Monday, November 26, 2012

Jason Oliver's Dog

You're probably looking at that post title and thinking, "Okay, I get that Jason Oliver is the founder/brewer at Devil's Backbone Brewing in Roseland, Virginia, the GABF 2012 Small Brewpub of the Year and World Beer Cup 2010 Small Brewpub Champion, and he's a hell of a guy, and he makes and loves great session beers...but why post about his dog?"

Thanks to Iron Hill brewer Larry Horwitz for the pic!

Well...That's Jason. And that's his dog. And the tiny little named Session. Which I thought was cool enough to warrant a post!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Session Beer Day 2013 is ON!


Yes, Session Beer Day 2013 is on. We've got some interest already, and I'm going to confirm that Session Beer Day 2013 is on April 7, a Sunday. Sure, most of us have work the next day...but it's session beer, that's what this is about. So start planning: brewers, think about new ways to get good flavor below 4.5% (other than throwing in tons of hops...sheesh) and fun collaborative brews with other folks; wholesalers, talk to your suppliers about the opportunities this means for the lower ABV end of their portfolios; importers, this is a perfect time to bring in those delicious low-ABV beers your brewers are making; bar owners/managers, let's see some planning and fun events for the session beers; homebrewers, let's talk competitions (and having some fun!); and drinkers...make suggestions on what you want to see, and do, and drink!

Remember: April 7 2013 is Session Beer Day, a day to celebrate great-tasting lower ABV beers! Go 4.5% and under, go 4.0% and under, but show some love.

Dream Big For Small Beer!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Big Wave (little ABV)

Just heard the following; session continues to roll on:

A longtime staple in Hawaii will soon make its way ashore, courtesy of Hawaii-born Kona Brewing Company. Big Wave Golden Ale will join Kona’s portfolio on the mainland that includes flagship Longboard Island Lager, Fire Rock Pale Ale and the trio of Aloha Series seasonals available at select times during the year. Brewed with tropical ingredients, the Aloha Series is comprised of Pipeline Porter, Koko Brown Ale and Wailua Wheat. Like Longboard, Big Wave Golden Ale will be a year-round offering starting August 13, 2012, and will be available in 6-pack bottles in all 30 of Kona’s mainland markets.
Kona Brewing president Mattson Davis said, “Big Wave Golden Ale is one of our original beers, first brewed at our Kailua-Kona home brewery in the mid 90’s. Like Longboard, it’s a great session beer with a bright quenching finish, and perfect for kicking back and talking story at sunset. For the tens of thousands of mainland craft beer lovers who have requested it, their day has come!”
Bitterness:            21 IBU
ABV:                        4.4%
OG:                         10.3 P
Malts:                         Pale (Premium 2-row), Honey
Hops:                        Galaxy and Citra

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More friends of the SBP

I got an email from Aaron Porter, a reader in the Bay Area, suggesting I take a look at Oakland's Dying Vines Brewing. I did, and they're definitely friends of the Session Beer Project! Dying Vines is brewing at the Linden Street Brewery, but their beers are all their own; check them out:
Dee'z English Mild, our flag ship ale, is a malty brown ale with subtle coffee & chocolate roast flavors. With a dry finish balanced by a rich hop character & weighing in at 4.0% a.b.v. , this is a beer for every day enjoyment.
Old Brick Bitter, our Special Bitter, is a malty, full bodied English style Pale Ale with a dry and hoppy finish. We use all English pale and specialty malts finishing with a generous amount of East Kent Golding hops making this session beer perfect for cask, beer engine and traditional draught service, A real  ale - 4.5% a.b.v.
Hop Candi, a West Coast interpretation of an English IPA. It is hoppy in the sense that it provides a wonderful bouquet, however the malt and underlying bitterness balance into a clean finish leaving only subtle hints of citrus and  rye. This beer finishes dry and comes in at 4.5% a.b.v.
Queen Bess IPA, an English Style India Pale Ale. Firmly bittered and balanced with a soft malt profile. Dry, spicy, and floral, this beer is perfect with a meal or just enjoying a pint at 4.8% a.b.v.
Yeah, I know, the Queen Bess is 4.8%...don't miss the forest for one tree! The other three are 4.5% or less, so this is a solidly session-oriented brewery. Hope to try their beers sometime soon (going to SF in the fall)!

