Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Truth of Session Culture Is Out There

There is a bar not more than 7 minutes from my flat, well, a grill that has a draft beer selection, but still, it is well within walking distance. I have to confess though that I have never gone to said bar and grill, even though I have driven by it many a time on the way to Beer Run or Court Square Tavern, or just going to the same strip mall to get Chinese take away. All I know about this bar is the name, The Lazy Parrot, it's reputation and the fact that it is opening a barbecue area in the near future. I guess they must be doing something right then.

I was mulling this over the other day when in the middle of a twitterlogue about session beer - you know the kind of thing, what is the appropriate abv level for session beer in the USA (for the record, I agree with Lew Bryson that 4.5% is acceptable, but then I am a cultural traitor extraordinaire). Suddenly it hit me, taking Lew's definition of session beer, that the USA has a vibrant, thriving session beer culture, it's just that the self-appointed arbiters of taste chose to ignore it because it doesn't fit with their narrative.

More than 50% of beer sold in the US is "light lager", along the lines of Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light, all three of which have an abv of 4.2%, just 0.2% shy of Pilsner Urquell's 4.4% but streets away in terms of bitterness. Clearly then, there is a market for session beer, there are drinkers out there who want a low alcohol brew which they can enjoy several of in the pub before heading home.

This is not to suggest that I am about to start drinking mass produced light lager on a regular basis, but it does point to a fact which seems to get lost in all the macho posturing of much of the craft beer world - people like to drink beer, in pubs, with friends over a period of time. I would suggest however that if craft beer is to truly worry the big boys, then perhaps with the ever growing awareness and acceptance of craft beer, it is time to take the fight to their doorstep. Sam Adams Light is an interesting step in that direction and at 4.1% abv is ideally set to challenge the more established light lager brands (and in my opinion a darned sight tastier and I will be doing my utmost to convert my father-in-law to it). By the way, I am not convinced that the big boys are worried, after all everyone has their price and the big boys have the money to buy independent breweries.

This also got me thinking about how easily we generalise, assuming that our experiences and preferences are the norm and can thus be extrapolated out to all of the society within which we live. Coming back to the comment about there being no market for low strength beer in America, the figures clearly show otherwise. I have more time for a brewery that says something along the lines of "that's not the market we are targetting", but to claim the absence of a market at all is to misunderstand the reality of the market as a whole.

Call it what you will, I am happy with the term session beer for sub 4.5% beers, the fact remains that demand is out there for lower than average strength beers, which people want to sit in the pub and drink with their friends over a longer period of time. Clearly the likes of Samuel Adams and Devils Backbone are listening, and responding with tasty beers that are low in alcohol and insanely drinkable (if you are in the area get down to Devils Backbone and try the Ale of Fergus while it lasts), here's hoping for more to catch on.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting take on it.

    However, I wonder if it is a session culture or just a culture that Americans enjoy drinks with subtle/ no off-putting flavors? Obviously most beer nerds will jump down the throat of Bud, but there is something impressive with a beer that always tastes exactly the same. I think that is part our culture just as much as Joe American wanting a McDonalds cheeseburger. They both taste the same no matter where and have no "offensive" flavors. So I see the Bud Light drinker not so much loving Bud Light, but more of wanting to not think about what they're drinking, getting a little buzz, and enjoying time with their friends at a bar.

    So I guess what I am getting at: is that really session culture?

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking.

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  2. I'm glad someone else realizes that there is already a whole lot of session beer being sold in the US. Even if it is, the least common denominator tasteless light beer.

    Hopefully more people will realize that low alcohol beers don't have to be tasteless.

    If you're into brewing session beers check out my blog (http://sessionbeerbrewing.blogspot.com/)

    Cheers!

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  3. Well-put, and...why isn't that more obvious to people? Thanks for the support!

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  4. I'm not sure I entirely see the relevance of this point. For one, I'm not sure anyone is debating that somewhere around 50-75% of the beer sold in the US is "session beer" by the numbers (higher if we go up to Bud's 5%). The question at the heart of this whole debate (to the extent there really even is one, frankly it seems to be building controversy for its own sake), is whether session beer is about more than a number. If it is, then we're actually talking about "flavorful session beer." And if so, the points with regards to the ABV's of macros and the like are pretty much irrelevant. The song remains the same for craft session beer producers: selling to a niche market (people who care about flavor), or better yet, a niche of a niche (people who care about both flavor and ABV). Let's not conflate the two with the products of the big brewers. As with craft beer, it's apples and oranges.

