Monday, July 22, 2013

A Landmark...and an Issue: how hard-line do we need to be?

Session Beer? Or not?
On Friday, Brewbound reported that Michigan brewer Founders had acknowledged that the relatively new All Day IPA (one of the exploding number of so-called "session IPAs," well-noted here by Notch Brewing's Chris Lohring) introduced as a seasonal in March, had achieved year-round status and, by a solid margin, established itself as the brewery's best-selling beer. The Brewbound story said that:
Through the end of June, Founders had sold over 130,000 case equivalents (CE’S) of All Day IPA since March 1. Sales of its next best-selling beer, the year-round Centennial IPA, have only barely eclipsed 102,000 CE’s.
Well, boom! Founders CEO Mike Stevens expanded on that, saying that he expects All Day IPA to account for nearly 40% of the brewery's total production in 2014, that the folks at Founders "are looking at this brand as a category leader in the session ale category,” and, significantly, "even though it’s called ‘All Day,’ the most important words on that label are ‘session ale.’...It’s an underserved category and All Day isn’t taking away from what is really great about well-made craft beer.” The All Day label illo is now the opening illo on the Founders website, even.

Which is causing me some seriously mixed emotions. Because while I'm thoroughly excited that a brewery celebrated for its big beers -- Devil Dancer, Breakfast Stout, Dirty Bastard, Double Trouble -- brewed a lower-strength beer and found that it sold like mad... That beer is 4.7% ABV, just over the 4.5% ABV upper limit the Session Beer Project recognizes as "session beer." ARGH!
So do we celebrate? Or do we tear out our hair and weep and moan, because "session beer" is tagged on a 4.7%er? Do I say, "Oh, hell, it was just an arbitrary limit anyway...yeah, it's session beer, and WE WIN!" Is this the end of the session beer universe?

Well, no, it's not the end of the world, and no, I'm not going to tear out my hair. I already said that, here. And I'm going to celebrate a little bit, because of that "the most important words on that label are ‘session ale.’" quote. But yeah, I'm gonna hold the line on this. I'd rather see All Day IPA at 4.5% or less; sure, I would, if they're going to put "session ale" on the label. 

And I'm pretty sure we will see very successful beers at 4.5% and less, and fairly soon. If this IS as hot a category as Stevens seems to think it is -- and I think he's right, been thinking that for a while now -- other brewers are going to be jumping in -- and they are; as Lohring says, it's easier hop on a train than it is to build one -- and some of them are going to differentiate themselves by getting great flavor out of beers that are under 4.5%. And they're going to serve them in larger glasses, and they're going to price them lower (not because they're significantly cheaper to make, but they may see that as a marketing cost), and they're going to change craft beer. Really, I think there's a real chance of that.

So I'm not going to celebrate All Day IPA as a session beer -- though I'm happy to drink it -- but I'm going to take its success as a harbinger. And I'm going to encourage other brewers to kick its ass by making a beer that's just as good, just as interesting...and under 4.6%. I know they can do it; they
already are.


  1. 1.042 as a starting gravity is all you need for 4.7%.......

  2. Lew - You know the answer to this question, and this problem has been created because people did NOT take a hard-line. I predicted so, and now it's happened.

    I love you man, but in a nutshell, there is no such thing as @sessionbeer in America. Period.

  3. See, you THINK there's a problem, and you THINK it's because people did not take YOUR hard line.

    I don't see a problem, I see progress, and I am holding my hard line. The glass is half full.

  4. "...and some of them are going to differentiate themselves by getting great flavor out of beers that are under 4.5%." It can definitely be done. A 3.3% dark Mild won a large (500+ entries) homebrew competition a couple of years ago in New England. The appreciation among beer lovers is there. With that comes demand. The possibility of packing flavor into a low ABV is there. It's not even that hard. Judiciously used malts, the right kind of yeast, or even the right mash technique can all extract loads of flavor out of low-gravity wort separately or together.

    I'll second Lew's comment. The glass is half full. At least. Are we really going to bemoan an extra 0.2% ABV? Or do we pat Founders on the back for making a session ale instead of another variation of Breakfast Stout?

