Monday, January 31, 2011

RateBeer Top 100 reactions

The Rate Beer Best Beers in the World list is out -- which is nothing more than an aggregate of the 100 beers with the highest rating on the site -- and yes, no surprise, it is heavily weighted towards big beers, and heavily weighted towards a relatively small group of pants-wettingly hyped breweries (over half of the 100 "best beers in the world" come from only nine breweries?). I have no real problem with the second issue -- things like that happen in this kind of rating/voting -- but the first one? As Stephen Beaumont said,
"In the style listing of the top 50 beers, the word “Imperial” appears 39 times! The word pilsner? Zero times, in the entire 100."
Beaumont titles that post "Why Brewers Make So Many Strong Beers." Martyn Cornell, a strong voice for session beers and traditional British beers, takes it a step further, titling his post on the subject "Why extremophiles are a danger to us all," a post that has set off a tiny bit of a firestorm. Both posts point out that this kind of widely-reported excitement -- in what is essentially a niche within a niche -- has an effect on what beers are available for the average craft beer drinker.

It is not my intention to set off a firestorm today. Not my nature, you know. What I do want to say is that this is exactly the reason this blog is here: to draw more attention to session beers, beers "to the left of the dial," that are under the big ABV radar but still have deliciously full flavor. It's working, but maybe we need to deliver a louder statement. You know...set off a firestorm. 

Accordingly, I am reading manifestos this week, learning from the masters.
A specter is haunting American craft breweries -- the specter of Session Beer.
All the Powers of extreme craft brewing have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. Where is the beer under 6% that has not been decried as "weak session beer" by its opponents in extremism? Where the extreme brewer who has not charged that session beers take attention from the extreme beers that fire the public imagination?*
Two things result from this fact:
I. Session Beer is already acknowledged by all extreme craft brewers and drinkers to be itself a Movement.
II. It is high time that Session Beer brewers and drinkers should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Session Beer with a Manifesto of the movement itself.
When, in the course of enjoying beer, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of drinkers to assume among the beer drinkers of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all good beer drinkers are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are beer, variety, and the pursuit of hoppiness; that to supply these rights breweries are instituted, deriving their just powers from the purchases of the drinker. Whenever any form of beer hype becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new movement, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its definition in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their drinking pleasure and happiness.
Hmmm...who would have thought Elizabeth Cady Stanton's writing would serve as a model for a drinking platform? Will wonders never cease? I am liking the manifesto idea. But I think I'll keep it shorter. Much shorter, it's got to fit on a t-shirt!

*Guys...absolutely all in fun. I know that all involved have made or enjoyed session beers. I'm just riffing on Karl Marx here, and his Manifesto is the most famous...and required a bogeyman. The manifesto I write for the SBP will not. Promise you that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mustang Brewing: gotta call you out, folks

Mustang Brewing has been out about two years now, but they've just come to my attention. They're Oklahoma-based contract brewers, and...well, here's their mission statement-ish manifesto from their website (emphasis added):
We created Mustang Brewing Company to make great, easy-drinking, session beers the people of Oklahoma can be proud to call their own. All our recipes are developed in our pilot facility in Oklahoma. We brew through partnerships with some of the country’s finest breweries. The end results are consistent, quality, craft beers that are full of flavor but light enough to enjoy
Sounds good, right? Our kinda place? Check the beers.
  • Mustang Harvest Lager: 5.6% ABV.
  • Mustang Amber Lager: 4.5% ABV.
  • Mustang Washita Wheat: 5.3% ABV.
  • Mustang Golden Ale: 5.3% ABV.
And the latest, Pawnee Pale Ale? Read what Mustang president Tim Schoelen said (at The Thirsty Beagle blog):
“Bringing the best of Old World East and New World West together is what makes Pawnee Pale a truly American-style pale ale. A tantalizing blend of German Perle and U.S. Pacific Northwest hops give this beer a moderate, citrus, hop quality. American, British, and caramel malts provide a rich maltiness not found in most pale ales. At 6% ABV and 42 IBU’s, Pawnee Pale is distinctly hopped, yet still carries that session beer quality you have come to expect from Mustang.”
Schoelen said Mustang has received many requests for an IPA, but struggled with how they could make one in the session beer range. Thus an American pale ale was the answer.
Actually, turns out that it isn't. When I see "6% ABV," I'm not thinking "session beer range." I'm thinking IPA, or bock, but not session. If 6% is a session beer, then 7.5% isn't strong beer? It's The whole brewery seems to have this messed up: they want to be a session beer brewery, but four out of five beers are over 5%?

I'm not doing this to be a prick. Really. The last thing I want to see happen here is have it become all about a couple tenth-percentage points of ABV. Is your beer 4.7%, and you really want to call it a session? I'm not going to jump on you. I'm happy to encourage people who want to make session beers.

But. I see that the Session Beer Project is working, that people are talking more and more about session beers, that people are hating on session beers (sad, but at least we're talking!), that session beers are getting press...and that people are jumping on what they see as a bandwagon without really getting what it's all about. Not cool.

So I am going to say something, like I did about Full Sail's Session Lager. We're going to carve out an area here, an area where there's a real difference: lower alcohol beers with flavor. If the beer's over's not lower alcohol. (Yeah, I know it's "lower alcohol" than a double IPA, but that's hardly the point.) I wanted to avoid this, but...I think it's time for a manifesto. Time to get militant.

Oh, and...enjoyed the hell out of the return of Milltown Mild at Victory last week -- took a growler home, and Cathy liked it, too; plenty of roasty malt in there -- and had a snappy Notch Hoppy Session at Redbones (great with the Arkansas ribs). And I got me a SBP hoody from CafePress (using that link up in the right-hand corner), and wore it all over Boston/Cambridge on Saturday: that baby is warm. Represent the Session Beer Project!

