Monday, April 7, 2014

Why I called Sierra Nevada "wieners" about their Nooner Session IPA

Heh, heh. It says Nooner. 4.8%? Really? Come on, SN! Can't get it down to 4.5? Wieners...

That's what I put up on Untappd* two days ago as my "review" of Sierra Nevada's new "session IPA," Nooner. If I felt really bad about it, or that I was out of line, I'd apologize. This is Sierra Nevada, after all; a brewery and a founder, Ken Grossman, which I honestly revere(and still do), one of a small pantheon of people and companies who can honestly be said to have started or substantially advanced what we generally call craft brewing.

And on Saturday, I called them "wieners."

I don't intend to apologize, because I think I'm right. But I do intend to explain, beyond saying, 'well, you know, I was pretty well into the day at that point, pints of draft, some whiskey, and maybe I was a little jovial.' Which I was, but I stand with Papa Hemingway on this: 'Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.' Or not. Yeah, I had been drinking, but I'm sticking by what I said, and here's why.

"Session IPA" is becoming a selling point, but it's an ill-defined "style" (and yes, that word bugs me some days, but let's work with it for now) at best. Look at the Smuttynose Bouncy House I just posted about earlier today: 4.3%, and they sidestepped the "session IPA" label. Their beer is a hoppy pale ale, but that's not why they didn't call it a session IPA. They did it because they thought it might be a played-out trend in a couple years.

I agree, and that's why, as I said in an interview with the good people at Craft Beer Cellar, the 4.5% bright line is important:
...not so much because of the alcohol. It’s because of the worth of the label. If “session beer” just means “as little as 0.1% ABV less than ‘regular beer’”, it starts to lose meaning. Session beer has to be significantly less than a regular beer in alcohol content. 4.5% is 10% less alcohol than 5.0%; that’s significant. I want it to mean something, and to continue to mean something, so I’m going to be picky.
We weren’t picky about what “craft beer” meant — Is it about who makes it? What it’s made of? What it tastes like? — or what an IPA is (it’s apparently anything someone chooses to call an IPA), and those terms are losing value. I don’t want that to happen to session beer, so I’m using every bit of influence I’ve earned over 20 years of writing about beer to try to fence it off. Making 4.5% a bright line and calling any brewer — like Sierra Nevada, even — to task who calls their beer “session” when it’s more than that, is part of the job. I’ll take flak. There will be backlash. Okay. It’s worth it. This was thankless in the beginning; I can handle it. 

Maybe I wouldn't have called Sierra Nevada "wieners" if I hadn't been drinking, but...hey, they called it 'Nooner' first! So I'm not completely off there.

I'm actually getting more concerned about the lame groupthink and sheep mentality represented by "session IPA," especially since it's Sierra Nevada. I really expected something better from a brewer that has produced an iconic, leading Pale Ale, Barleywine, American Stout. I expected a brilliant Bitter, a fearless Mild. But we got a following beer from a brewer that's a leader. I expect better.

I expect better from the whole industry. I should be happy on Session Beer Day, and to some extent, I am! It's great, we're seeing a LOT more session strength beers from notable brewers, and more and more of them at brewpubs. unending parade of "session IPA"?  

GOD DAMN IT, AMERICAN BREWERS! You're BETTER than this! And I'm not just talking about session. American craft brewing has become a pathetic nation of followers. Look, a sour sold, let's make one! Look, session IPA sold, let's make one! Look, limited edition beers sold, let's make one! I weep for you. Truly. Show some balls, at least come up with your own name, like "fractional IPA."

I think it's significant that the brewer who's become something of the standard-bearer for the Session Beer Project, Chris Lohring at Notch, said this about his own session-strength IPA, Left of the Dial:
So, after all that, how does it taste? Like an IPA, but without any cloying sweetness and booze that fatigues and gets in the way of multiple pints and extended good times. Call it a Session IPA if you want, but to me it’s simply the IPA I’d like to drink, and I think Notch fans would like to drink.
Which makes me think of his Notch Pils; it's not a good session pilsner, it's a good pilsner. So if your beer is a good IPA, call it an IPA. If it's a pale ale...say so. And if it's a bitter, well, God bless you.