Meantime, Aaron also recommended beers from Drake's Brewing (their May seasonal Alpha Session is 3.8% and crazily hoppy; year-round hefe is 4.5%) and Ale Industries (it's all about the Orange Kush at 4.4%). Thanks, Aaron!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interview with Christopher Basso of Newburgh Brewing

I always like hearing news of production breweries doing session beers, and that’s why it was great to get an email from Dave Pollack at The Diamond in Brooklyn — a true friend of session beer — introducing me to Christopher Basso, CEO and brewmaster at Newburgh Brewing, founded a few months ago in Newburgh, New York.

Newburgh’s up the Hudson from NYC, the historic town where Washington set up his headquarters in the last years of the Revolutionary War, and where he received the momentous news of victory. I do not compare Basso to Washington, but he’s clearly a friend of the Session Beer revolution! He quickly agreed to be interviewed, and had some great stuff to say. It's long, but it's interesting.

When did you start up NBC, and how long was it in the planning?
We started our actual brewing operations in early April of 2012 and our taproom opened up the first week of June 2012. In addition to myself, there are three other full time NBC staff. Paul Halayko (COO and President), Charlie Benedetti (Head of Sales) and Melisa Basso (my sister, the Taproom Manager). 

I had the idea for a brewery in Newburgh for many years. I was working at Brooklyn Brewery starting in 2004 or 05…I think (ha ha, a ‘long time’ ago), and trying to learn as much about brewing as possible, always knowing that I wanted my own thing. The idea really started to take shape about 3 years ago. It was a lot of research and planning just to see if this was an actual possibility. Things took off in January of 2011 when we purchased our building; there was pretty much no turning back after that point.

Brooklyn was really supportive; they knew of my plans for over a year and were gracious enough not to kick me out the door. I left there in May of 2011 and it was 24/7 getting up and running. It was a lot of hard work and continues to be so every day, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What kind and size of system are you using?
We have a new 20 barrel DME system. It is a three vessel system with 5 x 20 bbl. fermenters and 2 x 40 bbl. I estimate we should be able to get up to about 3,000 barrels production without any expansion, but the building allows us some room to grow in the future. 

Are you a production brewery, a brewpub, both?
We are primarily a production brewery distributing in the Hudson Valley and the five Boroughs (of NYC) right now. We have a really nice "beer hall-esque” taproom that is open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with a kitchen serving a small menu of locally sourced and homemade food. My sister and I both have culinary backgrounds and so really great food is just as important to me as really great beer.

Tell me about what you’re brewing.
I am a fan of what you are doing for session beers. We have four session beers right now (cream ale 4.3%, brown ale 4.3%, saison 3.9%, peat smoked stout 4.0%) out of five, with a fifth one on the way (bitter 3.3%). The last beer is an IPA at 7.0% and I really only brewed it to shut the beer geeks up. Now when they ask when am I going to brew an IPA I can say I already did and they missed it.

Is your dedication to lower ABV going to continue? What originally got you going on that?
I think I brew session beers mostly because it is what I personally love to drink, not because of some marketing research or anything. I do think people want it, but that was never the driving force. I always hope that people drink craft beer for the taste, so I set out to make full-flavored beers that were low in alcohol. I also think it’s more of a test of my skills as a brewer and I like that. Things have been going really well in our two short months of existence.

Craft beer has gotten a bit out of control with the wacky and weird just for the sake of having a gimmick to sell your beer. Coming from the food world, I saw and still do see the same idea of doing weird things just to get noticed, when the best damn food you are ever going to have is some really great ingredients that haven't been messed with too much.

I hate to use the word ‘simple’ to describe my beers, because in this "bigger and weirder is better" world that has become a negative. ‘Honest’ is a better term. Like my view on food, I think a real honest to goodness beer is becoming hard to come by. A beer doesn't need the strangest ingredient or highest ABV to be a really enjoyable experience. A lot of beer doesn't taste like beer anymore. Beer has become a vehicle just to carry other flavors like getting a bag of potato chips that tastes like thanksgiving dinner. What's wrong with just a really great potato that is fried perfectly and salted just right? That is what gets me really excited. I hope I am making any sense, I tend to ramble.

Back to where my session bent views came from. When I first got into brewing, I was enamored with all the weird and wonderful flavors that beer has to offer. But I quickly tired of all the analyzing and searching for the rarest and most esoteric beers. I know that all the guys I worked with felt the same way, and we would always lament the fact that our Brewmaster's Reserve series always had to be higher ABV, because people had been conditioned to think something wasn't special if it didn't have at least 7% ABV. That constant battle against the salesmen and the brewing team helped to shape what I would do when I was the only one making the decisions about the beer. So I will be brewing session beers on a very regular basis. I hope that anything that becomes a real year-round offering will fall into that, with the more occasional higher ABV offering when it is essential to the vision of the beer I am making, not just to help sell beer.

