Thursday, March 28, 2013

Notch Lays It Down: Left of the Dial IPA

The first thing I'm going to say about Notch's new beer is this: you can, if you want, skip reading this post and just go straight to what Chris Lohring has to say about Left of The Dial IPA right here. Because he nails the whole "session IPA" discussion, and explains why he brewed this beer, and what it is and what it means, much better than I could.

But...I'd like to pile on a bit. I'm totally jazzed that he's done this beer, that it's clearly a statement, that it's coming out the week of Session Beer Day, and that he's doing it with such a great name, the sloganish phrase he's been using for great tasting session beer for over a year now. The only downside is that I probably won't get any, because Notch is still very much an eastern Massachusetts phenomenon, and I'm not getting up there anymore.

Why a session-strength IPA? Well, like I told a writer who was interviewing me yesterday (about beer selection strategies for beer bars' taps), IPA is not going away. Someone or other has been predicting the fade of IPA since the mid-1990s, and IPA just thumbs its nose and keeps growing. Betting against IPA, I told her, was like betting against vodka. Ain't happening. So roll with it. That's just what Chris is doing, because it's going to sell like mad.

Or maybe not: read this:
So, after all that, how does it taste? Like an IPA, but without any cloying sweetness and booze that fatigues and gets in the way of multiple pints and extended good times. Call it a Session IPA if you want, but to me it’s simply the IPA I’d like to drink, and I think Notch fans would like to drink. It may be the only time you see this beer, because it broke the bank, so I hope you enjoy!

Yo, up in Boston! Drink my share!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Session Beer Day at The Diamond!

One of the places that definitely gets it, The Diamond in Brooklyn, is all-in on Session Beer Day! They'll have seven taps of session beer on April 7, Session Beer Day. (Actually, there will be eight session beers, they managed to get another, but come!)

Here's what they've got lined up, with ABVs:

4.2 Otter Creek Hop Session:  hoppy american lean golden ale, VT
3.4 Newburgh English Bitter:  traditional english bitter, uniquely nutty, NY
4.2 East End Bitter:  small beer/traditional bitter, PA
3.7 East End Fat Gary:  brown ale, PA
4.2 Coniston Old Man Ale:  reddish/brown fruity english ale, UK
4.5 Thiriez Extra:  traditional french farmhouse ale, France
4.5 Barrier Le Pete:  smoked wheat beer, NY
2.7 Evil Twin Bikini Beer:  session IPA, Denmark

"That East End Bitter is the best bitter I've ever had, by the way," adds bar owner David Pollack.
The 8th beer will be something from either Elk Creek Cafe and Alewerks in Millheim, PA (one of my fave spots) or from Harviestoun in Scotland, and there may be additional surprises.

More fun on Session Beer Day, get over there and spend some hours buying rounds!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Notch Celebrates Session Beer Day!

Notch Brewing -- which I think was the first all-session beer brand in America -- is celebrating Session Beer Day in ye olde high style, with a 5K fun sponsored by Dig Boston's beer blogger, Heather Vandenengel (do like I do and read her posts here: The Honest Pint) that kicks off at 3:30, then the first "session" at Deep Ellum, an old friend of session beer and the SBP, starts at 4:00 with complimentary Notch liter mugs for your first round! Small beer, big glasses, as Notch-man Chris Lohring puts it. At 5:30, things shift to The Silhouette (take your mug along!), and run on till 7 PM.

Expect fun from this event (these events?), because Notch gets it. Check it out:
And we have a Session Beer Day Manifesto ready, with proclamations released periodically leading up to the big day. There is no cost, just pay as you go (hopefully in rounds) and keep your liter mug as a reminder beer can still be fun and not at all like homework!
That reminds me...I did talk about a Session Beer Manifesto. Back to work!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Is Joe Sixpack®™ kidding? Or is he right?

Don Russell, who writes the Joe Sixpack column in the Philadelphia Daily News, is not what you'd call a huge friend of session beer. While he did write a column for Session Beer Day last year, he ended the column with this strangely boozy bit of snark:
It's an admirable goal, even if it ignores the obvious (if distasteful) alternative: Drink fewer beers. Which points to session beer's more troublesome challenge. Craft beer's success is at least partly due to its potency. Small brewers differentiated themselves from macro-brew conglomerates by offering full-flavored ales and lagers whose higher prices were justified because you didn't have to drink as much to feel the buzz.
Consumers may rightly feel they're not getting their money's worth if the alcohol content is lower, especially since the new wave of session beers are not substantially cheaper than higher-alcohol varieties.
And that, friends, is why Jack Cade declared small beer a felony.
As I've said, I wasn't aware craft beers were more expensive because they were strong (especially since there is no graduated tax on ABV, and malt is well under half of the cost of a pint on the bar, usually under a quarter), I thought we'd been told it was because of smaller-scale operations and the hand-crafted care they were made with. Then we find out from Don that the price is about how much you have to drink to feel the buzz? Well. Enlightening. (Or not: check this explanation of the comparative cost of big beer and session beer by someone who actually pays the bills.)