Here's hoping for a better selection next year. Now get out there: still plenty of time to get some rounds in. That's where I'm headed. Cheers! Drink small, drink often!

*And thanks so much for not dropping a Session Beer Day badge on us this year, Untappd. I know, I know, we don't have the money to pay you, and those badges cost, wait, they don't cost anything, they're virtual. What the hell, Untappd?


  1. Long live the new 'styles, Hoppy Pale Ale, and its more daring sibling, Very Hoppy Pale Ale! In the interest of increasing interest by acronymizing: HPA and VHPA. "American craft brewing has become a pathetic nation of followers." Preach on brother Lew. Preach on. Which is what I would have been testifying if I had been drinking there with you.

  2. Well said, Lew. I have been saying the same things into the wind the last few years. I work in the local homebrew shop n Saturday's (as a respite form my 9-5) & as the majority discuss their latest IPA's, quads, etc, my refrain is always "I only make session beers - those I want to drink. I can only stomach one pint of 7% IPA...." One day more breweries will catch on & make those milds, brown ales, bitters, etc. One day....

  3. I was also disappointed there was no Session Beer Day badge this year. What the hell?

  4. Thanks for the mention Lew. One other brewer asked me when discussing my hesitation in brewing an IPA - "you do want to make money, right?" Which is interesting, as right now a desitka pale lager is 80% of my biz, and that is way more satisfying than any low ABV IPA success I may or may not have.

  5. Got to agree. Over 4.0% should not be called session, and yeah, they should have gone at least to 4.5%


  6. Have you had Carton Brewing Boat Beer? If not, it's one that fits the bill. DIPA level flavor at 4.2%.

  7. I have had, and do like Boat Beer.

  8. I'd agree with you and cheer and pass on your message, but then I'd just be another beer follower, wouldn't I? <;-)

  9. I'm an avid homebrewer that makes at least a batch a week. I think this whole notion of being so hung up on where the "session" line lies is ridiculous. Get over it. 4.8% vs 4.5%, really? Just get a f$%&ing glass of water with it and stop bitching. Do you have ANY idea what it takes to dial in a specific %abv??? The yeast (which is a living thing btw and you can try to coax into doing your bidding but in the end will do whatever it wants) has a very large part to do in it. I've brewed beers that were intended to be around 6% and whoops - overattenuative yeast or highly fermentable wort took it past 7%. This is especially hard in flavorful IPAs where you need to account for trub loss due to the large amount of hop matter

    Bottom line is it tastes good. If you NEED session beers as some kind of control mechanism thats YOUR problem

  10. Thanks for your opinion; everyone has one. Pro brewers can and do dial in the ABV pretty well; it's their job, not a hobby. And the reason I'm so hardassed about 4.5% is because it's a ceiling, not a target. If you overshot the ceiling, you're not even trying to hit the target. But hey, at least you're in the discussion.
    Sorry, though: I'm not going to get over it. We disagree.

  11. Lew, I thought that "Session" typically meant below 5%. Most standard IPAs are between 5 and 7.5%. Double seems to be anything over 7.5%?

    Here is some random history on it...

    Back then, sounds like a session beer was below 4%. I haven't seen many beers below 4%. Your ceiling of 4.5% seems totally arbitrary. I think a session beer is any beer that is easy to drink and under 5%, but my definition is just as arbitrary as yours...

  12. I've read all the Beer Advocate stuff on it; I've read all the stuff about 4.0%, and I find more to agree with in the 4.0% stuff. My ceiling of 4.5% isn't completely arbitrary, but it is to a degree. It's all laid out pretty well here, I think: One thing I very much agree with Chris on is that IF a "standard beer" is 5.0%, a mere 0.1% difference isn't enough; that's why I 'arbitrarily' dropped it to 4.5%. There was also a certain amount of pragmatism to it: there just weren't many beers AT ALL at that time under 4.0%, but there were a few at 4.5%. A standard that leaves no options isn't a good idea.


Comments welcome: please stay on topic. Spam will not be posted; don't bother.