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!