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!


  1. BUT LEW, this is the same problem over and over and over and over again!

    If you keep conceding ground on the ABV, soon people will be calling 7 , 8 and 9% session beer again (which I KNOW you completely disagree with), and we're back to square one.

    The ABV matters and this CONSTANT blurring of the lines is going to foul it up all over again and undo all of your work.

  2. I truly don't understand what you're saying here. I am NOT conceding ground on the ABV. I've set it at 4.5%, and I'm holding it there; what have I conceded? I deliberately state here that 5.2% pale ale -- for instance -- is NOT session beer. You and I have a disagreement on 4.0% vs. 4.5%, but neither of us concede anything ABOVE 4.5%. I don't see a blurring of a line; I'm holding a sharp one, and so are you. Your line is within mine, so I've no problem with yours.

    In any case, I'd definitely disagree that this difference is the problem. Any problem comes from the argument itself...which is why I'm trying hard not to have it.

  3. The craft beer market is very competitive. It consists of many producers competing for buyers, desperately trying to put out the product that will sell. The product mix in the craft beer industry is a REFLECTION of consumers' tastes, not vice versa. It would appear that craft brew consumers are beginning to show more interest in smaller beers. Producers are responding. But that's the craft beer market at work. Small producers, mostly, but a very large market (10% of the U.S. beer market, by dollars). All of your pushing, urging, persuading, defining, cajoling and arguing are a tempest in a brew kettle. You can't push the river. But it's nice that it gives us something to talk about. Note: I didn't suggest that the macro beer market is a competitive market.

  4. No argument here, Bob. I'm of the opinion that I was just the first to notice an interest in session beers, and I started talking about it. Others also talked about it, and that's helped get more people interested, and I know that Session Beer Day got some brewers thinking about brewing session beer. But "push the river"? No.

    Got anything else to say?

  5. I think we should agree to set it at 4.5% for American Session, with the understanding that as more beers are available (and encouraged) at 4.0% or less, we will shift the standard.

    We could even have a Session Approved logo that brewers and publicans can use. Maybe there's two levels - near session (4.5%) and true session (4.0%).

    I don't like being inconsistent though, which is why I'm wondering if we should set the standard to 4.0% and maybe introduce near-session for awareness purposes?

  6. Well, Google just lost my post because it doesn't know how to log users in when posting. A pity.

    In any event I'm uncomfortable having a divergent standard on this side of the pond. We don't have a divergent standard for Belgian Golden or Hefeweizen do we?

    Couldn't we shift to 4.0% for max "true session" ABV? And introduce a new (maybe temporary) label called "near-session" for 4-4.5%? This way we encourage awareness and we are consistent? We could even introduce a branding program for brewers and publicans to call attention to certified "session" and "near session" beers. Sort of like what CAMRA does for cask.


  7. I'd just as soon set it to 4.5% for session beer and be done with it; "near session" is not going to do anything but confuse people. I have said that I set it at 4.5% rather than 4.0% because of a lack of beers under 4.0%; and have said that I'd love to be able to start ratcheting it down...but we're nowhere near that point.

    In short, we don't need a compromise right now; this is working. The only inconsistency I see is Ding's insistence on 4.0%. As I said above, 4.0% is under 4.5%, so I'm okay with that.

  8. Your post wasn't lost; I have moderation enabled. But again, we don't need a two-level thing; that's only going to increase confusion. This isn't a judging category, and this isn't a training program; it's about awareness. We need to keep the message simple.

  9. Sure, Lew. The implication would be that identifying, reviewing, and promoting great smaller beers, and identifying, recongnizing and promoting those who brew and sell them would be more productive than trying to pigeonhole and define. One might productively, I'd suggest, even choose to ignore the definition side. That perennial debate is one that you simply won't settle, and, if you could, it just might be a rather empty accomplishment. Walk away from the battlefield to victory?

  10. Pretty much already doing that, Bob. I don't engage in the argument elsewhere, just here with the 'true believers.' Otherwise, when I talk to reporters about it, I emphasize the beers, not the definition. It's not an argument I want to win, or even have, because it takes attention away from the beers. Only reason I did this post was because I have been hearing a significant amount of hostility recently, and so I responded. Not to worry.

