Session Beer Revolution
Are American drinkers finally growing up? Or just jumping aboard the next bandwagon?
In 2006, bigness was in style. It was the height of the extreme beer revolution, and though pale ales, IPAs and other classics remained the backbone of the craft brewing industry, America was burning in the high heat of extreme beer fever. Dogfish Head was just assuming national celebrity status, “imperial” renditions of almost all styles were emerging, the battle to brew the strongest beer was gaining ferocity, and high-alcohol beers aged in booze barrels were becoming the next exciting trend. Internet beer rating forums were expanding, and the favorite brews among many of the most active members were, almost inevitably, the big ones.
So when High & Mighty Beer Co.’s owner Will Shelton named his newly released ale “Beer of the Gods,” he plainly had his tongue in his cheek. For the beer, an American blonde, contained just 4.5 percent alcohol—sort of a brewing spoof on the trends of the time. But at least one person—beer devotee and explorer of styles Max Toste—took Beer of the Gods seriously. Toste was then rounding up an inventory to serve at his soon-to-be Boston beer bar, Deep Ellum, and when he opened doors in early 2007, the first beer that he put on tap was not an imperial chocolate stout, or a sour Belgian-style, or a barleywine aged in brandy barrels—but the modest little blonde named Beer of the Gods.
“Frankly, I was sick of high-alcohol beers,” says Toste, who would soon add dozens more beers to his list. “I didn’t want to serve people something in a thimble and charge $9 for it. I wanted to serve people beer that they could drink 2 pints of and feel good about and not fall off their stool.”
The Multi-Pint Sit-In
Today, many others have joined in what seems to be a collective shift in interest away from extreme brew bigness and toward lesser, lighter styles—and Toste credits Beer of the Gods as the beer that sparked what may be a movement, and the return of the so-called “session beer.” By now, we’ve all heard the talk—the praise and appreciation for low-alcohol but flavorful beers conducive to all-day sipping and unlikely to get a person needlessly drunk. Many advocates of the category point out that session beers were once mainstays in Britain, where the active pub-going lifestyle was built long ago on light beers that allowed long, multi-pint sit-ins. In modern times, many of us drink at home—even while typing reviews into the keyboard—making “session” a challenging concept for many to embrace. The word is even a turnoff to some for its unhealthy implications of steady, daylong drinking. Shelton at High and Mighty says he never labels a beer as “session,” recognizing that many people see it a pejorative term.
But for some brewers, the word “session” is a selling point. Consider Notch Brewing, a Boston brand that has built itself on nothing but low-alcohol beers. To date, “The Notch” consists of three year-rounders and a rotation of seasonals, mostly traditional styles popular in Europe. Founder Chris Lohring, a veteran East Coast brewer who bottled and distributed his first Notch batch in March 2011, says the personal frustration of being unable to find low-alcohol American beers prompted him to brew his own.
“Almost nobody else was brewing the beers that I wanted to drink,” he says.
Lohring went commercial after conducting a few pub-special test batches and concluding that other people were also looking for downsized beers. Later, the roughly 4 percent ABV beers disappeared quickly from Boston-area outlets, like Craft Beer Cellar, home to some 600 craft beers by the bottle and can.
“We started selling (The Notch) the second it came out,” Suzanne Schalow, the shop’s co-owner, says. In the summer of 2011, the Notch pils became one of the shop’s top-five sellers, she says—and in the year since, demand for Lohring’s beers has grown steadily. He notes that in the past 18 months, five other Massachusetts breweries have introduced a session beer.
On the West Coast, too, session beers may be coming into style. Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia, owners of 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, began packing their low-alcohol IPA, the Bitter American, in cans after several years as a draft-only pour at their brewpub. “Our distributors looked askance at us and said, ‘I’m not sure this is a great idea,’” recalls O’Sullivan, the company’s head brewer.
But the canned version of the beer has sold quickly across its multi-state distribution. At City Beer Store, a retail outlet and beer bar just blocks from 21st Amendment, the Bitter American “sold like wildfire,” according to Beth Wathen, who owns the shop with her husband, Craig. Wathen says the beer has seemed to appeal chiefly to IPA fans, many of whom were thrilled to find a hop bomb that didn’t bring with it a double dose of alcohol. Also not far away, in Hayward at The Bistro—a haven for hopheads and home to the wildly popular Double IPA Festival—owner Vic Kralj says the Bitter American was a surprise hit.
“You just can’t drink IPAs pint after pint after pint, and people are catching on to the fact that they can have a flavorful, hoppy beer with less alcohol,” Kralj says.
