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.”