Session Beers: Drink More, Drink Better!
“For [beer] possesses the essential quality of gulpability. Beer is more gulpable than any other beverage and consequently it ministers to the desire to drink deeply. When one is really thirsty the nibbling, quibbling, sniffing, squinting technique of the wine connoisseur becomes merely idiotic. Then is the moment of the pint tankard of bitter.”–Anonymous, 1934
Talk with beer aficionados, or read what they say on beer rating websites or the thicket of beer blogs, and you will discover that they often want beers to be bigger. “If it was bigger” is a common comment, or a plaintive “I wish it were bigger.” Yet you have to wonder just how big they want it, after reading about the “drinkability” of 8 percent or 10 percent beers. Sure, they may have a refreshing flavor, but after two or three…or four, how can you tell from down there on the floor?
I can remember precisely the first time I wished a beer was smaller. It was the day before Easter, 1997, and I was at a draft barleywine event in Philadelphia where the prize beer was a cask-conditioned Young’s Old Nick. As I sipped the 7 percent ABV beer, reveling in the low carbonation and the layers of malt and apricot esters, I idly wished that it was about 3.2 percent; I could have drunk it all afternoon. As it was, I stopped at one sample; I had to drive home, and I wanted to remember what my friends in the room were saying (if only to mock them later…which I have).
Drinking all afternoon is part of the idea behind session beers, a loosely-defined concept that transcends style or brewery considerations. Session beers are beers for session drinking, long enjoyable hours spent with friends in conversation, perhaps while playing cards or shooting pool. It is most often thought of as an English notion, and the milds and bitters that are cask-conditioned favorites there are the most commonly referenced session beers.
Pinning it Down
Trying to fine down that “loosely-defined concept” would be a good topic, itself, for an afternoon session. Is it the low alcohol, an ABV number below which a beer is a session beer? Is it the style, restricted to the milds and bitters that the English classically call session beers? Or is it something more subjective, maybe less concrete?
American brewers and beer drinkers generally pin “session beer” to “low alcohol.” Typically, we try to put a number to it: blame homebrew judging or just the science and engineering types that tend to be brewers.
What’s the number? That’s open to the individual. BeerAdvocate has a list of members’ top-rated session beers, compiled from all the beers on the site that are 5.5 percent or lower. I used the same 5.5 percent number in the original definition of the Session Beer Project, a series of posts I did on my blog to raise awareness of session beer (with some success; see sidebar). But 5.5 percent is well on the high side for ‘sessioning’ if you want to stay clear-headed; I’ve since revised my definition downward to about 4.5 percent and under.
Scott Smith, the owner (brewer, salesman, driver, janitor…) at East End Brewing in Pittsburgh, works by the numbers on a series of beers he calls Session Ales. “I tend to primarily define it by alcohol content,” he said. “I work in a 3.5 to 4.5 percent range. But some of my Session Ales have been sub-3.5 percent, one was under 3 percent. You can say it’s mild in flavor, but that doesn’t follow. The sourdough version of the kvass went insanely sour—in a good way! It was off the scale.” I didn’t get any of that, but Smith’s Lichtenhainer—the under 3 percent beer, he mentioned, a puckeringly tart and smoky sour-mash wheat beer—certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of flavor.
Shut Up and Have Another
Still, while those numbers are solidly session-strength, beers that are not mild in flavor don’t cut it for most British beer drinkers, who have a century of experience with session beer. I talked to Martyn Cornell, who literally wrote the book on British beer styles (Amber, Gold and Black: The Story of Britain’s Great Beers , available as an e-book at www.thecornerpub.co.uk), about what makes a session beer. He doesn’t think its numbers.
“Strength doesn’t, I think, have that much to do with it,” Cornell said firmly. “What makes a good session beer is a combination of restraint, satisfaction and ‘moreishness.’ Just like the ideal companions on a good evening down the pub, a good session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying and pleasurable. And yet, though each glass satisfies, like each story in the night’s long craic, the good session beer will still leave you wishing for one more pint, to carry on the pleasure.”
An English brewer friend once put it a bit more succinctly. “A session beer,” he said, “is one you can drink all night with your mates—eight or nine pints—then get a curry, and still walk home without a problem.”
Maybe that’s where Bob Hanenberg, the owner of Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, ON, got his idea for a brewery dedicated to “full flavored beers with alcohol contents less than 5 percent for today’s population concerned about over indulgence.” That’s actually from the brewery mission statement, right at their website (www.grandriverbrewing.com).
