de beer we got? I mean, the beer we got drink pretty good, don't it?" I've noticed that a LOT of the criticism of session beer from craft beer enthusiasts -- "beer geeks," if I may -- sounds just like those early criticisms, and I find this funny, ironic, and ultimately...quite satisfying. It's how I know we're on the right track.
Because in these days of extreme double sour fresh-hopped wild beers...there are a solid number of us who like to simply drink good beer without paying through the nose for it, or going to extreme measures to find it, or carefully, slowly sipping it so we don't get thrashed, or stopping the conversation every three sentences to point out yet another nuance we've discovered. I do not say that this is better than other types of beer enjoyment. I do not say that I cannot do this with stronger beers. I do not say that standard and over-strength beers are unnecessary, or silly, or dangerous, or that they're giving craft beer a bad name. All I'm saying is that the lower-alcohol option is just as nice, just as valid, just as "crafty," and just as much good beer -- when done right, of course -- as are the big beers...when they're done right, of course.
Is session beer already here? Increasingly, it is...and now that we've had some success in getting recognition for it -- yeah, I'm declaring a certain amount of "Mission Accomplished," dangerous though we know that is! -- we'll be here to make sure it stays that way. I don't want to see session beer jump the shark, I don't want to see the definition of session beer become diluted to uselessness in an attempt to include every brewer and every beer. Sorry: your 5.2% pale ale is not a session beer just because the rest of your line is over 8%. Sorry: your 5.6% IPA is not a session beer just because "in this state, anything under 6% is a session beer."
The happy fact is, "session beer" has become recognizable enough, and trendy enough, that brewers want to have one, because people want to buy them. It's our job to remind them that it takes more than a name and a label to make a session beer. It takes some honesty, it takes the will to do it right, and it takes the guts to make it under 4.5% -- or under 4%, if that's your guideline -- and put it out there to see if your fans think it's worth drinking. Because there are people out there who really do want lower alcohol beer, and not just "lower than a big beer" in alcohol. Make a great-tasting beer at that kind of level, and you'll probably find customers. Find a great-tasting beer at that kind of level, and you'll probably...have more. Cheers!