Tuesday, February 6, 2007

SBP: Chicken, egg...or feathers?

I've been having a discussion about session beers with a couple BeerAdvocates, including Todd Alström, one of the founders. Why don't session beers sell, is the topic, and after some discussion, I pared it down to these three questions:

Do they not sell because people want more alcohol? (Brewers have told me that when people find out that a beer's low-alcohol, they shy away from it.)

Do they not sell because they're unfamiliar styles and flavors? (American craft brew drinkers have been exposed to a lot of piney/citrus American hops and clean-fermenting American ale yeasts; they often find beers brewed with the more characterful Brit ale yeasts to be funky, or just plain wrong.)

Do they not sell because the ones that are being brewed are just not that good? (A real issue: it is not easy to brew a good session-strength beer...or so I've been told.)

Interestingly, Todd raised a fourth issue: in Boston, he says, people do want session beers, thirst for them, and drink them up every time they come along...but the brewers just won't make them. All too busy following the latest hops/alcohol trend, he says.

Which brings up the old story: selling craft beer is all about education. Usually that means the brewers teaching customers about how to enjoy different -- session! -- beers, but if needs be, maybe the brewers need to be educated by customer demand.

What's the story where you are? Do you get a fair number of session beer choices? Do people drink them when they're available, or are they a brewer's conceit? Do your local brewers make enough session beers? Do your local session beers suck -- sour, insipid, over-hopped, under-attenuated? Tell us the story...and maybe some brewers will give a listen.

33 comments:

Loren said...

Unless a low alcohol bottled/canned beer is dated (brewed on, best before, etc..) I'm not wasting my $ (unless I KNOW it's fresh) and will gladly risk purchasing an undated beer with an elevated alcohol content, knowing for the most part that age won't be as great as factor.

Are most brewpub visitors geeks or normal, day-to-day beer drinkers? If it's the former...most geeks want BIG and BOLD. If it's the latter...most of them want "Coors Light". What's the incentive for brewpub brewers to brew session beers? Sales?

Ironic that Todd said Boston brewers won't make session beers. Harpoon's next year round bottled offering is JUST that. So...someone is listening.

Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Lew! Out here where I am, every beer is a session beer! Or at least supposed to be, by law, 'cause technically brewpubs are supposed to adhere to the magical 3.2 limit! Now, you and I know that isn't always the case, but you also know that some of the beers around these parts you wouldn't want to include in any session of drinking! I did have a very nice amber ale recently from Belle Isle, which might not ordinarily make the ranks of session beers, but again, there is that 3.2 thing and they keep pretty close to it.

Bob R in OKC

Lew Bryson said...

Loren,
You want every beer to be dated, and good on you. You make a good point...and I do try to get the freshest possible session-strength stuff. Know the codes, buy regularly from the same store, cultivate your beer store guy, and you're over halfway there.

But I'd definitely say that most brewpub visitors are normal drinkers... but not Coors Light drinkers. They can get that anywhere. If a brewpub brewer wants to attract Light drinkers -- of which there are a ton -- it would behoove that brewer to brew a beer of similar strength: Coors Light is 4.25%, I believe. That's sessionable.

I'm waiting for the Harpoon session to come out. Talked to Al Marzi a month or so ago, and it sounded like it was still up in the air. Can't wait to see it.

But to follow up on that, AND on Todd's point: I wonder if New England has an edge. New England craft brewers are probably more traditionally rooted in Brit styles than any other area in the country. Session beers are certainly a Brit tradition. Linkage?

Lew Bryson said...

Bob-O, you're absolutely right, of course (and I know how you love to hear me say that). Unfortunately, you're also right in that some of those beers definitely fall under that "they just suck" problem! But Belle Isle does make some good stuff, and if the 3.2 cap meant you and I could sit there and knock back four without much worry, well, there you are. Point for session beers.

Loren said...

"it would behoove that brewer to brew a beer of similar strength: Coors Light is 4.25%, I believe. That's sessionable."

Not really. A Coors Light clone is very difficult to brew. Plus...name brand familiarity. "This is our Coors Light equal"...is met with "But where's the Coors Light bottle?".

"New England craft brewers are probably more traditionally rooted in Brit styles than any other area in the country. Session beers are certainly a Brit tradition. Linkage?"

Too much Ringwood in NE though.

:-o

Cheers!

Stan Hieronymus said...

In the interest of brevity I sadly pass commenting on my local scene.

The top 4 selling craft brands nationally:

Sam Adams Boston Lager 4.9%
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 5.6% (though I think the draft is lower)
Fat Tire 5.3%
Blue Moon 5.4% (much higher than a White needs to be)

While I'm with Stonch that I'd rather have you set the cap at 5% (and keep pushing for lower) it sures looks to me like what you've defined as session beers sell.

