Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Session Cider, too

Woodchuck Cider is a huge seller. It's a big brand, and cider is growing. So it kind of tickles me to see them go to full-year production on Woodchuck Crisp, a 3.2% ABV cider they're calling America's first "Session Cider."
It is one of the driest ciders in the Woodchuck lineup.  Dry and delicate in body, it finishes with a delicious apple flavor. Crisp is 3.2% alcohol by volume (abv), yet retains taste complexity. 

They put the cider in their variety packs, and it was a hit, so they decided to go year-round. It is now available in major US markets.

And this footnote to why they were calling it "session cider" pleased me as well: we're definitely getting the message out there.

"A Session Beverage is described by longtime beer journalist Lew Bryson as being less than 4.5% ABV, flavorful enough to be interesting, yet balanced enough for multiple pints."

Philly Homebrewers: time to show off your session chops

I heard from Mat Falco at Philly Beer Scene magazine that they're running a homebrew competition specifically for session beers! Check the details here; it's actually a bit more complicated -- and interesting! -- than that. It's a two-round competition, run through the area's homebrew shops; homebrewers affiliate with a shop and enter their first beers by March 3. (Update: there's a session competition in Pittsburgh, too: see below!)

The first round is the session beer one. Competitors may brew any 'style' of beer, as long as it is 4.5% ABV or under: "Anything over will not be considered. There are no other restrictions for this round." Furthermore, no style guidelines are imposed. "Good beer is good beer no matter how close or far off it is from the style it’s categorized as. We are looking for a well-brewed, flavorful interpretation of a session beer." I'm all for that; part of the impetus for the Project is to engender innovation in flavorful lower-alcohol beers.

Here's where it changes, and gets really interesting. For the second round, the top two brewers from each of the homebrew shops then brew another beer, using a pound of beans from One Village coffee roasters (supplied by the homebrew shops; not all the beans must be used in the beer)...and just to make it fun, there is a stylistic restriction on this one: no stouts or porters, the usual suspects in coffee beers. (Not to make a suggestion, but I recall a coffee-infused dark mild Gordon Grubb made at Nodding Head that was quite tasty; called it Up All Night, I think, and it was definitely not a porter.) Winners will be announced during Philly Beer Week.

Great to see this kind of interest and love for session beers!

Got word that TRASH, the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers, is also doing a homebrew competition with a session component -- and also using the 4.5% limit, thanks! Details are here; the winner will be scaled up and brewed on commercial scale at East End Brewing, where Scott has been a friend of The Session Beer Project for years.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dark Lager Light

When I stopped in at Victory Brewing’s Downingtown pub on my way home from Lancaster Tuesday night, I was figuring on a nice pint of Uncle Teddy's bitter for the trip. But then I looked at the draft board and saw first that Dark Lager, one of my favorite Victory beers, was available, which is always a fleeting thing; great beer, but way underappreciated, so they only make the one batch around this time of year, and it’s draft-only.
Then I looked again, and realized that it was pegged at 3.9% ABV! I had to have it, and man, was I glad I did. Delish as always, assertive, fresh...and 3.9%? Wow! I spread the word a bit on Twitter (@lewbryson, which is my tag for #sessionbeer posts too), but I decided to get hold of brewers/founders Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet for a short interview and find out why Dark Lager was suddenly a session beer.
It turned out that, well…it was a mistake, but as Ron said, “Two wrongs sometimes do make a right. The brewhouse yielded a lower-than-expected gravity, and the fermentability was weaker than expected.  Bingo: a nice, lower alcohol beer with some body.  In my opinion, it stylistically resembles a Czech dark lager.  Interestingly, this beer is and always has been a great example of what double decoction can do for darker beers; it’s made from 100% Munich malt.  The decoction adds quite a bit of color.” Flavor too, I might add!
“It was always intended to be a Munich dark lager,” Bill confirmed when I asked about the beer’s origins, “but with this two-step Mother Nature intervention, it came out more like a Czech dark lager.” It was quite a change, too; Bill looked back in the brewing records while we were talking, and while Dark Lager was usually around 5%, back in 2009 it went up to 5.7%...which is more where I think Ron originally wanted the beer.
See, I actually was in on the beginnings of this one, peripherally. Way back, Ron and I were wandering around the brewery one day, just chatting, and he asked, what do you think we should do next? A dunkel, I said immediately, a nice Munich dunkel, thinking of how much I loved drinking Andechs’s dunkel. Yeah, he said, excited, a good dunkel, right around 12°, something with some body. I smiled, and nodded, and thought to myself, well, no, I was actually thinking right around 10° so we could drink liters of it — I guess I was hooked on session even then — but I didn’t say anything. And when Dark Lager came out, I loved it, and took visiting friends by to try it — I’m looking at you, Stephen Beaumont — and did what I could personally to keep the sales figures up.
However, as Bill notes, “The beer is not a runaway success in sales. We like it, though, and we find there are other people that enjoy it as well…just enough to bring it back on draft every year.” So if you screwed it up, does that mean it may not go as well this year?
“We’ll probably keep it as is,” he said, meaning the new lower alcohol. “It’s unique. It’s a new twist, so tweaking it, as long as it doesn’t go in a way Ron or I don’t like, could be a way to go. I think we’re moving in the right direction with this beer.” Me too!
That fits right in with Victory’s overall plans, which are to have some fun and offer beers for everyone. “I’ve made this joke all the time,” Bill said. “People ask me, ‘Why do you have so many beers here?’ Walk around Downingtown and try to find some other kind of fun! We brew a lot of beers because it’s fun!
At the same time,” he said,we want people to enjoy themselves but get home safely. Lower-alcohol options are in everyone’s best interest. We don’t stand on a soapbox about it, but there is the option.
“We also have the restaurant to think about,” Bill continued, and this is something he’s referred to in the past as their ‘secret plan’ for craft domination. “I can’t point them out to you, but I know there are some dads sitting in here drinking Donnybrook, or Dark Lager, and they had just put down their Miller Lite because Mom and the kids wanted pizza. We want them to have a good experience with full-flavored beers. We’re not pandering to anyone, we drink them ourselves, but we’re not turning anyone off, either. We’re very bullish about the future of craft beer. Why can’t we make beers with nice texture and good flavor that everyone can enjoy?” As I’ve often said, brewing a good kölsch or helles or blonde ale is no less “crafty” than brewing a double IPA, right?
He wrapped it up with a mention of how that kind of angle gives them confidence about going into the new Xfinity Live Complex, with a 400 seat beer hall in Philly. “We’re not intimidated [by mainstream crowds],” he said. “If some Coors Light drinker wanders in there, we’ll have something for them. And that’s good for everyone.”
In context, I’d remind everyone that your Coors Light drinker…is the natural target for conversion to craft session beer. He (or she) is already drinking a 4.2% lager; just get some more flavor and variety in there, and we’ve got a win.
Now…I gotta get on the road. As fate would have it, I’m taking my daughter up to Lancaster for an interview at Franklin & Marshall College (or as my wife and I call it, Alma Mater), and I think there’s a pint or two of Dark Lager waiting me on the return trip…

