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.