And if you are a brewer might you not figure these beers successfully covered the issue of providing an alternative to BMC and move on to the boozy/hoppy alternative to that alternative?

(Originally I typed short-sighted brewer, but that might be construed as showing bias.)

Lew Bryson said...

Loren,
Don't be so literal. Doesn't have to be a Coors Light clone: I haven't met many Light drinkers who wouldn't drink a good kölsch. It sells like mad in the DC Metro area. And if I were a brewpub bartender, I'd sure have a better line than "This is our Coors Light equal."

Knew I could bait you with that New England Brit-trad line! Ringwood CAN make great session beers...if the brewer knows what they're doing. That's what it was bred for. But you know that.

Loren said...

" I haven't met many Light drinkers who wouldn't drink a good kölsch."

Next time you're in SW CT be sure and visit one of the 4 Southport Brewing Co. chains and you'll see that CT's beer loving scene is among the vast minority. What you have here (SBC) is a chain brewpub that watered down every beer in their lineup at ALL 4 locations to meet their clientele's tastes. Or lack thereof. Sessionable beers? Sure. Drinkable? That's debatable.

But at least we have a couple stellar brewpubs with good loyal followings. And decent session brews too.

And no Ringwood! :-)

Cheers!

Lew Bryson said...

Stonch is working on me, Stan. 5.5% might be too high. But man, it sure cuts down the options to go to 5%. Might have to, though.

Okay...Jim Koch steadfastly denies that Sam Adams is a session beer, in those exact words. Maybe he's going with the strict Brit interpretation, dunno. But to address your question: first, why does a session beer have to be an alternative to BMC; and second, why does the alternative to a 5% beer have to be a bigger/hoppier beer? Like you said, Blue Moon is higher than a witbier needs to be...why not make something less big? God knows, the style has plenty of flavor to carry it. The answer doesn't always have to be bigger/hoppier/more sour, does it? Lambics, browns, wits, stouts, porters, schwarz...plenty of room to drop ABV and stuff in flavor and show off (and sell a ton of pints while you're at it).

Now...how do we get the brewers to compete at that level?

Lew Bryson said...

If that's what's going on...they're missing a good bet. I don't like it when brewpubs take the easy route of watering down the beer rather than ratcheting up the clientele. Yes, it's fresh, yes, it's local, yes, it's not light beer per se, but what's the point?

Thing is, that's a reasonably sophisticated market. They eat better than that; I know, I've eaten there. Why go low? Iron Hill may make the Light Lager, and sell a lot of it, but they make it good, and they keep the full range of everything else on, and it's solid. Regional differences; I love 'em, but they're not all uniformly positive!

Loren said...

"If that's what's going on...they're missing a good bet."

No doubt. I can walk to one location from work, daily. Last time I visited? Hell if I remember. I also drive past another location on the way home, daily. Do I stop? Um...

Funny story too. At last years CT Real Ale Fest they had ZERO people at their table so the brewer said he would re-tool some recipes for "us". Well, they were a no show at this years Fest.

Sad.

Steven said...

I vote for unfamiliar with styles and flavors. I clearly recall my first taste of an English Dark Mild, my friends explaining the "session" qualities of the low ABV beer, and I just couldn't believe I'd enjoy anything so thin. Man, was I wrong.

I took my first sip of a Sam Smith dark mild and immediately noticed the thin body and thought "Yeah, water..." but then the flavors started to build; rich and malty and very satisfying. I was amazed, and very happy.

Everyone is chasing the buzz any more, they've forgotten the flavor.

Steven said...

"I haven't met many Light drinkers who wouldn't drink a good kölsch. It sells like mad in the DC Metro area."

Hmm, Goose Island Summertime Kölsch at 5.0 ABV. I was once told by a pub brewer at G.I. that the micro knows they could sell the Summertime year-round if they made it available, but want to keep it as a specialty.

Lew Bryson said...

See...why is the GI Kölsch that big? I've had this conversation a number of times with American craft brewers; we start to talk about how nice it would be to brew up a traditional Euro-style, like kölsch, or dunkel, or wit, and the first thing they're thinking is bumping up the gravity. It's like life begins at 12P, and only goes up from there. Yeesh...

Steven said...

Dunno. It's withing style guidelines, albeit the higher end of the guidelines.

Flying Dog's Tirebite Kölsch is 5.1, but it always tasted a lot lighter to me...oh no, I'm velocitized!

The Beer Lover said...

