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?


  1. FWIW, from Rate Beer

  2. Nice article. I was wondering if you could start a spot on this blog for homebrew session beer recipes.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Well said, Lew!

    On a side note, "Creativity" what a bloody overrated word when it comes to beer!

  4. Thanks for this. I love this so much. The whole boring, lacking creativity thing is the one thing that get's be about It's almost impossible to go through a thread there without coming across the word "mediocre". Unless they're talking about WALEZBRO!

  5. Great article! All points well-stated and authoritative.

    Nicely done.

  6. One old style American Craft Brewers haven't really tried is Mild both Dark Mild and Pale Mild. The ultimate session beer.

  7. Is it not a problem that the US tends to tax beer simply by volume rather than by alcohol content, so "session beers" don't get the fiscal advantage they do in most of Europe?

  8. Don't see it as a problem so much as just a difference.

  9. Been ignoring BA since its inception, thanks for reminding me why.

    -- Supping from a party-keglet of 3.8% pale ale from the local brewpub, made with a bit of spelt & rye for body, and hopped with Citra, not my fav hop. German session ale - amazing times! (15€ / 5L)

    Still, nothing as great as even Dark Star Hophead or Bitter & Twisted, not to mention the legions that have followed the likes of those.

  10. I do love the Bitter and Twisted, Nick. Would love to try the German session ale!

  11. Home run, Lew. Well, maybe an in-the-park home run. You're talking about session beers, after all.

  12. I'm late to this party, but a hearty "Hear, Hear!" to this article.

    BeerAdvocate is useful in many ways, but there is very clearly a high-ABV bent to the whole site. The "Bros" themselves rarely give top ratings to beers that are not strong styles, or at least beers strong _for_ their style. Look up top user-rated beers, and you'll see it's a heck of a lot easier to get a high score with an Imperial Extra Barleywine than a 4.5% perfect Pilsner.

  13. Got no use for Beer Advocate. Their tastes are generally not mine. Thanks Lew!

  14. I found this page while looking for an explanation of what "session" is after enjoying a Victory Hop Session (4.5%) with lunch.

    It's interesting but not surprising to see that Beer Advocate is essentially of the same bent as Wine Advocate: more alcohol, more extraction, more expense, less subtlety. And just as WA's readers brand the other side as "the anti-flavor wine elite", it looks like they're going for a similar thing in the beer world. When the reality is many of us do also enjoy the bigger styles, but would also like to have a glass/pint or two at lunch and still be cogent. Indeed, as much as I love Rochefort 10 and such, two of those would put me over the edge. So for me, the recent availability of "session" beers has been a very welcome addition to the beer fridge.


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