    That said...I don't do more "identifying, reviewing, and promoting great smaller beers, and identifying, recongnizing and promoting those who brew and sell them" here on the blog...because that's the kind of thing I do for my living, and I'd rather do it for hire than for free!

  11. I'm too busy brewing session beer today to address all of the things I'd like too, but here's a quick hit. I got into craft beer because of 5% pale ales back in the 80's, and high ABV drove me AWAY from craft beer and onto imports that offered low ABV (lower than the CDC standard) with character. And to Lew's point, it is far easier to jump a train than it is to build one. So we are seeing 5.6% session beers. We have a lot of pretenders out there, because it's harder to do it properly.

    Believe in Session Beer!

  12. Chris Lohring, ladies and gentlemen, a session beer quote machine!

  13. Cool, Lew. Good luck and good Gorka to you.

  14. I think we've got a LONG way to go before declaring "mission accomplished". I really don't see much smaller beer being brewed or sold. There are several microbreweries and brewpubs (but I repeat myself) where I live and the lowest ABV beer they have is about 5.2% - hardly "session" depending on whose definition you abide by.

    To label it is to limit it. I find the argument over where to draw the ABV line to be arbitrary and masturbatory.

  15. (completely lost track of how many times I've cheerfully admitted that 4.5% was "arbitrary")

    Where you at, Chad? We got plenty of it here in Philly; pretty much every brewer's making some, and most of them are selling quite well.

    1. Not surprised that the brewpubs don't go lower -- unfortunate, but there you are -- but Mahar's surely has some lower alcohol stuff on the handpumps, no?

  16. Have to agree with Lew on this one. It's more about promoting an idea of lower alcohol beer than a strict definition. Having a good name, like Session Beer, just helps people identify and rally around it.

    Bob, you say we can't push a river and I totally agree with you. That said, there's a ton of people out there who I talk to all the time who say they just don't want a 12% RIS, but something they can drink. So it's a bit of an awareness thing, let those people know that there is lower alcohol offerings out there, and let the brewers know that there are people who want it.

    And Chris, love the train analogy!


  17. You know, there is an existing definition of Session Beer at the same place that all the other beer categories are and there have been medals awarded in a Session Beer Style category at GABF since 2009.
    Session Beer
    Any style of beer can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style's character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 4.1% alcohol by weight (5.1% alcohol by volume).
    Original Gravity (ºPlato) 1.034-1.040 (8.5-10 ºPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.004-1.010 (1-2.5 ºPlato) ● Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.2-4.1% (4.0-5.1%) ● Bitterness (IBU) 10-30 ● Color SRM (EBC) 2+ (4+ EBC)

    It strikes me as a description that would make judging impossible (is this really well-made Pils a better beer than that really well-make Kolsch or that really well-made Dry Stout or...oh well, let's measure its "drinkability" whatever that means), but it is an official description and it sets the ABV at 5.1%.

    How come everybody just keeps pretending this doesn't exist? Aren't the BA Style Guidelines what we use as a basis for defining and judging styles/categories/whatever?

    1. Of all the session beer definitions, this is the worst. The BA is, ostensibly, defining my degree of attenuation, color, bitterness, and the most mind blowing - how LOW I can go on ABV. A floor for ABV? The BA has some explaining to do. But they won't. I've asked numerous times and been ignored.

  18. It also sets a bottom ABV at 4.0%.

    I don't pretend it doesn't exist, I've written about it: I find it to be pretty much unworkable, as it's clearly about the silly idea of making a "session IPA" or such, and I completely agree that it makes judging impossible. I've requested to be left out of the category in the last GABF I judged for. Figured I'd spend my time arguing.

    As for "official"...just because it's from the almighty Brewers Association? I don't agree with their definition of "craft brewer," either, and this is certainly not the first time they've screwed up a style definition. I don't think there should even be a "Session Beer" category at GABF, unless it were along the lines of "Other Strong Ale," a catch-all for something that clearly isn't a "style."

    Mostly, though, I'm not interested in judging session beer, I'm interested in drinking it.

  19. Boulevard used to make a 3.25-3.5 ale. They called it Tenpenny. It was as good as anything they have brewed. Sadly, they discontinued it about a dozen years ago. Used to get it on draft in Arkansas. Sure do miss it.


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