It's an admirable goal, even if it ignores the obvious (if distasteful) alternative: Drink fewer beers. Which points to session beer's more troublesome challenge. Craft beer's success is at least partly due to its potency. Small brewers differentiated themselves from macro-brew conglomerates by offering full-flavored ales and lagers whose higher prices were justified because you didn't have to drink as much to feel the buzz.
Consumers may rightly feel they're not getting their money's worth if the alcohol content is lower, especially since the new wave of session beers are not substantially cheaper than higher-alcohol varieties.
And that, friends, is why Jack Cade declared small beer a felony.As I've said, I wasn't aware craft beers were more expensive because they were strong (especially since there is no graduated tax on ABV, and malt is well under half of the cost of a pint on the bar, usually under a quarter), I thought we'd been told it was because of smaller-scale operations and the hand-crafted care they were made with. Then we find out from Don that the price is about how much you have to drink to feel the buzz? Well. Enlightening. (Or not: check this explanation of the comparative cost of big beer and session beer by someone who actually pays the bills.)
Of course, this is the guy who showed up last year at a session beer panel discussion -- featuring some of the real stars of craft beer bar ownership and management on the East Coast -- as a semi-official representative of Philly Beer Week and stunned a previously happy crowd to silence by telling them that "session beers" were unnecessary, ridiculous, and somehow vaguely disrespectful of craft beer's heritage. It was a special moment.
So I wasn't surprised to see another sideways slap at session beer in his column yesterday, in a tongue-in-cheek look at styles the GABF had somehow "missed" in their 142 categories of beer styles. He listed such recognizable clumps as "Chick Beer," and "Cult Beer," and "Imported Beer."And then we have:
Session Beer. "Any style of beer . . . [whose] drinkability is a character in the overall balance." Wait a minute . . . I'm not making that up. That's an actual Brewers Association head-scratching definition of an invented style that can smell, taste or feel like anything, as long as it's weak enough to drink all night. Aroma, flavor and body are reminiscent of a far stronger and superior beer.And you look at that, and you get a bit pissed about that last sentence, right? "...a far stronger and superior beer." Superior because it's stronger? Kind of revealing, maybe.
But I've decided to look at this in the light of the Brewers Association definition that Russell quotes, because I've got real problems with it myself. The BA came up with this category as an apparent direct mirror image of the Other Strong Ale Or Lager category, which is where you go when you've got an Imperial Bitter, or a Triple Altbier (both of which I've encountered in judging that category at the GABF...). So when you have a Half-IPA, or a Baby Barleywine, or a Session Saison, this is where you go. I guess.
And I'll agree with Russell in that case: generally, these beers are echoes of a superior beer. The "session IPAs" I've sampled are overbalanced; the small saisons are often over-spiced; and the occasional bourbon barrel-aged small beers I've had...well, I'd have much rather just had the bourbon, thank you. There is a whole class of lower-alcohol beers out there today that just don't get it. You can't make a beer session-strength by simply cutting back on the malt. You have to carefully balance things, maybe even amp the malt a bit and ease up on the attenuation.
My hat is off, for instance, to Stone's Levitation. It doesn't blow my mouth open with hops, it's been carefully tweaked till it's a hoppy session-strength ale, not a "session IPA," and they wisely didn't call it that. A grisette is a nicely-balanced beer in the general manner of a saison, but powered for all-afternoon drinking.
So I'm going to go along with this one, Don. You can't make a session beer by just simple dialing down. There's more to it than that, just like you can't make a high-mileage car by simply cutting two cylinders off a V6; you've got to make a different car, built and geared to the power you have (believe me, as a guy who owns an old 4-cylinder Saab that really REALLY needs a turbo, I understand this). This idea is a silly one.
"Session beer" is not a style, any more than "extreme beer" is. (Or was, I hear that term less every day, it seems.) It's a whole group of beers, made to a variety of styles. That's why I like it; I like variety with my variety.