Monday, April 30, 2012

Session Beer discussion panel at PBW, June 5

Just got news of a Session Beer panel seminar to be hosted by The Farmer's Cabinet here in Philly on June 5, from 8 to 10 (and it's probably going to run to 11, because it's) hosted by Dan Shelton, of Shelton Brothers importers. Panelists are the folks in the trenches who have to sell the stuff, and we'll hear from them what people actually want, and what people actually buy. This is a great chance to meet some of the foremost beer bar owners/managers on the East Coast and get a peek at their beer philosophy.

You'll meet:

Joe Carroll, of Spuyten Duyvil
Dave Brodrick, of Blind Tiger Alehouse
Greg Engert, of Churchkey
Casey Hard, Max's on Broadway
Daniel Lanigan, of Alewife (Baltimore), and Massachusetts landmarks Moan & Dove (Amherst), Dirty Truth (Northampton), and Lord Hobo (Cambridge)
Chris Lively, of Ebenezer's Pub
and there are others who may show as well. 

I'll be joining the panel around 9:30 -- I have a 'booze karaoke' event at the Grey Lodge from 7-9 -- by which time things should be well under way, if I know Dan and these guys. Please, if you're in Philly, try to stop by for this. It may be at another location, depending on what Matt can pull together: I'll keep you updated here. But there is guaranteed to be a lively discussion -- as any of you who made it to my appearance at the discussion of Pennsylvania beer laws hosted by Philly Beer Scene at Yards in February can attest! -- and there will be plenty of session-strength beers!

Back to work: the Grey Lodge adds a dedicated Session Beer Tap

One of my favorite bars here in Philly (and anywhere), the Grey Lodge Pub, has dedicated one of their taplines to SBP-approved session beer! Here's what's going to be out in their e-log newsletter later this week:
As part of Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project, Line 3 is going to be our session beer line. Session beers have an alcohol by volume of 4.5% or less. They are the beer to have if you are having more than one. As a side benefit, they are also lower in calories. When Cricket Hill Noctern kicks, which at 4.75% ABV just misses officially being a session beer, line 3 will be for session beers. In the meantime, Roy Pitz Best Blonde, which clocks in at 4.5%, on is line 7, so we have a session beer already. 
Just one more reason to head down to the G-Lodge!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Session Beer Day: thanks to you, an unbelievable success!

Sorry it's taken so long to get back to this, but it's been an insane week.  (Details below, if you're interested.) Now I've got a moment, so let's get caught up:

Session Beer Day was a huge success!

Spotted on SBD in a bar in Parma, Italy
We saw support from bars, brewers, beerlovers, Untappd, and from beer drinkers around the world. Some people really got into it (Thanks, Nora!) When the Untappd Session Beer Day badge reports started rolling in from Indonesia and New Zealand late Friday afternoon, I started to realize what we had going on. Reports rolled in all day long about where people were drinking session beer, what session beers they were drinking, and how they loved the idea.

Were there disagreements? Yes, of course. Mainly there was sniping from the 4.0%-or-under diehard crowd, and a couple late comments from those who wanted to drink big beers (and were we trying to stop them from enjoying the beers they wanted? Of course not!) that went over the bounds of polite discourse. But as @DCchillin noted, "Has anyone else noticed that in heavy 4.5% vs. 4% #sessionday debate, there's not been much 4.5% vs 5% or higher?" It was mostly about whether 4.5% was too high, not too low.

I consider that a win, because if it's under's definitely under 4.5%. I have no problem with that. And if anyone wants to argue that 4.5% is too high to be session beer, well, at least they're keeping the conversation reasonable. 5% is a matter of not enough distinction; 6% is just silly. And that's about all I have to say on the "disagreement" and "controversy" over session beer definitions.

Because folks showed up for Session Beer Day in a big way, especially after only 19 days of preparation! There are brewers who are thinking up session beers now, there are bars that are reconsidering their tap set, there are drinkers who have found out that small can be beautiful...all because of Session Beer Day. 

We will definitely do it again next year, and it will be on April 7 again (a Sunday), and it will be BIGGER. There will be more session beers available, there will be more participating bars and breweries, there will be more people supporting it.

The tricky question is this: how do we keep up the level of interest we generated?! Ideas are welcome, but you know the best way to do it...keep asking for session beers from your local brewers and bars. Keep Tweeting when you find a good one. If you're a bar, please consider having at least one session beer on at all times, and if you do, get the sticker and display it!

Or as Stan Hieronymus said when we first started talking about the Session Beer Project back in 2007:
As consumers, we can order the beers. Talk nice about them at the bar. Urge our friends to drink them. Leave a nice tip. Compliment the brewers. Suggest you'd like to see more beers like that. Ask how they are made (attention homebrewers: DON'T tell the professional brewer how to lower the gravity and make a better beer). Find out how the brewer might get more flavor even while tossing in less grain.

And one other thing: don't bother getting into arguments over what "defines" a session beer. If someone wants to say a 7% IPA is a session beer, laugh and keep moving. If someone insists session beer can't be over 4.0%, drink 3.7% mild with them and enjoy yourselves. This isn't about arguing, and it isn't about numbers. It's about enjoying lower-alcohol beer with good, balanced flavor.

Next year: Session Beer Day. April 7, 2013. See you there!

My Session Beer Day was followed by singing Easter Vigil mass, then Easter morning mass, then cooking and eating a big family meal for Easter, followed by the arrival of more family, who we then went to Manhattan with for three days of sightseeing (and eating and drinking) while I tried to cram in necessary magazine work. I was home for about 10 hours, then took my daughter on three days of college visits and more family visiting, then more singing today and finishing up our taxes!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Back to your regularly scheduled Session Beer Day...

Sorry folks: couldn't blog, I was at a conference in Louisville and had some serious computer and WiFi issues. I'm back...but I've got a lot of work to do (including writing a piece on session beer for All About Beer magazine). So I'll just note for now that Untappd has come through with a sweet Session Beer Day badge (and thanks to Chris at the Notch for his help with that, and to the Untappd members who asked for it!), and promise to get back to you soon as I can with the press the day has received, and if I can, an updated list of places celebrating Session Beer Day. If I run out of time -- and it is Good Friday, and I'm a church musician -- go to the last posts and check it out, go to the Facebook page, and check Twitter for the #sessionday tag!

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!