Of course, this is the guy who showed up last year at a session beer panel discussion -- featuring some of the real stars of craft beer bar ownership and management on the East Coast --  as a semi-official representative of Philly Beer Week and stunned a previously happy crowd to silence by telling them that "session beers" were unnecessary, ridiculous, and somehow vaguely disrespectful of craft beer's heritage. It was a special moment.

So I wasn't surprised to see another sideways slap at session beer in his column yesterday, in a tongue-in-cheek look at styles the GABF had somehow "missed" in their 142 categories of beer styles. He listed such recognizable clumps as "Chick Beer," and "Cult Beer," and "Imported Beer."And then we have:
Session Beer. "Any style of beer . . . [whose] drinkability is a character in the overall balance." Wait a minute . . . I'm not making that up. That's an actual Brewers Association head-scratching definition of an invented style that can smell, taste or feel like anything, as long as it's weak enough to drink all night. Aroma, flavor and body are reminiscent of a far stronger and superior beer.
And you look at that, and you get a bit pissed about that last sentence, right? "...a far stronger and superior beer." Superior because it's stronger? Kind of revealing, maybe.

But I've decided to look at this in the light of the Brewers Association definition that Russell quotes, because I've got real problems with it myself. The BA came up with this category as an apparent direct mirror image of the Other Strong Ale Or Lager category, which is where you go when you've got an Imperial Bitter, or a Triple Altbier (both of which I've encountered in judging that category at the GABF...). So when you have a Half-IPA, or a Baby Barleywine, or a Session Saison, this is where you go. I guess.

And I'll agree with Russell in that case: generally, these beers are echoes of a superior beer. The "session IPAs" I've sampled are overbalanced; the small saisons are often over-spiced; and the occasional bourbon barrel-aged small beers I've had...well, I'd have much rather just had the bourbon, thank you. There is a whole class of lower-alcohol beers out there today that just don't get it. You can't make a beer session-strength by simply cutting back on the malt. You have to carefully balance things, maybe even amp the malt a bit and ease up on the attenuation.

My hat is off, for instance, to Stone's Levitation. It doesn't blow my mouth open with hops, it's been carefully tweaked till it's a hoppy session-strength ale, not a "session IPA," and they wisely didn't call it that. A grisette is a nicely-balanced beer in the general manner of a saison, but powered for all-afternoon drinking.

So I'm going to go along with this one, Don. You can't make a session beer by just simple dialing down. There's more to it than that, just like you can't make a high-mileage car by simply cutting two cylinders off a V6; you've got to make a different car, built and geared to the power you have (believe me, as a guy who owns an old 4-cylinder Saab that really REALLY needs a turbo, I understand this). This idea is a silly one.

"Session beer" is not a style, any more than "extreme beer" is. (Or was, I hear that term less every day, it seems.) It's a whole group of beers, made to a variety of styles. That's why I like it; I like variety with my variety.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Deschutes River Ale

The folks at Deschutes gave me a heads up on this project back in fall, and, well, I was excited. One of my favorite breweries, jumping right into the Session Beer Project with a solid entry? Fantastic. And after waiting, after twiddling my thumbs as my samples got held up by a Great Plains it is. 

Beautiful white head over a red-tinged golden body. Bright, peppy nose of grass and flowers, and a zesty freshness. A good gulp -- because you don't sip a beer like this, you've got to get it into you -- is like a pale ale dialed back a bit, and true to the nose: bright, zesty, with that grass and flowers backed by malt, flowing down to a bitter finish as the beer drains down the back of my throat. There's a nice fresh lingering flavor memory in my mouth.

This rings it. Like a bell, not a fence. It takes me back to my very first post on session beer, which was one of my first blog posts on Seen Through A Glass, January 31, 2007. Have a look at what I thought session beer was...and still do.

1. Alcohol under 4.5%. Once you get above 5%, things change, in my long experience with beer. Below that, you can drink at a moderate pace and not get heavily flummoxed. I always say that session beer is beer you can drink while you're playing cards, without worrying about gambling away your house.

2. Flavor in balance. A session beer can't be insanely hopped, syrupy with residual sugar, or funkier than hell. The whole idea of a session beer is that you can drink them smoothly glass after glass without anything cramping your palate. Plenty of flavor is fine, but nothing overpowering.

3. The beer doesn't overpower the conversation. Session beers shouldn't make you interrupt the conversation and start geeking about how marvelous the beer is. Session beer is more about backup than topic, it's something you drink while you're talking, not something to talk about.
4. Reasonably priced. There are some very quaffable beers out there that are, for some reason, wicked expensive. If you can afford to do sessions with them, God bless you. The rest of us? Reasonable is the keyword.
Well...this rings it. Like a bell. At least, I think so: Deschutes does price their beer reasonably.