What do bar accounts say when you show up with low ABV beers to sell? What do you tell them?
Not one bar or person has mentioned the lower ABV in anything but a positive way. We don't even post our ABV in the taproom and we don't necessarily go into bars selling "session" beer either. We go in selling interesting and high quality beer; if the topic of ABV comes up, then we address it with all the great reasons why session beer is a wonderful thing. Up here in the Hudson Valley, bar and restaurant owners are happy that it helps their customers be more responsible. Where we are located everyone has to drive everywhere, so session beer is a good thing for that.

We have also been seeing that the bar owners are happy because people may have two of my session beers at a more reasonable price point [rather] than one higher ABV beer at what seems like a real steep investment on the customer’s part. Even with that, there are some that don't buy into the lower ABV thing and I always ask people why they drink craft beer. The response is always something along the lines of "because I like the way it tastes and all the interesting flavors." The answer is rarely anything to do with the alcohol content, and that usually gets them to see where I am coming from. I drink craft beer for the flavor and I think my session beers are just as interesting and flavorful as any higher ABV stuff out there.

Bars that I never would have thought would sell our beer are selling a lot; some real craft places aren't even ordering because we aren't special enough; because everyone around has our beer. (Those people don't get what it's all about.) Good beer stands on its own regardless of the ABV. People aren't going to drink something that doesn't taste good just because it's lower ABV. I try just to make good quality beer that people like, and hopefully they will figure out the session thing along the way.

Do you think a bar should have a low ABV craft ‘alternative,’ or should there be a selection of them, just as there are selections of DIPAs, IPAs, stouts, pilsners, and others?
Like I was saying earlier, up here where everyone drives I think it is an absolute necessity for bars and restaurants. Other than that, I don't know that there needs to be a session strength beer in a bar just because of that. I want my beers to stand on their own merit as a quality beer, not just getting a place on the taps because it is a session beer. We just opened, so I will take any handles I can get, but eventually some of the really great session beers out there will just be seen as great beer and the session thing is just a bonus for the people who understand about session beer.

What’s the atmosphere like for a session beer brewer? Do you think it’s more receptive than it was five years ago? Care to speculate on the reasons why or why not?
In all my time at Brooklyn, the brewing team wanted to brew all kinds of great session beers. But whenever we got a chance, it would be the one beer that the salesmen had trouble selling. The notion that high alcohol is somehow harder to make and more special was very strong, but I think it is slowly fading. I remember starting to see articles on session beer and people talking about it more and that really excited me. It has given us something unique to talk about, but for each bar that thinks that is great, there are an equal number that see my beer as not being special enough in some way.

Overall it is probably a wash, and as long as I am making high quality beer it will all work itself out. Session or high ABV doesn't matter if the beer is no good. That is one of the main reasons we don't post our ABV's in the taproom. There are still many people that go for the strongest beer to get the most bang for their buck, but I just want people to order what sounds tasty to them. When I tell them the ABV, I enjoy the look of surprise on their face. Hopefully that is one more person who has had that “ah ha!” moment about ABV and the quality and flavor of beer.

Session beer has become a small trend, and that's showing in the number of beers that are tagging themselves as session beers or "sessionable"...even when they're over 5% or even over 6%. What's your reaction when you see a beer like that?
That really frustrates me when beers of that strength are trying to capitalize on the popularity of session beer just to sell their product. Trying to say that a beer is ‘sessionable’ at 6% just because everything else you make is 8% is not the right way to go about it. And acting like a tough guy, and claiming that you are able to have a session with Imperial Stout is just someone who probably has some growing up to do and a lot more to learn about beer.

That makes me think of the arc of your typical craft beer drinker. When people first get into beer, they are mesmerized and amazed by all the weird and wonderful and higher ABV. Then as you move on in your beer education you begin to be able to appreciate the nuance and real craft that goes into brewing. A session beer lover is someone who can appreciate the beauty of a 3.5% perfectly clean and balanced bitter. They are really more advanced and sophisticated beer lovers in my opinion.  

Making a beer taste like vanilla or coffee or anything else is easy; making that perfect bitter with nothing to hide your flaws as a brewer is the real work of art.

