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.”