It’s All in the ABV
Other well-liked American session beers include Vanberg & Dewulf’s Lambrucha beer-culture hybrid, the Lacto-sour Berliner Weisse from Southampton Publick House, Founders All Day IPA, New Glarus’ Apple Ale, Samuel Adams’ Rustic Saison, Drake’s Brewing’s Alpha Session, and Ballast Point’s Wahoo Wheat. There are plenty more—many of them very newly introduced—and though there are many styles, alcohol content is the chief defining characteristic of each session beer. In Britain, where brewers set the standard on session beers long ago, 4 percent ABV is the traditionally regarded cap. American session beer proponents have allowed for a bit more, and the unofficial limit of session advocates is 5 percent—and any beer stronger than that, they say, does not qualify. When the Wall Street Journal ran a session beer article on June 25, 2011, reviewing five beers containing 5 to 5.4 percent ABV, a handful of comments appeared almost immediately, alleging that none of the beers were true session beers. Chris Lohring was among these dissenters. He wrote, “Nice spot on session beer, but under any definition, none of these beers listed are session beers. They are simply regular beers. Session beer’s alcohol is lower than standard. The loosest definition is less than 5 percent, but most subscribe to lower than that.”
For Lew Bryson, too, the numbers matter. A beer writer in Philadelphia, Bryson is perhaps the most outspoken session beer advocate in America and is firm about the upper limits of sessionability. He writes a blog called “The Session Beer Project,” basically a one-man campaign started in 2009 to bring low-alcohol beer aboard the craft wagon. Having assumed the role as a session beer proselytizer, he has laid out several requisites: Foremost, Bryson calls for a cutoff point of 4.5 percent ABV, though he says he won’t split hairs if a session beer measures as high as 5—but that’s the absolute limit. The beer must also be reasonably priced and tasty enough to invite pint-after-pint sessions. Finally, it must be modest—quiet and easy to drink and, frankly, forget about for while.
“You want a beer that facilitates conversation, not dominates it,” explains Bryson, who first detected more than 15 years ago that something in the community of social beer drinking was slipping off-key. It was 1995, and Bryson was drinking aged Lindemans Framboise with several friends—and all the group would talk about was the beer itself.
“Every time we took a sip, it entirely stopped the conversation,” Bryson remembers. “I was like, ‘We could be playing cards or talking about the Phillies. This beer is good, but it’s not life.’”
But William Bostwick, author of Beer Craft and writer of the contested Wall Street Journal article, says, “Life is too short to drink uninteresting beer.” Bostwick says he selected his lineup of session beers for review based more on their uniqueness and charisma than percentage points; among them were Full Sail’s Session Black Lager, which contains 5.4 percent alcohol by volume, and Great Divide’s Samurai, which is brewed with a helping of rice in the kettle and measures 5.1 percent. “Beer has social value,” Bostwick observes. “You want to drink something that you can talk about. It’s something you want to share. When you bring beer to a party, you’re not bringing water. You’re bringing a gift.” It doesn’t need to be a strong beer, Bostwick says, just interesting, and the more interesting it is, the more sessionable. One could even session on barleywine, Bostwick adds, if the glasses are small enough.
Bostwick notes that the commonly adopted 5 percent cutoff for session beer is based in part upon the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of a “standard” drink of beer: 12 ounces of something in the 4-5 percent range. This is an arbitrary limit, believes Bostwick, who doesn’t feel that craft brewers must adhere to a government agency’s definition of beer. “It’s craft beer, not ‘standard’ beer,” he says. Most of all, the social role of craft beer, Bostwick says, is to be colorful, charismatic, and dynamic—whether high or low in alcohol.
At Dogfish Head, founder Sam Calagione says his goal all along as a brewer has been to provide such beers. Though his most famous brews are probably his strongest ones, Calagione points out that a few of his “extreme” beers also qualify as session beers—like the Chicory Stout, the Festina Peche, and the Namaste, each one with 5 percent ABV.
Toste alleges that too many strong beers are overwhelmed by “shitty esters and alcohol,” but he isn’t a quibbler over percentage points; if the beer is good, even if it’s strong, he’ll put it on tap.
“I’m just not interested in categorizing beers by numbers,” Toste says. “Is it good beer or is it not?”
Boredom Breeds Maturity
The strong beer revolution owes itself in some part to RateBeer.com, one of the leading online beer reviewing sites and databases. For about a decade now, RateBeer members, often thrilled by double-digit brews, have cemented their thoughts and tasting notes into the permanence of the Internet—and simultaneously the excitement over huge beers has snowballed. Consumers seem to be increasingly removing the wax-covered caps and caged corks at their computer screens, and today, some RateBeer members have logged more than 20,000 reviews. Strong beers have received particular attention. Of the 50 most highly rated beers on the site, for example, 29 were imperial stouts at a check last year. That count was more recently up to 30. Double IPAs accounted for about a dozen more of the top 50.