    As for 4.7% counting as "session..." It's not that huge a difference compared to 4.5%. 12 ounces of 4.7% beer has the same amount of alcohol as 12.5 ounces of 4.5% beer. Is the equivalent of a tiny extra sip worthy of sparking a grand debate over the purity of an arbitrary number? People will get called on it if they push the ABV much higher, so I don't think that it's worth worrying about.

  5. Hey Lew, great article and great to see that lower alcohol beers are making headway!

    Honestly, I'd say we celebrate this beer as a victory. As I wrote about on Drink Craft Beer (, while the American Session Beer movement (at least people like you, Chris Lohring, us, etc...) have agreed on 4.5%, it's really more about getting more lower-alcohol beers on the shelves that it is actually about getting more beer below 4.5%.

    In reality, the difference between 4.7% and 4.5% is minuscule as far as impact on my sobriety. I would have to drink 23 beers to have the equivalent of an extra 1 beer at this strength. That said, the impact on the movement of getting more lower-alcohol beers on the market is huge! For someone like Founders, known for big beers like you said, to see such success with a beer like this shows that it's a really viable market and hopefully others will jump in.

    So, I say this is a resounding moment for celebration, not something to worry about 0.2% on. It's about the spirit of the mission in my mind.

  6. It's not the 0.2%, Jeff, Bacon. It's not the impact. This is bigger than the individual beer, by the pint or by the brand. My concern is that if we say, HURRAY! This is a session beer because it's only a little bit over 4.5%!...what do we say when someone says their 4.9% beer is a session beer? How do you say no to that? It's only 0.2% more, after all. This is how we wound up with IPAs at 8%, and that's how we'll wind up with session beers at 6%. I don't want to see that happen with session beer, especially now that having "session beer" on your label is seen as a good thing. This is where it gets tricky. Before it was hard work, publicizing and informing. Now it's holding the line, and making everyone play fair.

    Look, I'm not going to say Founders has to change their label. That would be ridiculous: I have no way to make them do that! What I can do, and what I am doing, is encouraging people to ask...for less. I'm encouraging brewers to prove they can brew a great beer at 4.5% and lower, that they CAN do it where Founders -- just by a bit -- failed.

    But do I take this as a win? Well, yeah, for session beer. It proves that people really DO want lower alcohol beers with flavor, and they'll sell. Push 'em down a bit more; that's all I ask. We're headed in the right direction; now's NOT the time to encourage things to turn around. JMO...but that's all this blog has ever been!

  7. Bob "Now go Have a Beer" PaolinoJuly 22, 2013 at 5:36 PM

    Trying to have it both ways? I contend that "Session IPA" is a self-contradiction because, by definition, an India Pale Ale (whether American or English) is a style with higher alcohol content than a Pale Ale, and that contention has been met with criticism of being too rigid in defining styles.

    (My complaint with that kind of marketing practise extends beyond just the "session" beer issue, but also to the misleading labelling of standard pale ales as IPAs because IPA happens to be "trendy.")

    But now a trivial difference between 4.7 and 4.5 is suddenly on the wrong side of a hard line defining session or not-session?? (I'm with "Bacon"'s comment above.)

    It's much less of a stretch to call it a session beer than it is to call it an IPA.

    Actually, I'm not quite sure where you're going on this, you're celebrating and you're not celebrating, so maybe 4.5 isn't such a hard line, but this post leaves the reader with some ambiguity about your opinion on it.

    Either way, we generally agree on the desirability of having more offerings that are both more flavourful and lower alcohol.

    P.S. Many years ago, the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild had a "Small and Tiny" homebrew competition, and I got third place for a 2.8% entry I brewed. The "trophy"? A shotglass sized stein with "TINY" etched on the side :-)

  8. Actually, if you look at some of the IPAs sold in the UK, there's no problem at all with a 4.7% IPA. There's a definite difference in the way American craft brewers do it. Not saying either one is right, and I've certainly had my issues with "session IPA" and the desire to put "IPA" on damned near anything.

