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.


  1. Hear, hear.

    For many craft drinkers today (myself included), the ABV doesn't even factor into the buying decision. The drinking decision, sure -- I'm not going to pound 10 percent imperial stouts in the same way I'd drink a 5 percent beer. And I'm not going to balk at paying imperial stout prices for a beer with half the alcohol content, so long as its just as flavorful.


  2. It's crapola like this that makes me increasingly embarrassed to be a beer geek.

  3. To me, alcohol content is only one attribute of beer the one that least defines what "craft" beer is. "Craft" to me, implies small, local, creative brewing. Trying to define alcoholic strength as some sort of heritage quality of craft beer does a huge disservice to pioneers like Anchor, Sierra Nevada and the original craft brewers from Europe who brew traditional beers styles that were the inspiration for the bulk of American craft styles.

  4. ""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."

    Well put. Enough said.

  5. Defining craft beer by ABV just makes you sound like an alcoholic who wants to get his fix as quickly as possible.

  6. Agreed, Rich. Just wish I could have gone with that second definition, but that's not how Americans work. Gotta have a number, gotta have a rating, gotta have a best-of list!!!

  7. On a recent trip to North Carolina, I was surprised at the number of times that 'High-Gravity' came up in a bartender/brewery employee's description (and I'd even go so far as to say 'pitch' as well) of a beer. You fight a good fight, Lew, and your work in promoting what one might call 'holistic beer consumption', incorporating history, business, people, taste, and other elements into beer drinking, is appreciated. But Don provides some valuable insight into how a greater amount of consumers than we'd like to admit approach beer. My education in craft beer has absolutely increased my enjoyment, but I think for others it has narrowed their perspective. Whatever, I'm rambling, I just want to say that you make some good points, and Don provides a good and necessary foil!

  8. Well-said. I don't necessarily deny what Don says; it's just not how I'd like to look at things; and, I think, not the best way for the craft beer movement to head. I keep saying, the "movement" is about variety more than anything else, and that includes points of view.

  9. Many people just don't get the principle behind wanting session beer to be lower in price. They assume it's about how much beer you HAVE to drink to get intoxicated. It's really about how much you CAN drink before you get intoxicated and the cost to do so.

  10. I agree that the BA definition is a bit strange (as do we all, it seems), but I hate the stronger=better argument since it isolates just one aspect of a beer and makes that the focus. One could argue that the 'session' tag is the other side of that coin, but there's no one saying it's 'better' or 'more well crafted' - just different, and a useful option for anyone who has to drive or happens to be on the smaller side and would prefer to have more than one drink before getting silly.

    I think about some of the really nice UK beers we don't have here that are in the 3-4% category that often have a sister beer in the brewer's portfolio that's more like 5-6% (often with 'Strong' in the name) and in those cases, it's the higher ABV beer that's the unusual one, while the lower one is the 'preferred' type. I wish we had that kind of variety in bitters and milds here in the US, but I get that they just aren't major sellers here - I'd still like to see more of them (ideally locally produced versions) as options.

    Again, I'm thrilled that we have variety here in the US - Tired Hands is doing an amazing job across the style and ABV spectrum, and just last week hand both an outstanding mild and the best imperial IPA I've ever had on at the same time - but there's no need to knock sessionability just because those beers are lower in alcohol. We all like the flavors, right?

  11. Sigh....Don is a DUI away from seeing the light that 'superior' doesn't necessarily mean higher ABV. Too many of my beer geek friends found that out the hard way.

    Of course, one can enjoy the company of an Imperial Stout in the confines of one's home but sessionable to me means I can enjoy the company of others without stopping at two.


Comments welcome: please stay on topic. Spam will not be posted; don't bother.