Joe Tucker, RateBeer’s director, recognizes that his forum has played a role in fueling the big beer craze—but Tucker thinks that very excitement has, in turn, led to the growing interest in session beers. He says newly enrolled members of RateBeer, often with immature and impressionable palates, tend to rave over the higher-alcohol beers.
“People discover flavor and they gravitate toward these beers with lots of flavor and alcohol,” Tucker explains. “But for some of them, they’re growing bored, and they’re looking to edge out into more flavors and lighter, more subtle beers. Basically, we have a maturation of our beer geeks, which means there’s a big latent market for session beers.”
Bryson recognizes a similar evolution of the craft beer industry, and those who drink craft beer. He credits extreme beers as helping to draw interest to all craft beers—and he now considers the increasing allure of low-alcohol beers to be a sure sign of beer-drinker maturation. He says more and more beers of 4 percent ABV and lower are appearing.
Which could have something to do with money—at least in England, where lawmakers recently enacted a tax break that gives brewers a 50-pence (about a buck) savings per pint of beer containing 2.8 percent ABV or less. The same set of new rules, which took effect last October, meanwhile hiked the tax on beers containing 7.5 percent ABV.
Lohring at Notch Brewing won’t get a tax break, but he has released a 2.8 percent Tafelbier—and at Craft Beer Cellar, it’s selling about as well as any big beer ever has. Schalow, the store’s co-owner, says she is now certain that the session beer craze is not just a trend or a fad, but a legitimate movement, maturing as consumers develop a genuine taste for more subtle beer styles.
“It’s a thing now,” she says. “It’s not just a trend. It’s a fact. People want these beers. People now come into my shop, and they know what they’re looking for. They go straight to the shelf, grab a four-pack of Notch Tafelbier, and say, ‘Great, it’s finally here.’”
And the excitement over beers containing 10, 11, and 12 percent alcohol?
“It’s tapered off,” Schalow says.
It’s All About Conversation
One of the first unofficial rules about session beers is that we aren’t to be talking about session beers—at least not while drinking them. Yet a conversation is happening. A Facebook event held on April 7 billed itself “Session Beer Day” and invited hundreds of beer fans to open their favorite session beers and post public messages extolling the pleasures of less alcohol and great flavor. And a July 15, 2012, Google search of “session beer” turned up 67.2 million results in 0.18 seconds, while the search engine found just 30.7 million results in 0.33 seconds for “extreme beer.”
But nobody seems certain that session beers really are increasing in number or volume. Several writers—including a regular contributor to All About Beer Magazine, Ken Weaver, have analyzed RateBeer.com’s ratings data and calculated that session beer production may actually be decreasing and that the average ABV of American beers is holding steady at 6-7 percent ABV.
“We don’t see a decline in alcohol levels,” Tucker confirms. “ABV seems to be rising—maybe peaking, but it’s not going down.”
Some brewers have even calculated the costs and the benefits of releasing a session beer and chosen not to. Alan Sprints, founder of Hair of the Dog in Oregon, is a fan and brewer of mostly strong beers. Though he makes a few “small” beers in the 3 percent range using the leftover dregs of his well-known bigger beers—like Doggie Claws, Fred and Adam—Sprints only serves them on draft. On the retail shelf, he thinks they would just lose him money. Factoring in packaging and distribution, a low-alcohol beer can wind up nearly the same price as a strong beer, he says. “And the fact is, a lot of consumers calculate alcohol into their choices, and if you have a 10 percent beer for the same price as a 5 percent beer, a lot of people will go for the 10,” Sprints explains.
At Marin Brewing Co., Arne Johnson also believes that many customers weigh their options as they calculate “bang for buck,” more often than not leaning toward the stronger side of the beer list. Johnson has made session beers at his brewpub in Larkspur, just north of San Francisco, but they have sold only moderately well. He says he “would love to make more session beer,” but he doesn’t foresee ever bottling one. Johnson says that Marin Brewing’s clientele seems content to session on beers in the 5-6 percent range. At Lagunitas Brewing Co., in Petaluma, CA, strong beers are the backbone of the company. Founder Tony Magee is frank about the reality of what his customers want, and what he intends to sell them: “For what craft brewers need to charge for what we do, the equation wouldn’t work out, meaning, would you pay nine bucks a six-pack for a light beer?”
Of course, some of us would. At Deep Ellum, in fact, many pints and bottles of super-sessionable light beer go $9 or more—and Toste says the price isn’t stopping anyone.
“I’m not just selling session beer,” he says. “I’m selling the shit out of it.”
Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He writes about travel, science, agriculture and beer.