    I've tried and tried to explain my reasons on this. Some get it; some don't. You come pretty close just before your P.S., though. Here's something else I said about it today: "I'm going to keep aiming at brewers, media, marketers, and opinion-makers; they're the people who read my blogs, generally, not consumers. Consumers are too busy drinking beer and living life and talking to friends and watching the game to read my God-damned blog, and that's the way it ought to be." So far, doing what I'm doing has seen some I'm going to keep at it. It IS a fine line; I'm dancing, brother, I'm dancing!

  9. Bob "Now go Have a Beer" PaolinoJuly 22, 2013 at 6:30 PM

    Lew, your post that appears immediately above mine (we were probably both typing at the same time), particularly the last paragraph, says it much more clearly and concisely than the original post, and we can definitely agree on that! Push 'em down a bit more!

    (I think I'm less concerned than you appear to be about the possibility of upward creep on the definition of "session." I kind-of see what you mean that if 4.7's okay, then why not 4.9, et cetera, but if breweries are convinced that there's a proven demand for lower alcohol content in craft beers, why would they make the "session" beer ingredients cost higher than it needs to be?)

  10. I think breweries are more convinced that there's a proven demand for "session beer," and if they put it on the label, it will sell! Craft brewers still have a general tendency to think "beer good; bigger beer better." If the SBP helps break that mindframe, I'll have moved the earth with a tiny blog fulcrum.

    As far as materials costs, they're minimal at craft beer scale. I've talked to brewers; the difference in materials costs between a 4.5% beer and a 6.5% beer, for instance, comes to about a nickel a pint at the retail end; much less at the production end. Not really going to move the meter much. Less than a big honking 10%er, sure, but they're already more expensive.

  11. "So I'm not going to celebrate All Day IPA as a session beer -- though I'm happy to drink it -- but I'm going to take its success as a harbinger. And I'm going to encourage other brewers to kick its ass by making a beer that's just as good, just as interesting...and under 4.6%. I know they can do it; they
    already are."

    I always enjoy a good session beer discussion. If you get a chance, visit Free Will Brewing Company's tasting room. They have a "session IPA" on tap right now that gives the Founders version a serious run for it's money.... and its at 4.0% abv. Ask for "Sputnik 8".

  12. I think the success of All-Day IPA and many of the lower ABV craft brews like 312 and Honkers Ale points to how important alcohol level is to mainstream beer drinkers. Many folks I know who drink just one type of beer 90% of the time become acclimated to the particular buzz/effects of that beer's strength, be it a 5% Bud or a 4.2% light beer. Many of them enjoy the taste of, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but 12 oz. of that hits them much differently than their normal drink -- and not necessarily in a way they feel comfortable with. Those of us who go from beer to different beer to different beer more often than not may have forgotten this. So beers that come in at or near Lew's definition make it much more easy for these folks to find something that tastes better to them yet acts the same way as their previous mainstay. And these beers become the new mainstays for said folks -- it's what now is always in their fridge, or ordered out.

    Regarding the "why isn't session beer cheaper" questions -- yep, material costs are marginally less expensive, but labor costs, space, heat, electricity, packaging, shipping, etc. is the same as for their other beers, so... basically, it costs the same to get a sixer of All Day to the consumer as it does to get a sixer of the Porter to the consumer.

  13. Bob "Now go have a beer" PaolinoJuly 23, 2013 at 5:42 PM

    In response to Bill's comment, I'd like to offer a reminder that we are talking about something more than just craft beers with lower alcohol, but lower alcohol beers **that pack a lot of flavour**. I think that there's potentially a huge difference between what many of us hope for in "session" beers, and the kinds of beers we might view as transitional or "gateway" craft beers (312, Spotted Cow, Oberon, et cetera) that for some serve as a bridge between "mainstream" mass market lagers and craft beers.

    Indeed, earlier today I was reading an article about the new beer Redhook is brewing for the BW3 chain, and it bothered me that the author was speaking of it as a session beer while at the same time describing it as having a little bit more flavour than Bud but not as much as a "craft beer." It may well be "sessionable," but I want flavour, too, not just something that's not quite as bland as mass market lager.

