Thursday, April 7, 2011

About that 4.5% number...

A lot of discussion around the blogosphere lately about what the top "limit" on ABV should be for a session beer. There are some militant Brits who loudly proclaim that it's 4.0, and anything above that just isn't session; there are militant Americans who say beers as high as 6% are session beers "for them." Plenty of people say I have no authority to set a limit (they're absolutely right, too).

And then there's this brilliant bit from Martyn Cornell.

Martyn doesn't consider the ABV as important as the "quaffability." When I started this thing, I agreed with that, mostly, but "quaffability" doesn't lend itself to consensus, at least not among U.S. beer blog-readers and BeerAdvocate/ratebeerians. So I used a number.

I still like a 'definition' I came up with almost 20 years ago, when Malt Advocate was still a beer magazine. I was at John Hansell's house, tasting some aged Belgians with him and a couple other friends. They were great beers: fruit lambics slowly giving up their character, some nose-opening lambics (Boon just ain't what it used to be), a vertical of Chimay Blue. But I said (something like, can't remember the exact words), "These are great, but sometimes I like a beer that doesn't stop conversation, a beer that you can all simply enjoy without constantly interrupting your friends' stories to say, 'Yeah, that's great, but do you taste those coffee notes? That's awesome!' There's a lot to be said for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale." Even then, I was groping toward this idea.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Drink Session on April 7th!

Thursday, April 7th, marks the 78th anniversary of "Repeal Lite," the enactment of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which made 3.2% ABW beer legal once more in the United States. Full Repeal, the ratification of the 21st Amendment, would not occur until December of that year, but starting at 12:01 AM on April 7th, 1933, Americans could drink beer that wasn't just "near beer." They drank it with gusto, too, consuming huge amounts as bands played "Happy Days Are Here Again" over and over and over, and no one seemed to mind at all. If it had been written yet, they probably could have played "It's a Small World After All," and everyone would have sung along...

3.2% ABW, of course, is 4.0% ABV, so I intend to celebrate the anniversary with a good healthy helping of ≤4.0% session beer. Please feel free to join me.

Hell, today's date is 4.5! Next year: this is Session Beer Project Day! Wish I'd thought of that sooner...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Another "session IPA"

Just got a press release from North Peak Brewing in Traverse City, Michigan about their new "Session India Pale Ale" they call Wanderer. It's...well, I'll let them describe it:
"...a wonderfully-refreshing Session IPA, brewed with locally-grown hops on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City. Session IPA is an exciting new style, balanced with malt and hop characters with a clean finish. Hopped with Perle, Willamette, Centennial and Citra that give it a citrus and pine finish, Wanderer is rounded out with a generous amount of dry-hopping with Citra hops to fill the nose to give it a light, clean and stimulating body. This combination of full-hop flavor and lower alcohol gives Wanderer a wonderful drinkability, allowing the craft beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or “session.”"

Hmmm...not sure about that "reasonable" time period! But otherwise? These guys seem to get it, even though I'm guessing it's probably over-hopped for my tastes. I'm seeing more of these hoppy session beers; smart brewers trying to give the people what they want. 

Wonder what they charge for it...?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Great Discussion at NERAX!

The folks at NERAX asked me to come speak to their industry session last Friday afternoon. I'd never been to the New England Real Ale eXhibition, and it was a chance to see Thomas (and they offered to throw me a room), so I jumped on it.

NERAX is a 15 year thing, a unique event that takes place in a VFW hall about the size of two double-bay garages. It's determinedly low-tech (as befits a cask festival), but the beer's tremendous -- they pour about 90 British and American cask beers (and a few ciders), all in beautiful condition -- and the food is barbecue sammiches from Redbones. You pay to get in, and you pay for your beer, but you can get 1/4, 1/2 or full imperial pints; your choice. Awesome. You know how good it is? Paul Pendyck from the Bulls Head in Lititz was there Friday afternoon...and he had his own cask event the next day back home. He flew up and back on Friday because he wasn't going to miss NERAX.

Deep Ellum's Max Toste and Chris "The Notch" Lohring at NERAX
Naturally I said I'd speak on session beer, and how cask is a natural expression for it. After getting in Thursday (and not making it to that night's NERAX session because I, well, got to drinking at Cambridge Brewing and just didn't feel like leaving; more about that at my other blog soon), I got in a bunch of work in my room Friday morning, and headed over to Davis Square to make the 1:00 opening. What a prime crew! Tons of New England brewers (I'd already run into Paul Davis at my hotel), and the NERAX folks (very friendly), Paul Pendyck (we ran out for lunch at a nearby diner), Chris Lohring (The Notch), my colleague Andy Crouch, and the BeerAdvocate Brothers, Jason and Todd Alström.