Friday, January 14, 2011


The new Style guidelines for the 2011 Great American Beer Festival's competition are out, and once again, there's a clear disconnect on what Session Beer is, isn't, and can be. Or at least...that's what it seems like at first. Lemme 'splain. No, that would take too long. Lemme sum up.

Here's the style guideline for "Session Beer," under Hybrid/Mixed Beer Styles.
Session Beer
Any style of beer can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style's character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 4.1% alcohol by weight (5.1% alcohol by volume). Original Gravity (ºPlato) 1.034-1.040 (8.5-10 ºPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.004-1.010 (1-2.5 ºPlato) ●Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.2-4.1% (4.0-5.1%) ● Bitterness (IBU) 10-30 ● Color SRM (EBC) 2+ (4+ EBC)
So when I first saw this (thanks to Chris Lohring at The Notch, who brought it to my attention), I about went ballistic. The description sounds like a category for 'dialed-down' versions of other beers -- like a 'session bock' -- a low-alc counterweight to the "Other Strong Ale or Lager" category. Except that, unlike Other Strong (and wouldn't that make a great beer name?), Session Beer not only has an upper limit on ABV -- a way too strong 5.1%! -- it has an even more WTF-inducing lower limit on ABV: 4.0%!

Like I said, "when I first saw this." Then I poked around some more -- and it's a huge document, with even more incredibly sub-divided categories (meaning many more medals...) -- and found some other stuff. Like Ordinary Bitter (3.0-4.1% ABV), English-Style Summer Ale (3.6-5%), Scottish-style Light Ale (2.8-3.5%!), English-style Pale Mild and Dark Mild (both 3.2-4.0%), Classic Irish-style Dry Stout (3.8-5%), Berliner Weisse (2.8-3.4%), Leichtes Weizen (2.5-3.5%), Belgian-style Table Beer (0.5%-3.5%!), and German Leicht(bier) (2.5-3.6%). (I'm skipping the American Light categories on purpose, yeah.)

The upshot? There are actually more categories than ever for lower-alcohol, tasty beers (I guess we'll have to wait for next year for the Lichtenhainer and Grodziskie), which should mean that brewers will be encouraged to brew to those styles in hopes of scoring medals (the good side of category/medal multiplication). That's a good thing.

But the catch-all Session Beer category just baffles me. If it is intended to catch any beer that doesn't fall into the 'normal' low-ABV categories listed above...why have that lower limit? And if it's really about session -- and they have the courage to put low ABV ranges on those other categories -- why an upper limit of 5.1%?

Look, I don't pretend to have the last word on session beer. Plenty of Brits believe -- and tell me! -- that 4.5% is too high for session. Plenty of Americans believe it's too low for an upper limit. But 5.1%? I'm sorry, I see this as kowtowing to the west coast, where they seem to think that 5.5% is session-strength. It's not. That's too strong for session. Period.

If we're going to have a "Session Beer" category at the GABF in addition to all these traditional session/worker/table beer categories, why not borrow the language from other catch-all categories: "varies with style," and give it an upper limit of 4.5%. How's that sound?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New brewery to start out working the session angle

I've been corresponding with Jeffery Stuffings at Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin, Texas, a new and ambitious craft brewery that's just opened. JK is starting up with barrel-aging, bottle-conditioned 750 ml bottles, and...two year-round session beers in their line-up. Here's what he had to say about that:
I just wanted to e-mail you to say thanks and offer our support for The Session Beer Project.  We wholeheartedly support the mission.  One of our frustrations is that our bigger beers tend to be rated higher and sell better simply because they are more "extreme". We've actually made two session beers part of our year-round lineup: a 3.3% ABV English-style dark mild and a soon to be released ~4% ABV farmhouse table beer
What Stuffings didn't tell me -- I found it on the brewery blog -- is pretty interesting, too.
Dickel barrels full of aging mild at Jester King.
  • The farmhouse table beer -- "Das Wunderkind" -- sounds like a smaller version of another farmhouse beer they're making, Boxer's Revenge, an idea I wholeheartedly applaud.
  • Some of the dark mild is being barrel-aged for blending with the regular mild to create more depth of flavor; brilliant, innovative -- dare I say...extreme? -- way of adding flavor to a session beer without overwhelming it.
  • And they clearly have a sense of humor: the dark mild is named "Commercial Suicide Dark Mild."
So I'd like to take this opportunity to invite those of you in the Austin area to go out for Jester King's grand opening on Saturday the 29th of January, 1-9:00, for food, live music (in their large beer hall, and what would an Austin opening be without live music?), and lots of session-strength beer. Mind you, they've got their 10% Black Metal imperial stout, too!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Just a statement

I went to Boston to get my son home for break. We were figuring to leave the following day, so I took him to dinner at the Sunset Grill, an old fave, just off campus. The Sunset has a ton of taps, but it's a big place; they go through them. So...I've gotta drive five miles to my hotel after, and I figure, go easy. Happy thing: the draft menu lists ABV! Sad thing: very few choices under 5%. Like 8 out of 100+ taps. That's it. Okay, I'll take what I can get. Waiter comes. He's out of every single sub-5% beer. HELLO! What's that tell you?! 

The lack of session-strength beers at beer bars reminds me terribly of the situation I used to run into all the time back in the early 1990s. "Those microbrews? Nah, we don't carry them: they don't sell." Hey, Einstein: if you don't carry them, they can't sell!

This year, I'm talking to bar owners/managers, and I'm encouraging you to do the same. And when you do, tell 'em you'll be there to drink the stuff! We're getting some momentum here...let's push.

Cheers! Happy New Year!