    Best,

    Andy Crouch

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  5. I agree (mostly) with Andy that "the points with regards to the ABV's of macros and the like are pretty much irrelevant" since they're so far away from craft beers.

    I don't however believe that "people who care about both flavor and ABV" are a niche within a niche because you're assuming that people want flavorless beer.

    Maybe I'm being optimistic but I blame the popularity of flavorless lagers on our ability to be persuaded by big money (marketing, lobbying, etc.) and being sheep (for lack of a better term).

    Overall though, I think the blogger is pointing out that there is a history of session beers in the US even if they're not traditionally thought that way.

    I also feel the craft session beer movement is a response (reactionary?) to the imperial/double/etc. heavy beers of the craft boom (which was a reaction to the flavorless mass marketed lagers).

    Maybe Andy's right and I'm just being optimistic but in my experience flavorful lower alcohol beers are less intimidating to the non craft beer drinker and may therefore lead to better beer which is everyone's goal.

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  6. Most beer sold in Ireland and the UK is session beer. Even the micro breweries keep the ABV to a lower level with some obvious exceptions.

    It mainly has to do with duty. The UK recently changed the duty rates and have discounted the duty on anything 2.8% or less. Enter Guinness mid strength at 2.8% which is quite flavoursome and at 2.8% is a phenomenal session beer. I would rather an ordinary Guinness of course but if I was going to be going on a session I might switch and try and stay somewhat sober.

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  7. R.I.P. Big L,

    Nothing wrong with being optimistic!

    I think you are right though that craft session beer is a reaction to the extremist nonsense that seems to be de rigueur for the more self consciously trendy breweries and beer geeks.

    However, to dismiss the millions of BMC Light drinkers as knowing no better or being the dupes of big business is, in my opinion, somewhat condescending. I am yet to meet a BMC Light drinker who has refused to try a craft beer, though I know many a craft beer drinker who derides BMC without ever trying their products.

    Craft session beer can of course be a gateway into the wider world of craft beer, however I think to look at it that way is equally unhelpful as craft session becomes a mere pathway to "full" craft appreciation, rather than a possible end its own right.

    From what I hear in the pubs I go to (bad habit listening to other people's conversations), there are plenty of drinkers out there looking for a more flavourful session beer to drink instead of BMC, which is one of the reasons why I think Sam Adams Light will steal a march on the craft brewers who are convinced that the market wants more hop bombs because that is what they want to brew.

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  8. This is basically what I've been trying to say the past few days.

    I do think the point about light beer is relevant. It may be hugely relevant, if we assume that less alcohol is a major reason why people tend to gravitate toward light lager.

    It should be relevant to craft beer as well. For one, as you also point out, it could be an avenue for craft brewers attracting more mainstream drinkers. And that may be the most salient point, because I suspect Andy is right about us sessionistas being a niche within a niche.

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  9. In all truth I don't really think it has anything to do with the markets reluctance of buying them specifically. I think it has two do with two, IMO, equally large problems.

    1) The training of most brewers never involves the difficult task of making a delicious low gravity beer. Not just making them but understanding that not all ingredients are equal. US 2-row is not the same as UK 2-row. The low gravity beers 100% suffer

    2) maybe even more important is the cost. Not the cost to brew them. My new brewery will be making one and they are very cheap to make. I'm talking cost to the customer. The US is one of the only places I've seen 'flat costs' for kegs to breweries and pints to customers. Eg they'll pay nearly the same for a IPA as a mild. Even worse are the pubs that buy a mild for half the cost of an IPA and still charge $6 a pint for the mild. IPA or mild for $6...its a no brainer for most.

    I suggested that people should not pay over $3 a pint for a beer thats 3% and was piledrived by bar owners saying that Im stupid to tell them what to charge and, more frustratingly, a guy drinking my $3 a pint beer is taking up a seat of someone that will pay $6. They'd have to sell twice as much.

    Lew, I've loved this project for a long time and we'll definitely be supporting once we get rolling. Whats your take? Craft stuff, not the 'main stream'.

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