Friday, May 25, 2012

Session Hopping

Reading the ever interesting Boak and Bailey yesterday, I was intrigued by a comment about St Austell's Proper Job as failing "as a session beer because it is too intensely hoppy". This got me wondering whether there exists an upper limit on "hoppiness" when it comes to session beers.

Clearly the hipster lupulin loonies in the crowd will immediately shout that such a thing is impossible before going back to taking self portraits with their iPhone camera in an attempt to recreate Blue Steel. To me, as someone who actively likes drinking beer (I am convinced there is a difference between being a beer geek and actively enjoying drinking good beer, though I am yet to thrash that out in my head) the idea that there is an upper limit to the "hoppiness" of session beers seems self-evident.

A couple of the criteria for a session beer, as proposed by Lew Bryson, are that a beer be:
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
Balance and flavour then are key identifiers of a session beer. If we accept Lew's proposed ABV limit of 4.5% that means a beer with a starting gravity of 12° Plato, or less. Whilst acknowledging that different yeast strains have differing attenuation properties, I think 12° is a perfectly acceptable ceiling for gravity in session beers. When I think about 12° beers, my mind automatically ambles over to the many dark, perhaps dingy, drinking dens in Prague that sell Pilsner Urquell. Brewed at about 12°, with an ABV of 4.4% and 40 IBUs, Pilsner Urquell is a dream of a session beer.


Perhaps that then is the ball park upper limit of hoppiness for session beers, somewhere in the 35-40 IBU range? I realise that IBUs tell us nothing about the flavour and aroma of a beer, but as a general guideline, I think 40 is a good place to stop with the hops, so that the important part of beer is not impeded, the drinking of it with mates.

BTW - if you haven't read Boak and Bailey's blog you really should, it is an excellent read.

The picture above was taken by my good friend Mark Stewart of Black Gecko Photography

12 comments:

  1. You know what? I've never thought about that, but you are right!

    I'd put the figure at 35IBU, though....

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  2. Proper Job isn't THAT hoppy. It is decently hopped and makes a fine session beer. It might be more hoppy than the other examples and doesn't affect the overall premise.

    Just saying.

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  3. Tandleman -- we find it mouth-stripping and numbing after about three pints -- it's no hop monster, but just a bit too much for a good long sesh, at least in our view. But we certainly wouldn't want them to make it less hoppy!

    Al -- couldn't put an IBU figure on it but a session beer probably needs to be without 'edges' -- *almost* bland, but with hidden depths to discover.

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  4. I'm afraid it's not that "self-evident" at all. Session beer is simply that: a beer that isn't strong enough to preclude the casual drinker from enjoying a few pints of it. Hoppiness doesn't come into it. Anyway, as TM has pointed out, Proper Job isn't THAT hoppy and certainly no hopbomb by contemporary standards.

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    1. I'd have to side with Tyson. Session beer in my mind is mostly about the ABV. I don't disagree with flavour and balance at all, I think they are necessary. Perhaps its because I'm so used to US IPAs and can tolerate (and enjoy) a pretty high level of hoppiness. I would also agree with the other statement that bitterness level does matter; to me, that's just factors in under the balance heading. Nothing should be 'extreme' about the beer especially the ABV.

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  5. Can't vote in your poll, as the proper minimum number of pints in a "session" is four, which is not a choice given. And the point about a session beer is that if you notice anything at all about it before the fourth pint, except how good it is and how much you want another one, then it isn't a session beer. So if you notice it's particularly hoppy/malty/dry/sweet/weak/strong/aromatic/citrussy, it's already failed as a session beer.

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  6. For me it's more that the beer is of a 'sessionable' strength as well as being balanced. I don't mind at all if it's pretty hoppy as long as ABV-wise it's not a monster, and you can have a few over an evening, and still be compos mentis. I guess I'd want the flavour to be interesting enough that I want to go back for a second or third pint - hence being happy enough if it's hoppy. My three favourite session beers recently (as in, if they're on and they're in good nick, I'll happily extend my pub visit into a 'session') would be:
    - Fyne Ales Jarl (3.8%) - Citra-hopped so may be too much for some, but I find it palate-cleansing, refreshing, and moresome
    - Oakham Citra (4.2%) - slightly higher ABV than I'd like for a session beer, but when it's on form and on somewhere delightful like The Bartons, a session is inevitable!
    - Bathams Bitter (4.3%) - another one that you can enjoy pint after pint when it's in perfect condition, not overpowering and a good backdrop to conversation and other pub activities

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    1. I second the sessionability of Jarl. Such a fantastic beer that is quite hoppy (think grapefruit juice on steroids). I've had a few sessions with this beer and it certainly has the "more-ish" factor for me. A few other notably hoppy session ales that I've come across are Ca l’Arenys - Cervezas Guineu Guineu Riner(2.5%) and Lawson's Finest Especiale (3.5%). Very hoppy and imminently drinkable.

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  7. A good session beer should be like acoustic blues. Won't distract you if you don't want to listen, won't offend anyone, but if you are willing to pay a bit of attention, it'll never bore you....

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  8. I think we are mixing two concepts here: Hoppiness and Bitterness. I think the upper limit of Hoppiness is quite high. But high bitterness certainly can limit the amount of "sessionability" a beer has. If we're talking about hoppiness, there's no reason to bring up IBUs.

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  9. Mind, I remember a session on the late lamented Hartleys in the Golden Rule in Ambleside and I never noticed how hoppy THAT was until I woke the next day with a mouth as puckered as a duck's rissole.

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  10. I am tired of hoppy in-your-face-beers.All is there, easy to taste and easy to find without really trying. On the other hand a perfect pilsner or helles is with hidden depths waiting for you to discover them.If you are ready.If you are not, you will find them blunt.

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