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.’”