I disagree with the reasoning here. I think when you look at the beer market, and the craft beer segment in the market, you can see why session beers don't sell well. Macro beer drinkers are happy with their light lager, and really aren't too interested in tasting craft beer. That of course is changing, but how much of a dent has craft beer really put in the beer market? Craft beer drinkers are a fickle lot, and enjoy trying a variety of styles, but "beer geeks" tend to always want bigger and bolder. Or if they do want a session beer, they quickly move on to the next flavor of the month. So how many beer geeks really want session brews? I do, but it is a small number, in a small segment of the the market. I don't believe beer geeks are crying for session brews, and brewers just won't brew them. Brewers don't brew them, because they aren't going to sell that well, nor will they get the high price tag they need to make profits. Of course there are exceptions, but I don't see session beers ever being anything more than a small segment, with in the small segment that is the craft beer market.

Lew Bryson said...

TBL,
Fatal flaw in your reasoning: beer geeks don't buy most craft beer. There just aren't enough of them. I look at the people in Philly who are buying crafts outside of the hardcore beer bars, and I see ordinary folks who do buy the same beer time after time. Get them a good session beer (with a cool name), and they'll buy it. As for the high price tag, that's been figgered: alcohol-absorption-wise, you can buy one pint of 90 Minute IPA at $6.50 for every two pints of 38 Minute Bitter at $5. You're the brewer/bar-owner. Which would you rather sell? As drunk-driving laws continue to get more and more draconian, eventually the reasoning is going to start to bite home. As Miller puts it so well: beer is volume with profit. The Dogfish Head/Weyerbacher "better living through higher profit margins" is not the only way to skin a cat, and they'd be the first to tell you that.

The Beer Lover said...

I see with in the craft beer market, those who are not brand loyal, and are interested in quality and variety. Beer geeks might not carry the craft beer segment as you say, but they are driving the trends in the market. I see brewers going bigger and bolder, I don't see them going back to brewing session brews. Those ordinary folks who are buying the same brands in the craft beer market, are not driving brewers to brew session beers. I think it would be a good thing if they did, and as you seem to suggest, if they brew it they will come. But I just don't see brewers wanting to brew it, because I think they realize, session brews are not styles most craft beer drinkers want. And let me say for the record I want session brews. I'm like you Lew, while I love extreme brews, give me a good marzen, dunkle, pils, dortmunder, or helles, any day.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Back to your question of many hours before:

Now...how do we get the brewers to compete at that level?

First, I agree with what you typed in the paragraph before. My question was if brewers do. Second, the how?

As consumers, we can order the beers. Talk nice about them at the bar. Urge our friends to drink them. Leave a nice tip. Compliment the brewers.

Suggest you'd like to see more beers like that. Ask how they are made (attention homebrewers: DON'T tell the professional brewer how to lower the gravity and make a better beer). Find out how the brewer might get more flavor even while tossing in less grain.

As reporters, we must write more about these beers. Back in 2000 you waxed delightfully romantic on Pa. beers (when I didn't even ask for session choices):

http://www.realbeer.com/edu/abm/tastings/20000710-pa.php

I also think we need to write about more than the beer itself. Discuss the craft of brewing, and brewing low alcohol beers. Talk about how well they work with food (the buzz topic of the 21st century anyway). Mention the great conversations they allow us. Lionize pub/session culture.

Lew Bryson said...

TBL: I wouldn't even agree that the geeks are driving the trends. Let's look at a brewery that IS being driven by those geeks: Clipper City. Clipper tried hard to make session beer work, and they had a good one, their McHenry Lager. I liked it, my dad liked it, it was a good beer. Wasn't selling. Clipper started making their Heavy Seas line, geek beers for geeks, and it hit big.

Does this prove me wrong? I don't think so. All it "proves" is that McHenry was not the right session beer, and when you make geek beers, geeks will buy them.

Stoudt's, for instance, makes big geek beers (Double IPA and Fat Dog), but they are selling a TON of Pilsner right now. In a market this segmented -- this fractured -- you're going to have exceptions to trends.

My whole point is not that session beers don't exist, it's that they don't get enough recognition from the press and the geeks. See Stan's post for a more practical expression of this.

Lew Bryson said...

"I also think we need to write about more than the beer itself. Discuss the craft of brewing, and brewing low alcohol beers. Talk about how well they work with food (the buzz topic of the 21st century anyway). Mention the great conversations they allow us. Lionize pub/session culture."

Bingo. All dat. Let's pitch that and get editors interested. I was just talking to someone tonight about how useless written "tasting notes" are; we need to write other things. Pub culture is a good place to start.

roan22 said...

I've been doing alot of thinking about session beers since Lew started this blog, and I just haven't found a session beer in any bar in years (who offer a beer menu featuring descriptions or shelf talkers so I can read about them) that didn't seem boring, unfortunately.