Do you think session beers will sell outside a brewery’s local area? Should they?
This is a microcosm of what I see as a problem in the industry as a whole. Great beer will sell wherever it is available in general, whether sessionable or not. The real question is should they, and to my mind that is an emphatic NO. Not just session beer, but shipping beer all over the country is kind of sad. I see so many beers from all over the country in our little corner of NY and it’s not to say that they aren't great beers but it always makes me think "what is the point?" There are plenty of breweries in the northeast and at least the east coast to fill all the taphandles around here with hugely varied and wonderful beers. So why do we need to ship kegs of beer across the country?

I am always amazed at the way the craft beer industry has never seen any backlash from the environmental and locavore communities. Kegs of beer are heavy stuff and the carbon footprint to be constantly shipping them all over the country must be enormous. I have a theory that the reason there is no backlash is because the same community of environmentalists and locavores are the most loyal and supportive members of the craft beer community. Somewhat odd that the same people that have a farm to table restaurant will often times have a great beer list that ships things in from the four corners of the globe.

I personally have no desire whatsoever to ever ship my beer too far from home. Granted, we are very lucky in that we are in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, and so there will not be a shortage of customers for us any time soon. But I just don't think it is good for my product or the environment for me to be shipping beer all over the place. We try to use all local products in our taproom. As much as possible, we will keep Newburgh Brewing pretty close to home.

Well, that is my rants and thoughts on session beer. Would love for you to take a visit to Newburgh and have a beer together. We eagerly await next year’s Session Beer Day as our launch narrowly missed it this year.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sorry, but that's just silly

I love the guys at ShawneeCraft Brewing, I really do. The spot's cool, the logo's neat, and the idea of a co-op local support thing based on brewing is very cool. But this, from their website, is just silly (all emphasis added):
This is the trademarked image from ShawneeCraft's website. I reproduce it here as news, and will take it down if they simply ask.
There is no perfect consensus as to the definition of “Session Beer,” but beer drinkers can perhaps agree on the following: Session Beers are generally served on draft and average around 5% ABV or lower- so that you can drink multiple servings in a “session.” At ShawneeCraft we create Session Beers with the utmost respect for flavor and tradition but with only intermittent respect for the ABV conventions. Our Session Beers range in ABV from as low as 4.2% to as high as 7.2% and above, and are on draft at the Gem & Keystone and other selected establishments.

So you look at these draft offerings, and they're mostly just that: draft, as opposed to their "Heirloom Beers," which are usually bottled, but occasionally draft as well. They're mostly around 4.8%, which is too high for me. Still, I'm not going to call them out or anything on those, but... it's pretty simple that a 7.3% beer is not a session beer, and you can't fig-leaf that big swinging dick by saying "there is no perfect consensus as to the definition of 'Session Beer.'" Because even the YAAAA! EXTREME BEERS! guys at BeerAdvocate cap it out at 5%, and the DINGistas cap it out at 4%, and even Full Sail (who will, I'm guessing, likely be having something to say about that "TM" on "Session Beers") has their two at 5.1% and 5.3%. I retain hope that they'll eventually ratchet those down.

But be all "we're craft brewers so we do what we want" as much as you please, that's not going to make a 7.3% beer a session beer. It doesn't even fit in with the rest of your offerings in the line! So why not call them "Draft Beers" (and don't bother with the ™, "draft beer" ain't trademarkable and everyone knows it) and make more sense.

I'm not being a jerk. But if we don't set hard limits on this, it will soon mean nothing, and we'll have 6% session beers. If you're a brewer and don't want to put in the effort to make a great tasting beer at lower ABV, then just don't do it. And if you make a great-tasting beer at 7.3% -- which the ShawneeCraft Pumpkin Saison is, it's amazing -- why not just call it "Great-tasting Beer!" instead of trying to hop on the session beer bandwagon by calling your pig a parakeet.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What are we doing on 7 April 2013?

It's not too soon to start thinking about Session Beer Day 2013. The first one, two months ago, was ridiculously successful, given the stupidly short time we had to make it happen: 19 days. We have months to get ready this time, and I'm hoping to see a lot more happen. Like more mainstream press stories in the week leading up to it, and session beer festivals, and session beer brew-ins (homebrewers, pro-brewer collaborations), and session beer co-events: dominoes tournaments, darts, cards, and a dream of mine: Wii playoffs projected on the sides of buildings.

