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.