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bitter American is back (and so is this blog!)

I was interviewed about session beers recently. I've kind of become the unofficial point person for session beer since starting this blog, so that's happened fairly often in the past four years. I've tried to be outspoken, because that's what session beer needs: vocal support (and your vocal support, too!), so brewers know that not everyone wants just more bigger, boozier, more extreme beers. Some of us also want great-tasting lower-alcohol beers that we can have at lunch and keep working (and I mean two full pints at lunch and keep working), or have a few of – or four or five of* – over two or three hours and not get silly. 

So anyway, I was doing this interview, and one of the questions was: "There's been a lot of talk in the media about the session beer trend taking off, though it's often hard to see when you go to a bar...and see 30 taps, 90% of which are 6% and up. Have you noticed any solid evidence that the session-beer revival is really happening here?"

Fair question, if that's what you're seeing...but it's not what I'm seeing. I'm seeing more talk about session beer – a lot more – I'm seeing breweries making more session-strength beers, I'm seeing breweries making commitments to session-strength beers – like Chris Lohring with his contract brand, The Notch, which are all 4.5% and under – and I'm seeing more people responding. 

Okay, I'm seeing that because I'm looking for it, to some extent, but I was looking for it four years ago, too, and it wasn't there. It's here to see now, and it is growing, and some of that's because the beers – like Yards Brawler, and Notch Pilsner, and Stone Levitation – are so good that we tend not to notice that they're so low in alcohol. Chris did a Notch Saison this summer that clocked in well below 4.0%, and it flew, though I suspect most people who drank it up never even knew.

Bitter American
One session beer's done so well that it's broken out of its seasonal slot and is going nationwide: 21st Amendment's Bitter American. I first had this delicious low-alcohol brew at 21st Amendment's San Francisco brewpub, and greatly enjoyed it. When it arrived in my Philadelphia market in cans, I was one happy camper, but my joy was tempered by its here-today-gone-next-month status.

No more. 21stAmendment has decided that Bitter American is selling so well that it will hold up as a year-round beer.Here's 21st Amendment Brewery co-founder Nico Freccia: "We got so many emails and tweets asking us to make this a year-round beer, we just couldn't ignore them. It's the perfect antidote to the big beers of winter and also the perfect summer brew." 

"Bitter American is a great beer during colder times when strong beers seem to be pretty prevalent," added founder and Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan. "When we first brewed this beer it really scratched the lower-alcohol-session-beer-itch that I would get when I was tired of drinking barley wines, imperial stouts and other stronger hoppy beers. I wanted and I think a lot of good beer drinkers want a session beer where you can enjoy a few pints of a beer with huge flavor but without all the alcohol."

I think they're absolutely right. It's a tasty, crisp beer (much like Narragansett Summer Ale, another session-strength can that should go year-round, though probably with a different name!), it's got eye-catching graphics, and people instinctively know they can drink the hell out of it.

There's your proof. Beers like this are gaining sales (and not at the expense of big beers, you extreme crybabies; everyone's gaining), and the whole idea of a lower-alcohol, higher-flavor beer is gaining momentum. Why not? Because some people think it should cost less? News for you: thousands of cans sold disagree with you. I do think we'll have to have this pricing issue out one of these days, but the people have spoken, for now: they're willing to pay for flavor, even if a smaller group apparently only wants to pay for alcohol.
So...the blog is back. Tomorrow, an interview with Victory brewers Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet about the mistake that turned their Dark Lager into a session beer, and why they're glad it happened. See you then!

*Some might call that 'binge drinking,' I tell them to check the total alcohol and the time...and leave me alone.