Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Session Beer Project: 1st Entry


I've been wrestling over an issue that people keep telling me is my fault: big beers get all the glory, while "session beers" get ignored. I complain to brewers that they put too much emphasis on their big beers, their "extreme beers," and they respond that I (and other beer writers) do the same thing.

As I explain in the February Buzz on my website, for a variety of reasons, they're right. We do always talk about the big beers, the crazy beers, that beers that grab us. They're interesting, they stick out, and even the failures are fun to talk about. Session beers get forgotten. (Except when you drink them in Düsseldorf with Guy Hagner, Tom Baker, and Nick Bruels.)

Not to smack, but sites like ratebeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com are, if anything, even worse. Their "best of" lists of the beers that their thousands of members have rated as "Da Best!" reads like a beer geek's wet dream: 7+% ABV, 90+ IBU, 20+P OG, reeking and funky as a chili-shack outhouse. (If none of that jargon makes sense to you, sorry: it's alcohol, bitterness, and -- essentially -- heaviness.) Yeah, there are a couple exceptions, but you can't help thinking that if these guys had their way, they'd be lying around in a swollen-tongued stupor every weekend.

Time to right that balance: The Session Beer Project. I'm going to try to post notes on session beers at least four times a week: tasting notes, style notes, food pairings, critiques, rants, praise, despair, news, whatever. I'm just one voice among many, but it's time to start. I know there are people out there who feel the same way I do: feel free to piggy-back, copy, emulate, link, get inspired, or just comment.

What's a session Beer?

Fair question, especially since my definition doesn't necessarily jibe with the standard one of beers under 4.5% ABV (that's Alcohol By Volume; Budweiser is 5.0%, for comparison). For me, session beer has a number of subjective qualities.

1. Alcohol under 4.5%. Once you get above 5%, things change, in my long experience with beer. Below that, you can drink at a moderate pace and not get heavily flummoxed. Try knocking back 6% beers at a session pace, and you'll be making an ass of yourself in short order. Believe me: or just ask my brother-in-law about the night at his place with the sixtel of Stegmaier Brewhouse Bock. I always say that session beer is beer you can drink while you're playing cards, without worrying about gambling away your house. An update: upon reflection, and more research, and a lot of drinking, I revised this number downwards from the original 5.5%. For purposes of the Session Beer Project, I'm calling it session beer at 4.5% and under.

2. Flavor in balance. A session beer can't be insanely hopped, syrupy with residual sugar, or funkier than hell. The whole idea of a session beer is that you can drink them smoothly glass after glass without anything cramping your palate. Plenty of flavor is fine, but nothing overpowering.

3. The beer doesn't overpower the conversation. Session beers shouldn't make you interrupt the conversation and start geeking about how marvelous the beer is. Session beer is more about backup than topic, it's something you drink while you're talking, not something to talk about. Er...this blog is an obvious exception.

4. Reasonably priced. There are some very quaffable beers out there that are, for some reason, wicked expensive. If you can afford to do sessions with them, God bless you. The rest of us? Reasonable is the keyword.

Examples: dry stout (Guinness, O'Reilly's), porter (Geary's London Porter, Boulevard Bully Porter). helles (Augustiner Edelstoff (Damn. Stan tells me Edelstoff is 5.6%!), Victory Lager), Belgian pale ale (De Koninck), hefeweizen (Paulaner, Schneider, Penn), most pilsner (Stoudt's, Pilsner Urquell), brown ale (Newcastle, BridgePort Beertown Brown), cream ale, steam beer (Anchor Steam), dunkel (Sly Fox Dunkel, Victory Dark Lager, Warsteiner Dark), witbier (Allagash White, Blue Moon Belgian White), kölsch (Cap City Kölsch, Gaffel), and bitter, when you can find it here in America... Not a comprehensive list, but you get the idea.

That's what we're talking about. The first tasting note follows.

20 comments:

Rhode Island said...

Is that Nick Bizarro drinking altbier in Dusseldorf with you Lew? How is he doing these days? I will agree that altbier is a fantastic session brew, and a style that really does not get the respect it deserves in my opinion.

Lew Bryson said...

It is indeed Nik Broolz. He's alive and living in Erlanger with Becky (who's working for Adidas). He speaks very respectable German (even slangs a bit), and has lost 30 lbs. in the German lifestyle. Fun hanging with him, and we met him for breakfast at Schumacher the next morning: sausage and alt!
Confession time, though: the alt we're drinking in that picture is actually the Uerige Sticke...a dangerous kind of session beer at about 6.5%! We drank, walked, drank, ate, drank...and it worked.

Steven said...

To the spirit of this project: Amen brudder!

Andy said...

'Bout time, Lew! Let's preach it. I will now add a category to my blog -- "Session Beer Project"

Rock the milds and pilsners and exports and bitters and pale ales and kolsches and.... !

Mt. Pleasant, DC -Kelly said...

I'd like to join this choir please.

As fate would have it I had a quick back and forth with Jason Oliver of Gordon Biersch DC this morning. He'd responded to some questions of mine regarding his Schwarzbier (4.29%abv) and I sent him these comments back:

"I've really been seeking out better session beers lately. Sure I love hops, barley wines, funky ingredients etc. but there is a logical limit. In any case I think the real skill in brewing is making a proper session brew, where the brew is complex enough that one could have just a single pint/litre and find enough in there to occupy the taste buds but at the same time be of a strength and flavor that sinking a few on a session would not immediately result in total taste annihilation and sobriety destruction. Not many have the skill to do that and I think you've more than succeeded with the Schwarz."

I think I commented on your early piece but I'm all for loading up this bandwagon and preaching to the over-hopped.....er unconverted.

Michael said...

