In England they head to the pub for a session. The stammtisch is a German beer hall tradition where regulars gather at the same table each week. In Ireland they crave craic on Saturday night. In America, we meet with friends at happy hour.
A big part of beer’s allure is how it brings together all sorts of people to hang out, talk, shoot a game of pool and cheer on the local team. Beer has a social side: you’re not there just for the beer, but you are there because of the beer.
For all of the talk about high-gravity beers and dry-hopped, triple-hopped and wet-hopped ales, when rounds are being bought over the course of the evening, it is often best to think outside of the big beer box. It’s not about pounding beers. It’s not about finding the highest alcohol content on the beer list. And it goes way beyond trying to one up the other guy with more IBUs. Sure, all of these things may take place from time to time, but this constant search for the extreme is blurring a key component of why most of us started enjoying beer in the first place—the social side.
Let’s be clear. While we are talking about “session beers” we are not imposing some uniform artificial alcohol by volume limit to a beer before allowing it to be admitted to the party. For the Great American Beer Festival a beer entered in the “Session Beer” category must have an ABV of 4.1 percent or less. If you stick to these guidelines, you would have to steer clear of Guinness Stout (4.3%), Red Stripe (4.7%), Samuel Adams Boston Lager (4.9%) and Pilsner Urquell (4.2%)—plus a bunch of other taps that no one would ever label extreme. Even Full Sail Brewing’s Session Lager comes in above the GABF limit at 5.1 percent ABV.
“There really is no defining statement as to exactly what a session beer is,” says Rob Denton, brewer at Snake River Brewing in Jackson, WY, which makes A.K. Sessions, a 4.1 percent ABV English mild. “A session beer is anything that is meant to be consumed in quantity—lower alcohol, usually lightly hopped. It can be an ale or a lager, it just has to be lighter drinking.”
Tone It Down A Notch
As craft beer enthusiasts, we all want flavor, freshness and fidelity. We want beer that tastes good, is served properly and lives up to some standards, including being faithful to a style. When we order a Baltic porter, we want a full-flavored, high-octane beer. But as a beer community we tend to get too caught up in the pursuit of doubles, triples, quadruples and imperials. There is a quieter path with plenty of great beers that won’t bring your palate or your brain cells to their knees. These are the brews that don’t always get the attention they deserve in beer magazines or blogs, but they give the beer fan a safe, flavorful haven during an evening at the bar.
There seems to be that reverb around doubles and imperials that quality is somehow attached to being extreme. But there is good beer in all styles, a beer for every purpose,” says Jamie Emmerson, executive brewmaster at Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, OR. “The truth is it is harder to brew a really good small beer. There is less there to hide any defects.”
Emmerson says the idea for the Session brand emerged after a group of painters working on a project at his house turned down some Full Sail Amber and Full Sail Pale Ale because they considered them middle-of-the-road beers, “too heavy and too bitter.”
We started thinking: Could you make a beer to intrigue these people and still make a quality beer? Could we bring these people into the craft beer fold?” Emmerson says. Session Lager, an all-malt brew with 20 IBUs and 5.1 percent alcohol by volume was the result. “We made a beer that is not diluted with corn and rice.”
What Full Sail has done with Session Lager has been going on for centuries in places like Cologne, Germany, where the typical kölsch is around 4.8 percent ABV, and London, where a good pint of bitter is often at or below 4 percent.
Keep The Conversation Going
Lew Bryson, a drinks journalist and the author of several state beer guidebooks, has been a proponent of session beers for several years. He recalls a conversation a couple of years back with Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing about the inordinate attention given to high-octane beers. “He said ‘It’s your fault,’” Bryson recalls. Covaleski was making the point that beer writers, bloggers and magazines were fixating on big beers. Covaleski’s charge is truer today. Need proof? Just look at the amount of ink given to the battle between BrewDog of Scotland and Schorschbräau of Germany to claim bragging rights for the world’s strongest beer. At 41 percent alcohol by volume, BrewDog’s Sink the Bismarck reclaimed the title in February and makes a beer like the 27 percent ABV Samuel Adams Utopias almost appear sessionable.
