Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's Your Problem?

Jason and Todd Alstrom put an editorial in the latest issue of Beeradvocate magazine titled "The Problem with Session Beers in the US." They've had a passive-aggressive stance toward session beers from the early days, and this piece fits neatly into that. Because they have such a large bully-pulpit with the magazine, I felt I should at least respond. Because I only see ONE problem the way that they do; the rest of their problems are manufactured, questionable, or just plain wrong.

Pricing. This is a horse they've beaten well past expiration: if session beers are lower alcohol, they should be less expensive. Other people say it too. But we've had that discussion, and the truth is, lower alcohol beers don't really cost that much less to make or sell. Materials -- hops, malt, spices -- are only part of a beer's cost; there's energy, labor, transport, taxes, promotion, facility costs, debt service... If a pint of 4.5% pilsner is a good pint, a good-tasting beer, why should it be cheaper than a 6.5% IPA? Because it cost a nickel less to make? Or because it has less alcohol? I thought craft beer was all about flavor. If it's about the alcohol, well...why are you drinking it, again? Maybe you ought to think about that. In any case, I'd certainly encourage any brewpub operator or bar manager to think about dropping pints a buck just to encourage the multiple sales sessions are about, but it's not about session being a somehow "lesser" beer. We don't buy that, no matter what the price.

USA! Americans don't understand what session beer is, they say; we're not the UK (this ignores the session beers in Belgium and the Czech Republic, of course, but we'll let that go). Our drinking culture is different. Well...the biggest selling beer in America is Bud Light. It's 4.2% ABV. We get lower alcohol beer; the session beers we're supporting are lower alcohol too, only they have a lot more flavor. What's so hard to understand? We don't need to be told a story, as the Alstroms suggest. Judging from the success of beers like Founders All Day IPA, all we have to do is get a choice. And boys? Seven bucks for a "faux-pint" of ANY "beer that might be good" is more about the problem with craft beer, not session beer.

A Session What? There's no definition of a session beer, they say. Well, we're working on it. I think that the BeerAdvocate 5% definition isn't definitive enough; I like 4.5% better, and 4.0% is good too. But look at how long it took to define "craft beer." Oops...the Brewers Association is apparently still working on that one. Doesn't seem to be hurting sales, though. Yeah. Another non-problem.

Boring! I'll quote them here, because I agree with a little bit of this...but not much. "There's a serious lack of creativity when it comes to session beers. It's either an attempt at an old beer style, or a weak, watery failure. Even worse, some fool (or genius) created the 'Session IPA,' and it's taking over the session beer category thanks to bandwagoning brewers releasing hop water into the market in order to capture twice the hype."

This really is a 'Wow, where to begin' moment. "An attempt at an old beer style?" What, like much of "craft brewing?" Pale ale, porter, Pilsner, imperial stout, milk stout, Baltic porter, and yes, even IPA: all attempts at 'old beer styles.' What's so bad about that? We're adding mild, bitter, grisette, and Berliner Weisse to the list, oh horrors! If there are weak, watery failures, well, honey, there are overhopped, unbalanced monsters out there too (and they'll cost you a lot more, despite your fear of overpriced session beer).
Then there's the one spot where I agree with them: "Session IPA." It is taking over session beer, and it's about making money, and it's about a lack of real creativity and the worst kind of monkey-see monkey-do brewing. a time where we have IPA, DIPA, TIPA, Black IPA, Red IPA, White IPA, Wheat IPA, Rye IPA, Blue and Green IPAs, and perhaps IPAs as yet undreamt of just waiting to be born...why single out Session IPA? Again, this is a failure of craft beer, not session beer. If the Alstroms really want to be muckrakers, and call for a better brighter world of beer, they need to step up and tackle the real problems.
Snobs. And this is the one that baffles me. "...we find that many proponents of session beer are snobs." Really? Where on earth do you find that? The people I know who are proponents of session beer are mostly just trying to get a couple taps, a few more choices. Complain about people who don't get session beer? Well, yeah, if those are the people who are keeping session beers off the taps! That's not snobbery, that's the same kind of frustration we felt back in the late 1980s when no one wanted to sell craft beer. Just put some on, we'll drink it! Sure enough...Founders makes a lower alcohol beer; it's now their flagship. Odell makes a session seasonal; sells so much they take it year-round. Brewers are finding that if they make a good session beer, it's going to sell well. Of course it is: it's a good beer.

They conclude by saying that these problems have to change for session beers to be truly accepted in the US. Well...okay. I mean, it's not like it's happening already, without the Alstroms' permission or anything. Heh. Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha!

Sorry. In the meantime, tell me: what's it going to take for sour beers to be "truly accepted" in the US? Because while I love 'em, I think there's a much longer list of why they ain't going mainstream anytime soon. Gonna write that editorial next issue, guys?

Monday, April 7, 2014

CHEERS to Odell!

Just a brief note to say CHEERS to Odell for 1) Not calling Loose Leaf a "session IPA; 2)for acknowledging the love and going year-round with it (YAY!); and 3) doing so on Session Beer Day!