And all those casks. I chatted politely for as long as I could stand it, then excused myself to get a beer. I had -- that I can recall -- Portsmouth Whipper Snapper, Wachusett Black Shack Porter, Brains SA, Breconshire Cribyn, Meantime Yakima Red, Bray's Old Church Pale, and Gritty's Blue Porter...I think that was it. Half-pints, over three hours, and most under 4.5%. All very nice, though the Whipper Snapper and the Blue Porter stick out. I got a few in, filled up with the Yakima Red, and hung out in the foyer as I was introduced. Chris Lohring was there, and I asked him if he was available for tagging when I got into the cage match with the Alströms: he said he'd be on the turnbuckle waiting -- then grinned and noted that it was the first time he'd said the word "turnbuckle" in years.

The idea was to do what the Session Beer Project is all about: stimulate discussion. I got up there, talked about what session beer was and wasn't, and why I set my ABV number at 4.5% -- and why I was reluctant to set a limit -- and what session beer was and wasn't in the U.S., and how I'd be happy with another, better name for it, and ways to make session beer interesting (cask being a big one, of course)...and it was all stuff they pretty much knew, although the parts about how well session-strength beers are selling around Philly seemed to make them pretty happy.

Then things went off: I brought up the price issue. In a nutshell: session-strength beers cost less to make than "normal" strength craft beers -- say, 6% ABV beers -- but only a little: every cost is the same except for a small amount of materials costs, and maybe shorter aging time. The brewers nodded in agreement when I asked them if it was fair to say it was about a nickel a pint less, or about six bucks a half-keg. Now, you're talking about a keg of craft beer that's up in the neighborhood of $130 to $170, retail, less than that to the bar...six bucks cheaper? Even if it's ten bucks cheaper: the bar's going to charge the same for both beers, because "pint" prices generally increase in 50 cent increments...if you're lucky, and they don't jump by a buck. I'm running that, and the brewers are all nodding.

But the punters and the pundits weren't buying it. Andy and The Brothers were saying that it should be less anyway. (One brewer texted me later: funny how after all the brewers said the beers don't really cost less to make, the drinkers all said they should cost less anyway.) (Or maybe not: see the comments below, and my apologies to Andy: it was a bit fevered and multi-threaded!) Why, I asked, what are you getting less of if it's a good, flavorful session beer? Alcohol? In which case...why are you drinking, again?

The English folks in attendance (and those who have experience with English beer prices) know that the alcohol level has a clear link to increased price: that's how their taxes are set. But that's not the case in the U.S., and it's not even the case in mainstream beer pricing: Bud Select 55 is 2.4% ABV, and it sells for the same price at the bar as Miller Lite -- 4.2%.

Every time the discussion would flag, I'd toss something in. "How much do you pay for Taras Boulba?", the session-strength Belgian beauty from De La Senne, that goes for around $10. And they were off again.

Some interesting points did come up. I suggested that bars should charge a premium for cask, which upset some: it's hard enough to sell already, was the general tenor, don't make it harder (to which I'd reply, you have to give the publican something for all the extra work!). Andy made a good point: if you're charging "normal" prices for a beer you can and want to drink more of over a longer time, well, that adds up fast.

And both he and the Alströms were citing high prices in the area already; they wanted relief. I felt their pain: I'm still wincing about paying $10 for a pint of Cain's bitter at Dandelion last month. But that made me think of something smart people say about the "underage drinking problem," both here and elsewhere in the world: we don't have an underage drinking problem, we have a drinking problem. You don't have a session beer pricing problem; you have a beer pricing problem. Which is what they've been saying for quite a while; the session beer cost issue is, like I said, just a hope for some kind of relief.

I don't see that coming, and it's got nothing to do with session beer. When demand continues to be high -- and everyone knows that craft beer sales are still up, and growing -- and price increases seem to have no effect on it, let alone any effect from the worst economy in 70 years...I don't see anyone dropping prices. And piss you off or not, higher prices reassure the craft novice that this stuff really is good. After all, like I said: you don't think a case of Corona costs $28 because of cost of materials, do you? Price is part of the marketing equation, and it works. It's not lucky for those of us who already know the stuff is good, but there you are.

As Chris Lohring tweeted later that evening: "After a heated debate @ on price, taste and ABV, selling the hell out of Notch at 8.99 a six pack at an in-store tasting." The people have spoken. For the record, I was drinking the new Notch Pilsner at Deep Ellum the day before. And it was delicious.

It was a great afternoon, and a great talk. Afterwards I went to The Burren with Andy, The Brothers, Dann and Martha Paquette, Jaime Schier from Harpoon, Max Toste, and some other people (whose names I've clearly forgotten, and I apologize), and we all had some superlative Guinness. We talked some more trash, but mostly just talked. I think the Goose Island thing came up, and the Bourdain/Brew Masters thing, but mostly? Just breezin'. Perfect session stuff.