It’s important to remember that in the early days lagers and light beers were the enemy of the craft beer movement,” Bryson says. “We looked to odd models for our revolution. Brewers focused on hops, not malt or yeast. Lagers were basically overlooked.” He notes that while beer geeks are chasing higher alcohol levels “the vast majority of beers sold in the world are under 5 percent.”
A good session beer is good enough to drink multiple pints and not interrupt the conversation by causing you to say ‘Wow, you’ve got to taste this one.’ It keeps the conversation going,” Bryson says. He feels what has transpired with big beers is akin to hot sauce fanatics who “can drink Tabasco and not blink an eye because they are eating habaneros all the time.”
Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewing in California, calls himself “a little old school” for having attended the brewing program at Siebel Institute where “drinkability is pounded into your head.”
Firestone Walker was started with the idea to just make sessionable ales,” Brynildson says. “We’ve given into the big beer urge a bit, but session beers keep the lights on at the brewery.” The first beer made at the brewery was the 5 percent ABV Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale, created using the patented Firestone Union oak barrel brewing system. The ale still accounts for 50 percent of the company’s sales.
I have a theory that kind of follows the wine industry and foodie trends. When I was younger I went for explosive, alternative flavors. I liked them because they were so different,” Brynildson says. “After a while I started to tune my palate and pick out what was good and what had a defect. I think the nouveau beer aficionado will follow that trend and eventually come back to basics. There’s always going to be a place for extreme beers so that brewers can exercise creativity. But with the focus on quality, more session beers will emerge.”
“We’re kind of pigeonholed a bit as making extreme beers, but we make a lot of great session beers,” says Adam Avery, whose brewery turns out Ellie’s Brown Ale, Karma Ale and White Rascal Belgian-Style Wheat Ale among its sessionable offerings. “We think the next trend might be extreme small beers—low in alcohol, but tons of flavor. If there was a non-alcoholic IPA that tasted good, I’d drink it all day long.”
Tim Ohst, brewery operations manager with Sly Fox Brewing located near Philadelphia, PA, says both brewers and beer bars have been caught up in one upping each other with “the latest, the greatest and the most extreme.”
The conviviality of beer is being lost,” says Ohst. “Sometimes it’s a great beer destination, but the selection is really limited when it comes to finding a beer for an extended session.” Sly Fox makes the 4.9 percent ABV Pikeland Pils that is session-worthy and has earned gold at the GABF.
I appreciate big beers, but it is certainly not something you can have more than a couple of. Craft brewers have to think of this fact,” Ohst says.
Brynildson notes that brewers must show consumers they can “make sessionable beers with unique characteristics.” He points to Firestone Walker’s Lil Opal, a 3.5 percent ABV ale that spends a year in oak barrels.
It’s a great beer, but when they see 3.5 percent on the label some critics have a hard time taking it seriously,” Brynildson says. In the end, economics argue in favor of more craft brewers focusing on lower alcohol beers.
Look At Me
Extreme beer captures quite a bit of attention, but only a few breweries can make a living selling barrel-aged beer,” remarks Full Sail’s Emmerson. “I like barley wine and I might have one. But if you’re out and want to have a couple of beers, you can’t drink the bigger beers without being over the limit.”
Brynildson laments the fact that most California beer bars heavy up and extreme brews and offer a limited number or, in some cases, no session beers. “The atmosphere in Cologne is a great example. So is a place like Augustinerkeller or a classic English pub. The beer culture in those places has retained the idea that drinking beer is a social activity,” Brynildson says. “We should be able to sit and enjoy the company of others and keep the beers coming—and still be able to walk straight.”
Rick Lyke is a native of upstate New York who has been writing about beer since 1980. He contributed to the recently released book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die.