Thanks, Odell Brewing! That gets it. As one person said today, "Whatever. If it says "Odell" on it, I'm drinking it."


Why I called Sierra Nevada "wieners" about their Nooner Session IPA

Heh, heh. It says Nooner. 4.8%? Really? Come on, SN! Can't get it down to 4.5? Wieners...

That's what I put up on Untappd* two days ago as my "review" of Sierra Nevada's new "session IPA," Nooner. If I felt really bad about it, or that I was out of line, I'd apologize. This is Sierra Nevada, after all; a brewery and a founder, Ken Grossman, which I honestly revere(and still do), one of a small pantheon of people and companies who can honestly be said to have started or substantially advanced what we generally call craft brewing.

And on Saturday, I called them "wieners."

I don't intend to apologize, because I think I'm right. But I do intend to explain, beyond saying, 'well, you know, I was pretty well into the day at that point, pints of draft, some whiskey, and maybe I was a little jovial.' Which I was, but I stand with Papa Hemingway on this: 'Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.' Or not. Yeah, I had been drinking, but I'm sticking by what I said, and here's why.

"Session IPA" is becoming a selling point, but it's an ill-defined "style" (and yes, that word bugs me some days, but let's work with it for now) at best. Look at the Smuttynose Bouncy House I just posted about earlier today: 4.3%, and they sidestepped the "session IPA" label. Their beer is a hoppy pale ale, but that's not why they didn't call it a session IPA. They did it because they thought it might be a played-out trend in a couple years.

I agree, and that's why, as I said in an interview with the good people at Craft Beer Cellar, the 4.5% bright line is important:
...not so much because of the alcohol. It’s because of the worth of the label. If “session beer” just means “as little as 0.1% ABV less than ‘regular beer’”, it starts to lose meaning. Session beer has to be significantly less than a regular beer in alcohol content. 4.5% is 10% less alcohol than 5.0%; that’s significant. I want it to mean something, and to continue to mean something, so I’m going to be picky.
We weren’t picky about what “craft beer” meant — Is it about who makes it? What it’s made of? What it tastes like? — or what an IPA is (it’s apparently anything someone chooses to call an IPA), and those terms are losing value. I don’t want that to happen to session beer, so I’m using every bit of influence I’ve earned over 20 years of writing about beer to try to fence it off. Making 4.5% a bright line and calling any brewer — like Sierra Nevada, even — to task who calls their beer “session” when it’s more than that, is part of the job. I’ll take flak. There will be backlash. Okay. It’s worth it. This was thankless in the beginning; I can handle it. 

Maybe I wouldn't have called Sierra Nevada "wieners" if I hadn't been drinking, but...hey, they called it 'Nooner' first! So I'm not completely off there.

I'm actually getting more concerned about the lame groupthink and sheep mentality represented by "session IPA," especially since it's Sierra Nevada. I really expected something better from a brewer that has produced an iconic, leading Pale Ale, Barleywine, American Stout. I expected a brilliant Bitter, a fearless Mild. But we got a following beer from a brewer that's a leader. I expect better.

I expect better from the whole industry. I should be happy on Session Beer Day, and to some extent, I am! It's great, we're seeing a LOT more session strength beers from notable brewers, and more and more of them at brewpubs. unending parade of "session IPA"?  

GOD DAMN IT, AMERICAN BREWERS! You're BETTER than this! And I'm not just talking about session. American craft brewing has become a pathetic nation of followers. Look, a sour sold, let's make one! Look, session IPA sold, let's make one! Look, limited edition beers sold, let's make one! I weep for you. Truly. Show some balls, at least come up with your own name, like "fractional IPA."

I think it's significant that the brewer who's become something of the standard-bearer for the Session Beer Project, Chris Lohring at Notch, said this about his own session-strength IPA, Left of the Dial:
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.
Which makes me think of his Notch Pils; it's not a good session pilsner, it's a good pilsner. So if your beer is a good IPA, call it an IPA. If it's a pale ale...say so. And if it's a bitter, well, God bless you.

Here's hoping for a better selection next year. Now get out there: still plenty of time to get some rounds in. That's where I'm headed. Cheers! Drink small, drink often!

*And thanks so much for not dropping a Session Beer Day badge on us this year, Untappd. I know, I know, we don't have the money to pay you, and those badges cost, wait, they don't cost anything, they're virtual. What the hell, Untappd?

Smuttynose Bouncy House interview

Smuttynose is coming out with a new 4.3% session beer called Bouncy House; it fits into the "session IPA" slot, but they're calling it an "All Occasion American Ale." I talked to Smuttynose brewer David Yarrington about it.  

Fun name, Bouncy House. And I see you call it Bouncy House IPA, but the term "session IPA" is nowhere on the packaging.

It was named by Peter [Egleston]. We went back and forth about that. The decision was to just call it "All Occasion American Ale." In our marketing, we’ll tell people it’s a session IPA, but we wanted to design a beer that wasn’t just a fad, a beer a year from now, people will say, 'Oh, session IPA.' Even using IPA on the label was a back and forth. But anything we can do to stop confusion is good. People like fanciful names! Look at some of the beers people are talking about, they have an interesting name. 