Call me crazy -- please, that's what the comments are for! -- but we might as well dream big for small beer. Hey, that's not a bad slogan:

Session Beer Day 2013
Dream Big For Small Beer

So let's get some brewers on board who weren't ready last year; start planning now, start some test batches to be ready with beers that are 4.5% or less for April 7th. I'll work with some people who know what they're doing and get a list of proper beers together in time for bars to order them. And let's find some venues that are interested in an afternoon of serving session beer in proper-sized glasses -- big ones! -- at a reasonable price with good food, plenty of room to talk, and no loud bands. Session beer is about the people drinking it. Good beer, good talk, good times.

Start dreaming big, and share the ideas: we can do these in cities across North America.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Do We Need Session Beer?

Is this the drinker of so-called "Session Beer"?
Do We Need Session Beer?

Or is it already here? It's an interesting point that came up in the discussion that Session Beer Day engendered -- which is, after all, the whole point of this thing. It came up again at the Session Beer Panel I joined at Farmer's Cabinet during Philly Beer Week, when Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell told us all that in his opinion, session beers were unnecessary, ridiculous, and somehow a kind of treachery to the great bigger beers that brought us all into craft beer.

It made me think. Is there really a need for a Session Beer Day, a call for more session beer, or even the term?

Because apparently the thinking goes 'Hey, we're already there.' What's the biggest-selling craft beer? Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Well, it's 4.9% ABV. What about other big-selling and readily available craft beers? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? 5.6%, bigger than 'normal,' but hardly a headknocker. New Belgium Fat Tire? 5.2%. Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat? 4.4%. Not even craft, how about imports? Guinness? 4.2%. Newcastle Brown? 4.7%.

Good God, maybe they're right! Those mostly don't fall into my definition of "session beer," or into that of the hardline Brits' at all, but still -- the argument goes -- they're not that far off. In asking for beers under 4.5%, they seem to think, we're really just pushing things a bit far and asking for something that isn't really needed...or wanted. We're creating a desire that doesn't really exist, calling for something that isn't really needed.


Not surprisingly, I disagree. First off, go into any specialty beer bar and check the ABV levels. With a few exceptions (like Memphis Taproom, Deep Ellum, The Diamond, Piper's Pub, and some others), it has been my experience that the beers on tap start at 5.6% and go up from there. I'm talking about places that have 24, 50, even 90 taps, and there are scarcely three of those taps that are under 5%. If there is a beer under 5%, it's one of the ones listed above. Nothing wrong with those, come all the variety and fun goes to the big beers? And how come the folks who want big beers get plenty of choices -- most of which seem to be pretty similar, but still -- and we get a bare handful?

The Session Beer Project, before I took on the cause of lower-alcohol, was originally about getting attention for the everyday beers, the flagships, the forgotten favorites that didn't get press love because they were...successful, and made every day or every week. As I used to say about the futility of writing about Budweiser, it's not the flavor (or lack of it), it's the monotony. What would I write? "Hey, this batch tastes just like the last one."

But then I realized that there was a segment of the market that got even less love, even less attention: the lower alcohol beers, those under 5%. And as Fortnight Brewing recently put it so well in their mission statementesque website, strongly declaring why they would not put "session" on a beer unless it were 4% or less (which is fine with me; 4 < 4.5!), you want a "lower alcohol" beer to be definitely lower in alcohol than a standard beer:
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention both define “one drink” to be a 12-ounce glass of beer of about 5% alcohol.  So if 5% is the standard, it makes sense to believe that for a beer to be a session beer, it must definitely be below this limit.  How low is often up for debate, and we won’t bother getting into that.
I do get into that, of course, but I'm a writer: it's my job. And I have taken on the project of getting attention, respect, and love for those lower alcohol beers. It doesn't surprise me that there's resistance -- though the smattering of hostility the idea has encountered baffles me, frankly -- but now that things are starting to turn...that doesn't surprise me, either.

After all, craft beer -- microbrewed beer -- encountered plenty of resistance when it started. Who needs it? We have beer. "What's wrong wit de beer we got? I mean, the beer we got drink pretty good, don't it?" I've noticed that a LOT of the criticism of session beer from craft beer enthusiasts -- "beer geeks," if I may -- sounds just like those early criticisms, and I find this funny, ironic, and ultimately...quite satisfying. It's how I know we're on the right track.