I mentioned a while back that I was going to (home)brew a mild and bitter as my next projects. I've NEVER found a mild to taste, so I had to find the most popular recipe and hope I got it right. THe bitters here are more expensive than the barleywines - makes no since. Anyway, I kegged the mild last last after fermenting for ~10 days and it's already fantastic (could use another week in the keg though).

Next time you're in Louisiana, stop by for a pint

Stonch said...

Lew - this is great. I will bookmark you. It is interesting that in England, we have exactly the reverse situation - session beer wherever you go, but not enough variety in terms of stronger styles. Our beer scenes are so very different. I am a London based beer blogger, if you click my name you can visit Stonch's Beer Blog via my profile. Cheers!

Lew Bryson said...

Stonch,

It is odd, isn't it? American beer has a rep as dishwater around the world, but we're actually on the high end of average when it comes to straight ABV%. And yeah, 5.5% is verging on "Strong Ale" in the UK, no? I went to Köln and Düsseldorf last month, now the UK is on the top of my "continuing beer education" list. I want that session beer variety.
Thanks for the blog tip: I'll check you out.

Stronk said...

Yeah, 5.5% is still just about considered strong ale, but the beer scene is changing slightly. We're now, as a country, starting to get into Belgian beers, and most people don't consider it worth exporting unless it's unique in some way (and these tend to be stronger beers). Browsing around beer festivals, it is still true that most of the ales are between 4 and 5%, but the famous ones are beginning to rise up the scale (look at the success of Sarah Hughes' Ruby Mild, at 6%, for example) and we will soon have to change our definition of strong.

Bill said...

Really good to see you featuring session ales. As a Brit, most of my preferred brews fit into your 5.5% ABV limit for a session ale, or close to that. One I'm most enjoying is Three Floyds Pride & Joy Mild, an interesting addition to Three Floyds range of big beers. They describe it as an American version of a British mild. Well, it's a long, long way from a British mild, it's hoppier and less malty (desirable characteristics to my palate), absolutely delicious and slips down a treat. Probably should be described as a pale ale. It's not been available in SE PA for the last few months, but is supposed to be back this month.
Another excellent producer of session ales is East End Brewing Co in Pittsburgh, always with one available. Scott's English Bitter last Spring was outstanding. Here in the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem Brewworks did a very fine English Bitter last Fall, with a special extra-hopped cask-conditioned version of it produced for a benefit for our non-profit org (WDIY-FM community public radio)that was superb.
Heading west, I don't know where Rogue's Brutal Bitter falls, but that might just fit your category. Likewise for Left Hand Brewing's Sawtooth Ale and Jackman's Extra Pale Ale, and Fat Tire's amber. Steelhead's EPA and Scotch Porter are good summer and winter session ales respectively.
On your upcoming UK trip, don't fail to taste some of Adnam's bitter (from the cask if you can find it), and St. Peters organic ales, both from Suffolk, and of course, Young's Special Bitter from London always goes down easily. By the way, St.Peter's has a Philadelphia connection, in that their English Ale is bottled in an oval bottle that is a replica of one made in c.1770 in Gibbstown across the Delaware.
Anyway, keep up the good work, and thanks for bringing attention to session beers. How about a beer fest devoted to session ales???

Lew Bryson said...

Pride & Joy's good, Bill, they've had that at my local (and likely will again), but I suspect Brutal's over the top limit. Besides, as Stan pointed out elsewhere, it fails the Session Beer Rule #3: Cannot stop conversation!
I like the idea of a session beer festival. Brewers?

Alan said...

Perfecto. This is exactly the sort of bloggy point by point thing I was looking for. You crept into the beerblog-o-sphere so quietly I didn't notice!

Lew Bryson said...

Weird. Sneaking into anything quietly is not what I'm known for!

Donavan said...

I'm glad you are on board Lew. Small or Session brews have been the talk out here on Long Island for a while (at least a year). This whole obsession with big beer will normalize and we'll get back into making flavorful beers in the 2.8 to 4.0% ABV range. The beer world needs both. I try to keep a keg of 3.5% ABV Saison on at my house. Goes down nice and smooth. I can have a couple of pints of that and still fit in a wee dram of single malt before hitting the hay.

Dave S said...

"Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one". (Old Jingle).
A paleolithic session beer..

I would vote for Prima Pils in the modern world.

Lew Bryson said...

That Schaefer jingle really does sum it up, don't it?

But...Prima's good, and I truly do love that beer, but it ain't no sessioner. Too hoppy, and too strong. Can't do it as a five pinter. Victory: if the Stout works, can we get a low-alc lager? Maybe a session version of that beautiful English Pale Ale from a couple years ago?

Dave S said...

I'll back off a notch, the alcohol seems OK to me, but the hops could do you in. Why not: Prima Pils LITE! ;-)

Joel Furfari said...

Here are couple goodies from New England that should meet your criteria:
Buzzards Bay Olde Buzzard Lager, Newport Storm Amber Ale, Geary's Pale Ale, Wachusett Country Ale, Smuttynose Shoal's Pale Ale, Thomas Hooker Munich Style Lager, Thomas Hooker Pale Ale, Allagash Special Reserve, Allagash White

cheers,
Joel (aka vitesse from BA.com)

Anonymous said...

Irritates the hell out of me when guys say "you can't have TOO much hops", and always acting excited at ABV... if the goal is to get drunk, drink some cheap liquor. ABV for ABV sake is silly. Ok, I'll admit to enjoying an occasional Hop Devil. But it's not a GREAT beers just because its over hopped..it's just curio.

Travis said...

Wasn't sure where to add this, but you're missing an important one (at least it didn't come up in a search). Heretic - Gramarye. 4.4% Rye Pale that won a GABF Gold in 2012 for Rye Beer (NOT session anything!).
http://www.hereticbrewing.com/beers