It’s a session IPA; the term people recognize, being a new style, how do you define it, and has it been defined? Isn’t it just an American pale ale?  

We wanted to differentiate from that. There’s a fine line because it’s so low in alcohol and has such a thin body, it can become too bitter. We’re trying to push that line so it’s more than a pale ale. It’s hop-forward. A big part is the low ABV, it’s sessionable. [Oh that word!] When we did pilots, it came down about half a degree Plato in each batch. We wanted to get it in the 4.2-4.3% ABV range, but still have enough mouthfeel.

The last sample you sent me was at 4.6%, and I chided you about it; that's when I was told you were aiming below 4.5%, and this was a work in progress, looking at malt. What did you wind up with on mashbill? 
The mashbill is our silo malt, an English pale, then Aromatic, Crystal 60, and Cara Hell. We wanted to add — the specialty malts are over 10% — more mouthfeel, didn’t want it to be thin, and a little color. We weren’t doing a hi-gravity beer; it starts at 10 P, so we wanted some complexity. Bittering is Magnum, we do a lot of Magnum. Flavoring is Calypso, aroma is a mix of Calypso and Saphir. We don’t know how much it’s going to sell, but we had to contract last year…and it appears that I cornered the market on Calypso! They asked me to release some of that back into the wild… Hey, look at me, I’m one of those guys who bought all the hops! But one of the effects of being as big as we are is that when I think about a new beer, [I have to consider]; if it catches on, am I using a hop that I can get enough of? Everyone wants Citra; what if it takes off? That’s why we like to blend dry hops, we could adjust it a bit if we had to. All those practical things the beer-drinking public doesn’t think about. 

Would you have made a beer like this five years ago?
Interesting question. For me, there was always a desire… at some point in the evening, I’d take a High Life. Charlie Papazian has been vocalizing for session for a long time. But five years ago, could I sell it? People weren’t buying. I thank Charlie for advocating these beers. It would have been hard to sell this five years ago; people were talking about the proof of beers at the time! People were eating it up. If I were running a brewpub, that would be different, 7 barrels would sell out. But Smuttynose is at a different scale.
One of the things I find fascinating is that we’re all aging at the same rate. We all came in when we were younger and could consume a lot. But the vanguard of the industry is aging. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’m not the guy out there drinking 10 pints. It’s nice to have a choice to have a session, have a few beers, chat with people, and still get up and go to work in the morning. It dovetails in with a movement I’m starting to see to German beers. I think you’re going to see more of the lighter helles and kölsches; difficult to brew, but they have a delicacy and complexity. I think that’s going to mesh well with the session beer idea. 

Making an imperial stout is easier than making these beers. We’ve all matured past saying that more alcohol and more flavor means more craft. I love dialing in a smaller beer, they show their imperfections. I don’t remember seeing beer snobs in the 1990s, but now, some of these places and What I liked was that for five or six dollars you could have the best beers in the world. I like wine, but I’d never be able to afford to be a wine snob! I thought that was part of the appeal. But now this seems to be part of the beer snob.

We're told we don't have a beer culture here in America. Could craft session beers change that? 
For years, anyone who came back from England said; wow great time, drink those beers, and have a great time drinking in the pubs. I went, and I totally get what they’re talking about. They’re easy, anyone could sit there all evening. It’s so well-suited for having conversation and a few beers. I hope that’s what we’re moving to. It’s interesting to see other beer cultures and how they go about it. America still has some of that bingeing, some of that Prohibition feeling of ‘this isn’t right, so I better get it done.’ You don’t want people to see you drinking, and that’s a shame. I spent some time in Japan, and one of the things I love is that it’s always shared. You buy a large format bottle for the table, and you don’t pour your own beer; you top off other people’s. It’s a group experience. 

Thanks, David. Happy Session Beer Day!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Stone's new Go To IPA

Quick link to The New School's post about Stone's new "Go To IPA," so I can say a huge


to Stone Brewing for making this 4.5%: not 4.9%, not 4.7%, not 4.6%...but 4.5%. Stone says the beer is "hop-bursted," which they explain this way:
This beer employs the use of the “hop bursting” technique, which in essence is a hopping technique where all or most of the bitterness in the beer comes from late hop additions in the brewhouse, like at the end of boil and in the whirlpool, instead of the more traditional approach where most of the hop bitterness comes from earlier additions at the start of the kettle boil. The result is a beautifully aromatic beer with substantial, but somewhat mellow, bitterness. The hop bursting also enhances the flavor retention of the hops, and combined with the dry-hop, creates a very intense and complex hop flavor.
Whatever: I'm very curious to try it.

And of course, all brewers are encouraged to show us what they're made of and go lower...if they have the balls.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Betting on "session IPA"

Here's a post from a big beer marketing guy who thinks session IPA is going to be a big winner. Check it out; he makes some great points, and the ad campaigns he mentions were some of the most memorable and most effective ones of the era. This whole thing could have huge legs...and maybe lead to something other than session-strength IPAs...