Because in these days of extreme double sour fresh-hopped wild beers...there are a solid number of us who like to simply drink good beer without paying through the nose for it, or going to extreme measures to find it, or carefully, slowly sipping it so we don't get thrashed, or stopping the conversation every three sentences to point out yet another nuance we've discovered. I do not say that this is better than other types of beer enjoyment. I do not say that I cannot do this with stronger beers. I do not say that standard and over-strength beers are unnecessary, or silly, or dangerous, or that they're giving craft beer a bad name. All I'm saying is that the lower-alcohol option is just as nice, just as valid, just as "crafty," and just as much good beer -- when done right, of course -- as are the big beers...when they're done right, of course.

Is session beer already here? Increasingly, it is...and now that we've had some success in getting recognition for it -- yeah, I'm declaring a certain amount of "Mission Accomplished," dangerous though we know that is! -- we'll be here to make sure it stays that way. I don't want to see session beer jump the shark, I don't want to see the definition of session beer become diluted to uselessness in an attempt to include every brewer and every beer. Sorry: your 5.2% pale ale is not a session beer just because the rest of your line is over 8%. Sorry: your 5.6% IPA is not a session beer just because "in this state, anything under 6% is a session beer."

The happy fact is, "session beer" has become recognizable enough, and trendy enough, that brewers want to have one, because people want to buy them. It's our job to remind them that it takes more than a name and a label to make a session beer. It takes some honesty, it takes the will to do it right, and it takes the guts to make it under 4.5% -- or under 4%, if that's your guideline -- and put it out there to see if your fans think it's worth drinking. Because there are people out there who really do want lower alcohol beer, and not just "lower than a big beer" in alcohol. Make a great-tasting beer at that kind of level, and you'll probably find customers. Find a great-tasting beer at that kind of level, and you'll probably...have more. Cheers!

More session beer-friendly press

Joshua Bernstein gets it right -- with five beers under 4.5% -- in this piece on the Food Republic website. And there's a nice little tip of the hat to the SBP, too:
Named because you can savor several of them in a drinking session, this loose category of lower-alcohol beers (usually 4.5 percent ABV and below), following the guidelines at the Session Beer Project blog, dials down the booze but still retains plenty of aroma and flavor. In other words, they’re the perfect brews for sipping by the six-pack at the beach or a backyard BBQ.
Note, session-deniers: "this loose category of lower-alcohol beers." I've run into several nay-sayers lately who have been telling me -- and the world -- that session beer isn't really a category, because it's just about ABV. Ahem. You're missing the point. "Session beer" is not a GABF "category," it's not a "style." It is an identifier, a guideline to handily point out the flavorful beers with lower-alcohol. I'd say, "and that's all it is," but that would be denigrating!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"I come in praise of session beer"

Pete Brown has a great beer blog, and you should read it all the time.

It's tempting to just let that stand as the whole of this post -- and it would be good enough! -- but I didn't realize that he's also writing a column for a website called London Loves Business, and when he posted a link to one on Facebook, I started reading back through them, and came to this one: Step aside craft beer, it's time for our "session beers" to shine. Please, go read it and come back for a discussion. I'll wait here.

Nice piece, right? I loved this bit:
The only problem, if not with beers like this [big flavorful 'craft' beers, by which I'm pretty sure he means 'American-type craft beers'] then with some of the people who drink them, is the tendency to think in binary black and white. If extreme and experimental beers are exciting and flavourful, it follows – in some minds at least – that traditional, lower strength beers must be boring.
I’ve never believed this.
I’ve always disagreed with it in principle.
But I have found myself, whenever I’m given a choice, opting for the adventurous.
I tend to do that myself...or I did. Now I find myself shying away from the huge palate wreckers -- mostly, I still grab one occasionally, and it's probably a 'vacation' -- and seeing what's offered 'on the left side of the dial.' Can a brewer make interesting low alcohol beers? That's a talent, a skill, and I'm curious to find it.

Now, let's take this on:
The British tradition for the low strength sessionable pint is unique in the world. The craft beers we enjoy now are heavily influenced by North America where, lacking the British cask ale tradition, high alcohol levels are an important factor in delivering character to a beer.
That first sentence, of course, is the drum that beer contrarian Andy Crouch pounds here until the head breaks. "In choosing the ‘session’ banner, American promoters have knowingly wedded themselves to a beer culture that is entirely foreign to this country." We have no session beer culture, Andy says, so this seed will fall on stony places, and because it has no root, it will wither away.

I say this underestimates both craft brewing and the American beer drinker. In fact, if you paraphrase Crouch's piece and substitute "microbrews" for "session beers," it reads almost exactly like it was written by a smug mainstream brewer in 1992: micros get lots of press but they don't actually sell; ales aren't American and they're heavy so most Americans won't like them; they cost more than anyone's going to pay; the whole idea's too complicated because we really just want to drink a beer; it's too much work for a bar to carry or a bartender to answer questions about so it won't work.

