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Session beer revisited

Enjoying session beer can switch roles
antique German beer poster

Nearly ten years ago I wrote this commentary for the American Homebrewers Association’s Zymurgy magazine. It’s worth another look. Here it is along with a short assessment of the new opportunities available to craft beer drinkers.

[First published in 2005] I love hop-infused India pale ales. I savor the complexity of wood-aged imperial stout. I get happy as I enjoy a wonderfully complex Belgian-style tripel. If you offer me a super double Altbier or German-style Maibock, you’ll see a big grin crawl across my face. There is obviously no end to the adventure and enjoyment of American craft beer for me.

When I recall my best beer experiences in England, you’ll find me reminiscing about Britain’s recent loss of Henley-on Thames’ Brakespear’s Ordinary Bitter and the wonderful pint filled sessions with just Ordinary. It was less than 4% ale that exploded with real beer flavor. In Ireland, I savored and downed many a draft stout, also less than 4% alcohol by volume. In Germany the most comforting and memorable experiences have always been over craft and locally made German-style Helles and Kellerbier, often barely 5% alcohol. In Scotland it was pint after pint of “low-“shilling ale. All these beers were spectacularly fresh and relatively low in alcohol. Furthermore I drank several pints or liters and actually remembered the ambiance, camaraderie, food and conversation. There was always a choice of these great flavorful craft made beers. There was also a lot of up front pride in being able to offer these beers.

In my travels through America I have delightfully indulged in hopped up imperials and huge, fruity and complex strong specialties. I’m often on the move, visiting several breweries on a tour, tasting, sipping, experiencing. Yet when I really want to settle in I’m thinking, I’m thirsty and I seem to find myself with so very few choices.

For me, settling in would be having two or three beers with a meal, conversation, laughter and celebration. Maybe even four beers. Five? Well I use to have five but not so much any longer. My choice turns to full flavored lower alcohol ales and lagers. No my preference has not migrated towards the tasteless cousins of beer called “American light lager.” I’m seeking flavorful session beers like those I have experienced so often in Europe. Ordinary bitter, Helles, mild and draft stout types that have a well-proportioned balance of hops, malt, flavor, character, complexity and yes alcohol.

Yes, I’m getting older. Yes I continue to enjoy the taste of beer. Yes I develop a thirst. Yes I desire to quench myself. Yes I usually would like to have more than one. When I’m offered a homebrew or step up to a bar that is serving fresh craft beer more often than not there are no session ales to choose from. I come to think of it, that even if there is a choice of let’s say a low alcohol English-style bitter, usually it’s not a beer that the brewer necessarily takes great pride in. The pride is reserved for all those big and hugely wonderful ales, lagers and specialties.

What about my thirst? What about the pride of brewing a wonderfully complex 4% ale full of hop and malt personality – without being over the top? These are the kind of beers I remember. Why? Because I drink more pints of them and because I buy more of them. Because I spend time enjoying them. Because I’m able to enjoy food and beverage during the distance of the evening. Serve me a hugely hopped barley wine as a session beer and you may find me nursing it for an hour, thirsting for the session beer that will never arrive.

Am I missing something here? I’m not in the business of selling beer. For sure I recognize that existing customers love the big bold wonderful beers and there’s a need for brewing them. I love them too, on occasion. I wonder if I speak for the beer drinker that isn’t there? I wonder if I speak for the beer drinker that would love to have two or three beers and not feel that one is enough.

Beer for lunch? I’ll be more likely to have one if it weren’t at 6.5 percent alcohol. I might even have two – if it had character and it represented the pride of the brewer.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of in offering these beers. Many beer cultures have been founded on characterful “session beers.”

Maybe I’m getting too old and you can tell me to shut up. Maybe big beers are the in thing and I’m not in touch. If that’s the case, I won’t be offended, though I’ll continue to appreciate the beers like the quintessential ordinary bitter full of earthy Fuggles, Goldings, Cascades and complexly satisfying malt character. Or a countryside small brewery style German-Helles or Kellerbier. I’ve had many a Utah-brewed 3.5% all malt stouts – Many have more character than internationally famous high-octane versions.

My questions at this point are, are homebrewers and craft brewers drifting away from the premise of flavor and diversity in favor of big, bold and strong? Are we abandoning the very roots that provide us with beer culture?

So there I’ve said it. I’ve wanted to write this essay for the last six or seven years. Now I can relax and continue to seek those beers I want to spend some extra time with and money on. Whew, now that I have this off my chest, I think I’ll go savor a barleywine.[end 2005 essay]

Now, it’s late August 2014. There is an emerging trend recognized as “session beers.” It’s hardly unique. It almost seems mainstream, but isn’t yet. Lower alcohol IPAs and other “lower alcohol” brews are beginning to find their way on beer menus. Though I still find myself sometimes ordering a glass of sparkling/soda water alongside my beer. If the only beer options are 6.5% or higher I sometimes get sneaky, mixing soda water with my 7% IPA, diluting it to a more refreshing 3.5 to 4% alcohol level. Not something I boast about, but I do it out of frustration and necessity.

Dare I say even some of the new so-called session beers are pushing themselves up to 6%. These aren’t what session beers are intended to be, though they may legitimately may be lower abv (alcohol by volume) than their original cousins. To me I’m looking for 4.5% or lower. 5% can happen too, but my preference is on the lower side; when I’m in the mood for refreshment with craft style flavor.

Utah’s craft brewers have been at it for decades. By state law, draft beer in Utah must be less than 4% abv (that’s the same as 3.2% alcohol by weight). And they have been making excellent, full flavored versions of most of the popular craft beer styles. Proof that the option exists to make great tasting lower alcohol beer.

An erroneous observation

To the beer drinker it may seem that lower alcohol beer should cost less, after all using less ingredients should lower the cost of brewing. But the fact is that the cost of ingredients is a small fraction of the cost of making beer. There is still the same ongoing costs of employee salaries, storage of materials and products, insurance, licensing fees, regulatory costs, paperwork, red tape, book keeping, repairs, packaging, boxes, caps, new equipment costs (and debt), loan/debt payments and interest, transportation, distribution and retail margins (i.e., profits), utilities, corporate, excise, payroll, sales, warehouse, inventory and other taxes brewers must pay and so many other costs that go into making beer and getting it into your glass. In the USA it doesn’t really matter so much whether the beer is 7% or 4.5%. Relatively speaking the difference for ingredient costs in a 12 ounce bottle, can or a pint of draft are pennies on a serving.

Craft session beer from America’s small and independent craft brewers still retain value that goes beyond just ingredients.