Ask Hanenberg what a session beer is, and he falls back on the “all night” definition. “I don’t know an exact description,” he said. “Brits say it’s a beer you can drink in the pub all night, shoot the shit with your buddies all night, shoot darts and then walk home. Our Mill Race Mild is a perfect session beer.” It’s been a successful idea for Hanenberg. The brewery’s only 18 months old, but it’s been steadily growing.
Chicken, Egg, Session Beer
But Grand River is tiny, singular and not having a huge effect on the beer-drinking public outside of Cambridge. How do you get more people to drink session beer so a brewery can do a good business making a lot of it, when there aren’t session beers for people to drink?
That’s what happened when Dave Pollack opened his new bar in Brooklyn, The Diamond, intending that it would be a session beer bar. He wound up expanding his definition of session beer to 5.5 percent and under. “Truthfully, I think the cut-off should be at 4 percent anyways,” he said, “as is probably more or less the case in the UK. But there is so little availability of these types of beers in the U.S. I think our ‘session’ list would be very short!
“One pitfall of using alcoholic strength is that you can end up with a beer that is below the cut-off,” he added, “but that is difficult to session because of odd flavors. We may have some gueuze on our session list because it is around 5.5 percent but personally, I don’t have the palate to drink these beers all night. So we have to talk to customers and help explain the concept.”
The thing is, many people already understand the concept but don’t know it. There’s a common session beer available at many craft beer bars, and at almost all Irish bars. Guinness Stout weighs in at a quite sessionable 4.2 percent, and despite the protests of many light beer drinkers that it fills them up, it’s easily drinkable in mass quantities. So there are many people who do have experience with the idea of a session beer, they’ve just never heard it said.
That’s been Tom Baker’s experience. Baker gained some celebrity with his one-man Heavyweight Brewing (Ocean Township, NJ), turning out big, often eccentric beers. But he shut down Heavyweight and recently opened a brewpub in Philadelphia: Earth, Bread + Brewery. He has found that his neighborhood regulars are enjoying session beers—unless he uses that term.
“The name ‘session beer’ bothers me a bit,” Baker said. “It describes it, but when I bring it up, people give me a squirrely look. Session beer’s not really a style, you can make what you want, darker, hoppier, it’s flexible. It’s pretty cool making lower-grav beers, and the lower the ABV is, the quicker the beers turn.” Baker had originally planned on one dedicated session beer tap, but now he’s running two and sometimes three session beers on his four house taps, and people are drinking them.
It might be session time. Don Feinberg, long-time importer of Belgian beer (he’s the owner of Vanberg & DeWulf importers), was recently quoted in a New York Times story about session beer. “A bunch of guys talk in the market,” said Feinberg. “We’ve all been saying the same thing for about 18 months now, which is, enough of the high octane.”
Dave Pollack sees the more experienced craft beer drinkers following the wine path to subtlety. “I recalled that the learning curve in the U.S. wine world was that people would start out enjoying these big fruit bombs from California and Australia,” he said, “and slowly transition to more subtle styles such as Burgundy. So I see [session beers] as a big part of the future in craft beer.”
If Baker has caught a trend, he’s happy with it. “We rode that big beer wave for a while [at Heavyweight],” he said. “I got tired of making stupid big beers all the time. It’s easier to make big beers; in terms of balance, there’s a lot going on. When you make a mild, just a little too much hop is going to make the beer not good. Brewing session beers is a lot more challenging and interesting to me.”
Cornell agreed on that point. “Brewers will tell you that designing a beer to have ‘sessionability’ is one of the most difficult problems they can set themselves,” he said, then laughed and pointed out that with a goal of producing a sessionable beer, the usual sipping samples are unlikely to reveal a winner.
“The only way to find out which new beers have it,” he said, “is to set a table up with a variety of free beers and ask the public to help themselves. The beer that is drunk the most will be the most sessionable.” Any volunteers?
It works for the brewer, too. Most of them would rather have a customer drink four 3.5 percents pints at $4—and be relatively sober—than a customer who drinks two 8.5 percent pints at $6, and has maybe taken on a bit too much. “It makes good business sense for a brewpub owner to have beer like this,” said Baker. It’s not really that crazy an idea. Would you rather have four good pints over two hours, or two of beer that demands your attention?
“Session beer has flavor you don’t have to think about,” said Baker. “You taste it, think, ‘Hey, this is good,’ and then you just drink it. It’s not a big discovery that people just want to drink beer.”
Session beer: the next big thing, that’s not so big at all.
Lew Bryson has been writing full-time about beer and spirits since 1995. His fourth brewery guidebook is New Jersey Breweries , published by Stackpole Books.