Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Pedant's Dilemma

I have been drinking quite a bit of a certain beer style of late. No, not mild ale, though I have enjoyed a fair few of those so far this month, especially the Three Notch'd 'Method to Your Madness'. Nor is it lagers, though the most recent iteration of Devils Backbone Morana is a delight to savour, and South Street's Back-to-Bavaria dangerously drinkable. Nope, I have been drinking a lot of a beer style that really brings out the pedantic purist in me. Session IPA.


My current favourite is Lickinghole Creek's wonderful 'Til Sunset, 4.7%, moreishly hoppy, and a beer I would happily drink all summer if need be. Then there is Founder's All Day IPA, a similar story, and also South Street's Conspicuous Consumption. It's as though American craft brewers suddenly realised that hoppy beers need not also be imperialised to shit and that people actually like a drink rather than just a collection of tastings (cynical side note, I wish they'd also learn to do the basics of proper cask conditioning before fucking around with nonsense ingredients and chucking them in a firkin).

What then draws out the pedant in me? The style name itself really (another side note, how come 'session IPA' got a style of its own on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate so soon after being invented, but the 19th century Bohemian tmavé tradition was lumped with Dunkel and Schwarzbier until recently?). What the hell does 'session IPA' even mean?

Clearly most of these beers fail to meet the definition of a 'session beer' being stronger than 4.5% abv, and 'IPA'? Does that even have any meaning at all anymore as it has been bastardised and had any meaning beaten the shit out of it? Then there is the question of how a 'session IPA' really differs all that much from a standard American Pale Ale?


But there is, I think, a solution to my ire, and I am sure I am pissing into the wind with this, but here goes anyway. 'Session IPA' is, in reality an Americanised version of the great English classic, the Extra Special Bitter. Look at the style guideline numbers for ESB:
  • ABV: 4.8-5.8%
  • IBU: 30-45
  • Colour: 8-14 (deep gold to deep amber)
Look familiar?

And the GABF description?
ESBs are amber to deep copper colored. Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures. Fruity-ester aroma is acceptable. Hop aroma is medium to medium-high. The residual malt and defining sweetness of this richly flavored, full-bodied bitter is medium to medium-high. Hop flavor is medium to medium-high. Hop bitterness is medium to medium-high....The overall impression is refreshing and thirst quenching. Fruity-ester and very low diacetyl flavors are acceptable, but should be minimized in this form of bitter.

It's almost that as though the IPA driven craft beer world is taking another leaf from the Anheuser-Busch playbook, except instead of the word 'light' they are using the word 'session' (the other leaf being opening multiple breweries to deliver fresh beer to different locales - nothing new in that, the big boys did for the very same reasons decades ago).

What would be wrong with calling them American Special Bitters?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Session #99 - Roundup

Well, that was the Session that was, and this is the round up that is. The theme for Session #99 was on localising mild, and we got an interesting array of responses.

Over in Ireland, The Beer Nut got 'historically pedantic' and pointed out that most modern beer would be considered 'mild' due to the focus on freshness. Staying in Ireland, The Drunken Destrier suggests than making an 'Irish' mild would largely be an exercise in dropping the booze on an Irish Red Ale while asking the question 'do we want or need a 3-4% ABV red/brown ale with little hop character and low gravity?' Meanwhile, my good friend Reuben of The Tale of the Ale, aka 'johnny come lately' on account of his post being a week late, suggested the possibility of going native with an Irish mild by using 'bog fauna like heather and bog myrtle', an idea I have to admit I like, being a fan of Williams Brothers and their collection of historical ales.

Coming back to this side of the Pond, Sean Inman of Beer Search Party wondered how to create a mild that would appeal to a 'Brit living in L.A.' as an homage to both the homeland and the locale. Fellow VA blogger, American Mild Month co-conspirator, and all round good top bloke, Tom Cizauskas took to Yours For Good Fermentables to discuss 'The Audacity of Mild'. Jon at The Brew Site suggested a pumpkin mild for the US or a manioc mild in Brazil, before telling us about a beer called Murican Mild. Stan Hieronymous points out that beer can also be localised when it is 'part of the local fabric'.

Up in Canada, Alan, of A Good Beer Blog, took the opportunity to compare the situation for mild drinkers today with that of the last time mild featured as a topic for the Session. In the southern reaches of the Americas, Bolivian homebrewer The Brewolero engaged in an 'imagination exercise' for localising mild to the ingredients available in East Asia, in particular Cambodia and Vietnam.

Heading over to mainland Europe, Joan Villar-i-Martí of Birraire tells us that mild is not a popular style among his fellow Catalans. Skipping up to Berlin, Joe Stange wants to 'abstract the mild' so that it can fit in his sitz im leben, wherever his leben is sitzing at that time.

And there we have it. Thanks to everyone that took part! If I missed your post in the roundup, let me know and I'll rectify that as soon as possible. Cheers people!!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Session 99 - Homebrew American Mild


This month's Session is hosted by, well, me! My theme for this month is around 'localising mild', tying in with the American Mild Month project that I started and that kicks off today, with 46 breweries around the US committed to having mild available for May.

I work in the software industry and localisation is something of a common theme for companies selling their software to different countries and cultures, and it was sat in a meeting one day that I realised that beer has a long history of localisation. For example, in the wake of Josef Groll creating Pilsner Urquell brewers across the world saw there was a market for pale lagers in the Pilsner vein, and so they took to trying to reproduce the original in their own context. Out of the original Pilsner came the German Pils, American Pilsners, and arguably even beer styles like Helles, Dortmunder Export, and modern light lagers, all of them variations on a theme that made the best of local ingredients to create something akin to the original. Thus pilsner was localised, the same could be said of IPA in the modern era as well.


In my own homebrewing I like to make localised versions of the British beer styles I grew up on and still enjoy to this day, such as best bitter, Session 42 for example is a best bitter made with entirely US ingredients, and most especially of late with dark milds. Last year I dipped my toe into a localised dark mild with a beer whose malt bill was American 2 row, Victory, Chocolate, and Black malt, the hops were Chinook, Northern Brewer, and Cascade, and which weighed in at only 4% abv. I probably overdid the hops a fair bit because it lacked the balance I was looking for.

This weekend I am planning to brew an American Mild, as I am now calling them, to conform to the guidelines laid out in the American Mild Month post 'An American Mild?'. The beer is tentatively called 'Mild Mannered Merican' and is as follows:
  • 66% US 2 Row Pale malt
  • 13% Victory malt
  • 13% Caramel 120
  • 6% Flaked barley
  • 10 IBU Calypso hops for 60 minutes
  • 5 IBU Calypso hops for 15 minutes
  • Safale US-05 yeast
According to my brewing software that should give me a 4.5% abv beer that is a rich copper bordering on red colour, and veers to the sweeter end of the spectrum, though I find using US malts also makes the beer a bit drier and crisper, so it shouldn't be cloying. I like Calypso hops for the tropical fruit flavour rather than the grapefruit thing of Cascade and Amarillo, as well as a trace of strawberry in the background. The clean nature of American ale yeast will hopefully let the balance of malt and hop really take centre stage to make it eminently drinkable.

Mild is in many ways in a similar situation today as porter was back in the 70s, neglected, almost forgotten, and ripe with brewing opportunities. With more and more beer drinkers wanting session beers, perhaps its time has come once more and in localising mild to the ingredients and tastes of a new audience, there will be a renaissance of this wonderful beer style.