Well, it took 20 years, but every one of those points has been crushed. I see the same kind of thing working out for session beer (and cask, for that matter: after years of muddy crap and struggle, more and more American bars are regularly serving cask beers -- often session beers -- in good condition). What's more, it's working faster, because we've already been here and we know how it works: good beer, talking to bartenders, spreading the word, and not worrying about naysayers. We've also got brewers who have seen a philosophy of "We're brewing it because we like it, and we'll keep brewing it that way" work, so if they're session fans, they're just going to brew it, and give it a chance to catch on. (Just talked to John Trogner at Tröegs yesterday, and he said, "We're going to be brewing more session beers." Out of the blue, just like that. They want them for the large new tasting hall they have. Smart.)

But...are we doomed to ridicule because of the number issue? Is Andy right when he poses the setpiece question, "Is 4.5 ABV session worthy or must it be 3.5 or lower? Often obsessed with the numbers, the side of session beer that promotes balance and flavor harmony is lost in the process. Belaboring such beer minutiae escapes or disinterests most drinkers."

It's an issue, but I disagree that the idea, the love, of balance and flavor are lost in the process. Those are the keys for me, but you can have balance and flavor harmony in beers of any alcohol level. The numbers are necessary -- if it's not below a certain ABV level, the whole idea of a low alcohol beer with balance and harmony is lost -- but the friction is not. The GABF's "definition" of session beer has not helped things at all; forget the ABV levels -- which are laughable -- it's that "session beer" is defined as a lower strength "version" of a style (more on that here). That's a problem for the next post: "session" is not "imperial," because I believe that's where the whole issue is bogging down.

Meantime...I'll leave you with Pete's close, because I loved it:

So let’s hear it for the session pint – the pint you can drink at lunchtime without falling asleep at your desk in the afternoon. The pint you can sink quickly on a hot day without setting a trajectory towards oblivion, via the kebab shop. The pint where the aromatic hops stroke your cheek rather than punch you in the face, and where flavours dance subtly rather than pogo on your tongue.
My love for strong, heady craft beer will never die. But sometimes you find yourself at a bar where every beer you want, you want it to be the last beer of the night. That’s when you yearn for the session pint – your trusty friend with whom drinking responsibly doesn’t have to mean not drinking enough.

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!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bigger brewers joining Session Beer Day

Up till today, Session Beer Day was all about the little folks: me, you, some brewpubs, and some bars. Today we got support from some much bigger friends!

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!

And then, just after I got calmed down, I saw this on Twitter from @GooseIsland :
Make sure you're prepared for #SessionDay on April 7th, drink anything under 4.5%. 312, Honkers Ale, and Old Town Yard would qualify!
Thank you, Goose Island! Now...if we could get some Levitation Love at Stone World HQ...and some official love from our favorite session brewers in Philly, Yards and Philadelphia Brewing...and maybe some shout-out from Vanberg & DeWulf over Avril and Session Beer Day world would pretty much rock. 

High and Mighty: mighty damned tasty

Massachusetts is lucky: they have two brewing companies devoted to drinkable, flavorful, session-to-middling strength: Notch, and High and Mighty. I drink both of them* whenever I can. High & Mighty has a lot of fun, and their beer philosophy sounds a lot like mine:
Sure, we used to like IPA quite a lot, and we still enjoy a pint now and then, but, as is the case with such things, our taste changed over time, and we found ourselves going back to classic European beers. We weren’t going to try to recreate those, either, but we like to think that our beer leans more in that direction, with a decided American accent.
Although I like IPA more than "now and then," I'm liking the classic European beers a lot. So H and M's Beer of the Gods (Germanic lager) and Two-Headed Beast (stout) hit me right in my happy spot...and they're both 4.5%. Thanks, guys!

*If it matters to you, both Notch and High and Mighty are contract brewers: they brew their beer at an existing brewery (Notch mostly at Mercury/Ipswich, High and Mighty at Paper City). I'm mostly of the "how's the beer taste" school of thought on this, and both outfits are run by people who know good beer, and have been involved with it for years. Just so you know.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Session Beer Day Participants: where YOU can celebrate!

We have our first official participants in Session Beer Day!

Cape Ann Brewing in Gloucester, Mass., will be tapping their 3.5% Rauchbier on Session Beer Day.