I enjoy craft beer because its very different from the macro brands, a giant step up. By contrast macros to me taste weak, bland and their smell actually make me nauseous (sp). Its about the higher quality and the small batch-iness...the skill of the artists brewing it, the intense flavors, and the heftiness of craft beer (not watery I mean) that make it worth switching to.

So I don't understand why a craft beer drinker would want to drink a macro-clone beer at a brewpub, which you go to in order to get out of your house (you can drink the coors light-like stuff at home anytime). Not that all session beers are devoid of flavor. I guess I just don't know one. Lew, whats a good session ale that has a brisk hop burst?

roan22 said...

Oh yeah, that Dale's Pale Ale is pretty good. So is Phoenix pale ale. Are they sessions?

Stonch said...

Lew, I now appreciate the point that 5.5% is an appropriate level on the basis that customers shy away from weaker beers. Having said that, a session on 5.5% beer isn't for the faint-hearted!

I wanted to say how much I enjoyed Steven's comment above (This one: "I took my first sip of a Sam Smith dark mild and immediately noticed the thin body and thought "Yeah, water..." but then the flavors started to build; rich and malty and very satisfying. I was amazed, and very happy.")

That hits the nail on the head. I regularly drink St Peter's Mild at the Jerusalem Tavern (you can read about the pub on my blog, I wrote an article about, follow the link from my name), and was doing so last night. At 3.7% abv, that one's not going to get you drunk or leave you jaded the next day. I love the hit that stouts and porters and other styles give me when I first take a sip - but as Steven says, session beers are more subtle and you have to appreciate that. If you do, you will soon realise good ones are actually very tasty indeed, just in a different way.

To be true beer lovers, we all need to appreciate that weaker beers have a lot to offer, and adjust our palates accordingly.

Steven said...

"So I don't understand why a craft beer drinker would want to drink a macro-clone beer at a brewpub..."

A session beer does not equate to a macro-clone in any way -- see my post about the Sam Smiith Dark Mild.

You want hops? Try a 3 Floyds Pride & Joy at 4.87% and tell us how it compares to BMC.

Stonch said...

For what it's worth, a perfect model for a session beer from England is Dark Star Hophead - below 4%abv, but with the "brisk hop burst" (nice phrase) roan22 yearns for.

Alan said...

Brewers definitely do not make enough session brews. There is one mild contract brewed and on tap for the craft beer pub C'est What in Toronto at around 3.5%. That is it in Canada as far as I know.

Loren said...

Had the Dark Star Hop Head last week at a Real Ale Fest. It was nice...but flat. Improper cask handling? It wasn't cask flat...it was lifeless. But tasty none the less.

Cheers!

Lew Bryson said...

Wow. I can actually sleep now and someone will pick up the slack. Thanks, guys!

Roan, if you're looking for hoppiness: Sam Adams is under 5%, and it's got plenty of hop to it; too much, according to some brewers I know. Phoenix Pale is about 5.3%, on the high end of "session," Dale's is 6.5%!

But truly low-alcohol sessions with a hop-smack don't spring to mind. Deuchar's IPA...but it's not available in the US. Coniston's Bluebird Bitter isn't what I'd call "briskly" hopped, but it's definitely solidly hopped; look for that one.

The problem in cheering for session beers is that a lot of times, they're just not there for people to enjoy...which is part of the reason the Session Beer Project is here. See Stan's suggestions, which I may have to amplify and make a separate post.

Loren said...

Good call on Deuchar's IPA. 5+/- years ago I tried that at NERAX and it completely blew my mind as I thought "HTF can they put that much flavor in a beer so tiny?". But of course it being tagged an IPA means it gets little geek love, sadly.

More love? Milly's Tavern brewed an Anniversary Ale last year that was 4%+/- and it was just LOADED with ballsy Columbus flavor...and not an overbearing bitterness. Stunning beer. Mike Roy is a brewer to watch, if the eyes aren't glued on him already.

Cheers!

Stan Hieronymus said...

Don't forget Lew Rule #3.

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.

We're not just looking for the biggest flavored 3.5% beer we can find.

Bill said...

In reply to Roan 22, see my comment to the original SBP listing, in which I list a number of highly tasty session ales (inc Three Floyds Pride & Joy).
Just like the most flavorful curry or chili generally is not the hottest one, the most flavorful beer does not need to be the one with the highest alcohol content. I'm drinking for the flavor without the bad head in the morning!

Lew Bryson said...

"Just like the most flavorful curry or chili generally is not the hottest one, the most flavorful beer does not need to be the one with the highest alcohol content."

Words to live by, Bill.