  14. I don't have a problem with Spotted Cow, Oberon, or 312. What's a kolsch-type beer brewed by a brewery like Victory? Is it mainstream, a bridge, or a craft beer? I don't have a problem with kolsch, myself (though it's usually over 4.5%). Far as mainstream, I think there's an obvious difference between Coors Light and Spotted Cow or Oberon. I don't think we do the craft beer segment any favors by fighting over how much flavor is enough. I'll leave that to the Brewers Association, who seem to have a secret decoder ring that tells them which beers are "craft" enough to pass their sniff test. I'm gonna reserve judgment on Game Changer till I actually taste it...except it IS 4.6%. So...fails the first test for me.

  15. Bob "Now go have a beer" PaolinoJuly 23, 2013 at 6:16 PM

    Although I rarely drink those three particular examples, I don't have a real problem with them either, and they are definitely from craft brewers. I can enjoy a Kolsch, too. And depending on how you view the Redhook/Budhook relationship, I'd say that Redhook is craft beer, too, no secret decoder ring necessary for me. But I would hate to see brewers just jump on the session beer bandwagon if that becomes the next trendy thing, and not going any farther than these "transitional" beers.

    I don't really object to them being included under a broad definition of "session," but I don't want those beers to limit the expectations and aspirations for a lower alcohol segment of the market. I don't want "session" to be merely a new label for the same old stuff to wean people off Bud, I want to see new offerings of traditional (or non-traditional) styles in lower alcohol versions than are common today, not just Kolsch, Helles, and such, but also hoppy beers, roasty beers, malt-forward beers, and on and on.

  16. 4.5 percent is a good line. I think it's generous, in fact. 4 percent is a better one, I think. So looking at it that way, 4.7 percent is really way too high. I've always thought of the extra .5 percent as a way to include more beers. A gracious way to include American brewers into the session beer world.

    A great English IPA? Wells Eagle IPA--3.6 percent. Had it at Memphis during Beer Walk. Nearly perfect.

  17. Bob "Now go have a beer" PaolinoJuly 26, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    This is oddly topical here in a slightly amusing way :-)!/photo.php?fbid=10151754260756181&set=a.392309201180.207578.27378766180&type=1&theater

  18. 4.5% abv beer is not session ale. End of story.

  19. Yeah, yeah, whatever, Francis.

  20. Jonny Rashid said: 4.5 percent is a good line. I think it's generous, in fact. 4 percent is a better one, I think. So looking at it that way, 4.7 percent is really way too high. I've always thought of the extra .5 percent as a way to include more beers. A gracious way to include American brewers into the session beer world.

    That's close to the reasoning I used to draw 4.5% as the line. First, I wasn't using 4.0% as either a law or a custom; it's not, despite what some say. It's much more nebulous than that, and in the end, it's just as arbitrary as 4.5%. Second, for my purposes, I'm not limiting "session beer" to the English tradition. I'm only using the English term because Americans speak English, and there's no point in making up a new term just to make one up. After all, there is no tradition of session beers in America, unless you count "light beer," which I don't. So The Session Beer Project melds various cultures' idea and realization of lower-alcohol beers: English, Czech, German, Belgian, and non-European traditions. Therefore, there's no need to hew dogmatically to any kind of English guideline, anymore than American brewers do when they make an IPA.

    But, that said, I absolutely intended to be more inclusive. Fact is, there weren't many tasty beers under 4.5% when I started the Project; it wasn't about including more beers, or including American brewers, at least, at that time. It was about setting an attainable goal, without making it 5.0%, which I thought was too normal to be session/special. So I dropped it 0.5% points, and said 4.5%. Arbitrary? Yes, just like every other definition. None of these were the result of brewers getting together and deciding a limit, they just happened. So is this, but I think there are good arguments for 4.5% and under. And I'll keep making them; that's half the fun!

  21. Lew, speaking as a Scottish person (who lives in Alabama), I think your suggestion of 4.5% as the dividing line is eminently sensible and practical. Those who dogmatically adhere to 4% are on the wrong side of the Pond, and will be on the wrong side of history.


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