Thursday, January 28, 2016

More Than Strength

Yesterday Lew Bryson announced that April 7th would be 'Session Beer Day' (quite why all these days have to be on Thursdays is beyond me, but that's by the by), and that is something that Fuggled gets 100% behind. However, it also got me thinking about the current swell in session beers that we are seeing in the US and I am not happy with what I am seeing. Ask your average Joe on the street what a 'session' beer is and you'll likely get the response that it is a low alcohol beer that you can drink a lot of, and while that is an undeniably true statement, it is not the whole truth about session beer.

Before going further, let's remind ourselves of Lew's definition of session beer here in the US, sure other cultures may have different definitions, and that's fine, but I find most other countries concepts are broadly similar. Here is the definition as spelled out on Session Beer Project:
  • 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced

Clearly by that definition many a 'session IPA' is not a session beer. Founder's All Day IPA, 4.7%, not a session beer. Lagunitas Day Time, 4.7%, not a session beer. Lickinghole Creek Til Sunset, 4.7%, not a session beer. That's not to say these are bad beers, and in the case of Til Sunset far from it, or that they are beers I don't enjoy polishing off a six pack off, and again see Til Sunset, but they are not session beers. They are what I refer to as 'pintable', meaning I can have 2 or 3 pints quite happily, but not sessionable in my mind, and not just because they exceed the ceiling of 4.5% abv - something Lew actually mentions in his Session Beer Day announcement.

Where many such beers fall down as regards the definition of session beer is in pretty much every other facet of the description. Many a session IPA, and I am sorry if I am picking on a particular style right now, is one dimensional in the extreme, once you get past the sensory blast of hops. Oooo hop flavour and aroma, how freaking original.

This why beers like a a good dry Irish stout, a classic best bitter, or a well made Czech pilsner all succeed far better as session beers, they have layers of flavour that hide and reveal themselves as you drink them. I find with the kind of dry stout that I love, think Starr Hill's magnificent 4.2% Dark Starr, you start off with a roasty bite, but as it warms chocolate notes shine though, and the clean bite of the hops snaps to attention. What do you often have behind the hops of a session IPA? A base of pale malt that is like eating saltines, and that quickly becomes boring, after about 2 to 3 pints I find, and sessions don't start until pint 4 is finished in my world.

Balance is also important, and while I don't particular hold to the view espoused in the latest Sam Adams ads on TV of beer being a battle between hops and malts, I agree with the overall idea, balanced beers are generally good beers. Beers where everything is noticeable, but in harmony with each other, not dominating, not being lopsided. It's almost like a hermenutical circle, understanding the parts helps us to understand the whole, which helps us further understand the parts, and so on.

There isn't much need to speak too much about session beers being conducive to conversation, if you're the kind of person that likes going to the pub of an evening, downing 8-10 pints of best, and then tottering home, or getting a taxi if you live too far from the pub door, then chances are you have been engaged in conversation with your mates for the duration. Unless you're the kind of bod sitting at one end of the bar reading the Daily Mail/Guardian, depending on your political persuasion, scowling at the world.

Which brings us to the last point in the definition, and one which I think is scandalously disregarded, session beers should be reasonably priced. The question here is 'what is reasonable'? Let me put it this way, I walk into your bar/tap room and the best selling beer on the taps is a 7% IPA for $5 for a 16oz pint, why would I pay $5 for a 3.5% dark mild? The cost of creating the dark mild is considerably less than the cost of making the IPA and yet the savings of making session beer do not get passed along to the consumer. Somewhere someone is gouging consumers that want to drink session beers, and in my opinion this really needs to stop. Thinking a bit wider for a moment, pricing of beer is something of an annoyance of mine lately, especially when non-US macro beer gets lumped with local craft beer in the pricing structure of many bars, but I'll likely moan about that some other time.

So there we have it, for this year's Session Beer Day, let's see brewers and bars actually stick to Lew's definition of session beer and not just flood the taps with lazy session IPAs.

2 comments:

  1. Fixed costs remain the same at a brewery, distributor, or pub whether a beer is 3.5% alcohol-by-volume or 7%.

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