A natural participant, where they do great session beer every day: "We are thrilled to participate in Session Beer Day at the Pratt Street Alehouse in Baltimore. We will be offering our three "session" year round brews (Blonde Ale 4.3%, Dark Horse Mild 4% & Bishop's Breakfast stout 4.4%) at the special price of $3/pint on April 7th."

Add Prism Brewing in North Wales, PA to the list: "We're brewing White Lightning today, a 4.2% ABV wit brewed with chives. Should be done in time for a 4/5 tapping, so count us in! We'll run it at $4 a pint on that day as well!" Nice!

If YOU are hosting a Session Beer Day event, please add it as a comment to this post! Update: there are more events already; please check the comments for more Session Day events.

I don't mind this getting out of long as it's about session beer at 4.5% or less. That's pretty much the only guideline. It's not about "sessionable!"

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eagle & Lion: another session-loving brewpub

Caught wind of this place recently: the Eagle & Lion Brew Pub (clever name for a place in Griffin, Georgia). I'll let their website tell the story:
The Eagle & Lion Brew Pub is now open for drinks and food. The unique brewery specializes in English-style Real Ale served from the casks they were conditioned in. The brewer, Mark Broe, trained at Brewlab at the University of Sunderland and worked several years at the Grand Union Brewery in London. The opening line-up will include a mild, an ordinary bitter, a gold, a special bitter, a single-hop varietal IPA, and a stout. The 8 barrel brewery is from the Birmingham Brewery in the UK. Craft keg beers will be featured along with interesting bottled beers, as well as a full service bar. The scratch menu emphasizes pub food and changes daily.
Currently, the house beers include Tipsy Toad (3.7%), Golden Eagle (4.2%), Brass Monkey (4.2%),
Yes Face IPA (4.5%), South of Taylor Special (4.5%), and the non-session but what the hell I'll throw it in anyway East Griffin Stout (5.0%). Now there's a session beer line-up! They do have non-session guest taps, too, so you can take your big-beer insistent buddies along (and carry them out if they try keeping up with you). 

About that sticker...

We've mentioned the Session Beer Project sticker a couple times. It is for sale at CafePress here. It's $3.74 plus postage; less than a buck of that goes to me. I'm not even sure why any of it goes to me; but it's minimal on all the merch there (including the big SBP hoodie I'll be wearing on Session Beer Day).

The reason I bring it up is because there are now two of them out there (and it only took three years...). Piper's Pub in Pittsburgh is now proudly displaying one, as seen below. This is the regular model; there is also a clear one now. Great way to show your sessionality!

Bulls Head Pub does a session beer takeover on April 7

I know, I was going to put all the events in the comments section of the Session Beer Day post down below, but this was so cool I decided to give it a whole post. Paul Pendyck's Bulls Head Public House, in Lititz, Penn. is doing a total session takeover on April 7! If you didn't already know, Paul's a cask beer guru, a cask consultant, and one of the people most responsible for bringing good cask ale to America. This will be session beer done right!

Session Beer Day, April 7

All beers will be 4.50% abv and all pints will be $4.50!

On Saturday April 7 bars and breweries throughout the US will be participating in Session Beer Day.  The Bulls Head will be participating by having a tap takeover of session beers (as long as we can get them all in!) Either way there will be plenty for you to try. In addition, all the beers that are served in pints will be priced at $4.50!
(Session beer is close to my heart as growing up in England most of the beers offered in pubs are session beers.) 

How about that! If I didn't have to sing at home on the evening of April 7, I'd be dropping anchor at the Bulls Head!

Monday, March 26, 2012

MORE session-friendly brewers: two NEW ones

Nimble Hill Brewing Co. (at Nimble Hill Winery) is in Mehoopaney, Penn. (really, look it up), and is so brand-spanking new that according to brewer Michael Simmons, "Our first brew as a new brewery will be an English Mild, called Fuggle, at 3.5% ABV. It will be ready by April 7th! It will be available in draft only, at restaurants near Tunkhannock, Penn." That's west of Scranton, and proves again that even rural Pennsylvania is rapidly getting hip to craft and session beer.

Next up is a brewery far from the Wyoming Valley: Strike Brewing is based in San Jose, Calif. They recently told me that "We are a three month old brewing company in the Bay Area and launched with a series of session beers. Our Blonde is 4.6% [very close...], Wit 4.3% and Brown is right at 4%." 

Pretty cool stuff, and thanks to both Nimble Hill and Strike for giving session a shot!