More importantly, this is, for me, as validating as the Samuel Adams Belgian Session beer was a year ago; validating for me, for the SBP, for the idea I had that the time had come, the time was right, for session-strength beers to bring more variety to craft beer. I gotta tell you; when Deschutes gets on it, you know you've got something. Now...if Sierra Nevada would get on they could do an awesome Bitter under 4.5%.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Naked Brewing Carpe Noctem Black IPA

Carpe Noctem

I'm not nuts about "black IPA." I did a round of "robust porter" judging at the GABF a couple years ago, and I don't see a lot of difference between the two: a lot of hops, a lot of black, burnt malt, and a fair amount of booze. After tasting 11 of them, my palate was shot, felt like it had been scrubbed with a wire grill brush. A recently-used wire grill brush.

So I wasn't eager to try Carpe Noctem from local Naked Brewing Co., since it was a black IPA and a "session" IPA, which drives me a little nuts...but you know, there it was, on tap at the Hulmeville Inn, and I was driving, and it's only 3.9%...

Glad I dove in. Carpe Noctem has a hoppy, dry cocoa-tinged nose, and a smooth mouthful of well-balanced malt and hops, without that wicked burnt character, and a bitter finish. Nothing's really spiky, or aggressive, which is probably why the IPA-crazies aren't going nuts for it, but I liked it. Had more of it, too. Keep an eye out: they're spreading all over Pennsylvania; how, I'm not sure, but I hope they do well.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Victory Swing Session Saison

Victory dropped a little beauty into the session beer file this month with their new Swing Session Saison. Here's how the brewery described it:
Swing. It's a lively jazz rhythm, a vigorous sway, a change of view or even a roll in the proverbial hay. Now, it also means the welcome jolt of joy you'll experience upon your first sip of the session saison. Bracing but benign, this Belgian-style ale enlivens any experience with a spicy aromatic start, citrus snap and fresh finish. Swing into Spring with taste!
BEER STYLE: saison
COMPOSITION: Malts: 2 row German malts, rye, oats and wheat. Hops: Whole flower German and American hops. Spices: peppercorns and lemon zest. ABV: 4.5%.
It's right under our admittedly arbitrary limit at 4.5%, and let me tell you, it definitely hits the "flavorful enough to be interesting" and "balanced enough for multiple pints" points as well. I had some Swing at Memphis Taproom (a proud supporter of SBP) on Friday, and after a nightmare drive down there in which our 1984 Saab boiled over twice...Swing revived me ASAP! The peppercorn and lemon was like a dose of smelling salts, a wake-up call for my dragging spirits. The beer was lively on the palate, flashing and light, yet with a creamy touch that was simultaneously soothing: hot and hopping, but cool in style. The finish brought in the hops, bitter and gripping, to clean it all up and ready me for the next sip. Nicely done indeed, though that's no surprise from the brewers of such tasty session beers as Uncle Teddy's Bitter and Victory Dark Lager.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Session Beer Day is Coming!

Much to the distress of the Big Beer Cabal (and to Uncle Jack), the Session Beer Project is not dead! I've just been dealing with other matters, and happily watching session beer cruise along on autopilot. But our newly christened annual Session Beer Day -- April 7 -- is coming up, and it's time to beat the drums.

Consider the drums beaten...

First, I have our first Session Beer Day event to announce: Bulls Head Pub in Lititz, PA, home pub of Paul Pendyck, who has brought cask beer engines to many bars and brewpubs in America, will be celebrating by putting 4.5% and under beers on all their taps (including the beer engines) for the whole day, and selling them for $4.50 a glass! (And Paul uses imperial pints for most of those beers!) What's more, with Paul's permission, I am challenging as many session beer-friendly pubs as possible to match this event! Plenty of time to promote it, plenty of time to get people fired up. Show your session beer love!

Lemon zest & peppercorns
What else? How about some great new session beers? Wachusett is releasing their new Light IPA in cans in March, to join their year-round line-up: 4% ABV with 37 IBUs (and only 121 calories, if you care). Victory has a new spring seasonal, Swing Session Saison, at 4.5%, that launches today in the Philadelphia market. The Lion has a new formulation of their Stegmaier Pale Ale at 4%, and it's crisp and zesty in the mouth and rushing with hop aroma (out soon, I got some samples). There's a whole LINE of session beers coming from Mavericks, under 4% and aimed at the active life (no reason Michelob Ultra should have that to themselves, right?). And of course, speaking of entire lines of session beers, I know Chris Lohring will have new beers from Notch Brewing's line of great, tasty, and traditional session beers of all types (Saison has gone year-round, BTW!).

What else? Well, if you use Untappd, we need to ask them politely to set up a Session Beer Day badge. You can email them here, or leave a note on their Facebook page. Something like: "Can you please repeat last year's Session Beer Day Badge for Session Beer Day on April 7? Thanks!"

Any journalists, bloggers, Tweeters, movers and shakers: please spread the word. April 7 is a day to celebrate beer in big glasses, all-day beers, great beer with great flavor and low alcohol. I'm available for interviews or quotes, but the day is about the beer!

And...I have realized that I will not be in the U.S. on Session Beer Day. I'll be in Scotland on a whisky research trip, but you can bet I'll find a few glasses of session cask that day: Cairngorms, or Deuchars, or something small and local, I hope. Run with it, we're going to do this!

I'll be posting more this month. Get excited, we're gonna drink lots of beer on April 7!