Thursday, January 1, 2009

SBP: Is 2009 "The Year of The Session"?

The family went to Memphis Taproom for our New Year's Eve lunch yesterday, and it was excellent. I had a delicious glass of Blind Pig IPA (which beats the Plinys going away, in my mouth) and a sweet goblet of Great Divide Hibernation, and finished up with a big pint of Yards Brawler: a bold canvas of malt without the lumping thickness of 'big beer.' (Cathy agreed to drive home, so I had three without worry.)

Lunch was a Hangtown Fry hoagie, stuffed with an onion omelette and some perfect fried oysters dredged in cornmeal; the oysters were sweet and meaty, and the crust crunched with the realization of the corn. Cathy had a portobello patty melt that made me think of reubens, Nora tore up a perfect burger, and Thomas had a grown-up's chicken fingers, with rough, crunchy, spiced crust and fleshy chicken underneath. A great way to end the year at our favorite new bar.

But that's not why I posted, and certainly not why this is my first post of 2009. It was a brief conversation I had with owner Brendan Hartranft. We talked about Local 44 opening today, and that led to the 'business model' (work hard, pay it off, keep the string going), which led to talk of the possible next Brendan/Leigh operation: a cask ale pub. "Six beer engines," said Brendan, just spinning an idea (he spun others as well), "and a small place, maybe 30 seats, with a simple lunch menu, maybe five or six pasties, a couple salads. I think that could work."

Six beer engines? Great idea, makes me drool, but can you get enough real, true cask-conditioned ale to fill them? Without going into too much (secret?) detail, the answer is yes, he thinks he can, and with great session-strength stuff. Which led to this statement by Brendan: "I think this is going to be the year for session beer. We've all got a Belgian hangover, and people want to drink beer. And the beer that gets it right first is going to capture a lot of the market."

He's not the first to say this, but saying it that definitely, in Philly, is a landmark. We've got some beers that are ready (Brawler, the dry stouts from Victory and Sly Fox, EB+B's low alcohol series, General Lafayette's Mirage), we've got some bars and brewpubs that are ready. The big question is: are you ready?

I think we are. This could be the year we stop hitting ourselves over the head with beer...and start embracing and enjoying it instead. Less problems with DUI, less problems with outrage over high prices, and most likely, more local beer. All that, and the possibility of developing a true beer culture and getting more people back to bars to enjoy themselves in moderation.

Ask for session beer. It's our year.

44 comments:

Mr. Thursday said...

Cask beer pub? Oh my, oh my, oh my.

Kevin said...

Lew, you are the second person I've heard speak of Brendan's plan for a cask bar from two people now. I think this is a great idea. My concern is not being able to find enough cask beer but to be able to have enough casks themselves. If this were to work I would think that he would need at least 15 cask himself so he could send them out to get filled with beers other places in town won't have.

Lew Bryson said...

The cask problem is solving itself, Kevin, in ways that I put under the (secret?) seal in the post. And of course, Brendan wouldn't buy his own cooperage and have it filled, because that would be illegal.* Capisce?

*(At least, according to what I've been told by people who know the PLCB regs better than I do.)

bilking said...

I dream of the rise of session beers in the US. Well crafted, properly hopped beers in the 3-4% alcohol range. These are not easy beers to produce. I seriously question whether American craft brewers have the skill to successfully pull this off. I hope I am wrong but most craft brewers make their money with big, malty, hoppy brews where a multitude of evils can be hidden.

But I thought the 'experts' have decided this is the year of the sours, replacing RIS as the 'good' beer.

Harry Spade said...

Don't have to tell me twice. Give me a session brew any day and I'm a happy man.

Anonymous said...

I agree with tuning down the alcohol content. At the Kennett Brewfest I and a number of friends commented that the strong beers were overdone. It seemed like every station had a 8%+ abv beer. It made for a rough day of drinking.

Stan Hieronymus said...

I love the thought, not exactly news, but don't you think it will have to be something of a quiet revolution? And if not, how do you get people talking about these beers?

It's high IBU and abv beers that get blogged about, get lots of reviews (and lots of points) at the beer rating sites.

Lew Bryson said...

Stan,

"Quiet revolution?" Why, so Sam and Tomme don't get wind of it and quash the revolution? Or is it a quiet revolution because no one's going to bother talking about it?

Bloggers don't write about session strength beer? (Well, except me...) No, but are bloggers really reaching the people who are going to make session beers a success? Last year saw session beers get more press than ever before: the New York Times wrote a piece on session beers.

Bloggers aren't writing about them, beer-rating site mavens aren't writing about them? BFD, Stan, really. These aren't the people who are going to make session beers a success. For one thing, there aren't enough of them. They only make the rare beers successful because the drinkers are as rare as the beers!

So who talks about the beers to get 'them' interested? Everyone I, you, we can get to, eh? I dunno, Stan. More people have already heard of the concept than had a year ago.

I just don't think that's what's going to do it. I think availability is what's going to do it. So getting brewers and bar owners to take a chance on session beers is the key. They're the people I want to convince.

Bill said...

I'm still not sure what Lew's abv cut-off point is for session beers after two years, but would like to point out that from the macro side, session beers won twenty years ago. Four out of the top five beers in the U.S. have abv levels below 5%, and the fifth sits right at 5%.

On the craft side, Anchor Steam is below 5%, Sam Adams Boston Lager is below 5%, Goose Island Honker's Ale and 312 Wheat are both below 5%, and I think many American wheat beers made in quantity are at or under 5%. Yep, the ones that get the press are higher in alcohol... but the ones that people drink the most of -- by far -- are session beers.

And why shouldn't the big boys get the press? I'd rather read about Petrus and Montrachet and Screaming Eagle... but I'm drinking Fetzer and Smoking Loon.

Lew Bryson said...

Bill,
You're right, I've been a bit shifty on ABV level on session beers. But as I quoted Martyn Cornell in a session beer story I've got in an upcoming All About Beer, it's not so much ABV as it is drinkability: good enough to want to drink five pints, low enough to be able to. But I know Americans want a number! So from now on, I'm sticking to under 4.5% ABV.

And you make the point: as it is around the world, most of the mainstream and craft beer being drunk in America already is 5% or under. Take it down to 4.4%, give it the flavor, and we've got something. (Oh, and...if you want us to buy more of it, it would be good if you could bring the price down a bit, hmmm?)

pubcrawler said...

What is already happening in PA is testament to the success of cask beers, and I believe if (when) you build it, they will come. And they will come whether the cask ales are 4% or 14%. According to this site, Pennsylvania leads the nation in cask ale outlets - it's amazing to travel across the country and find the number of places that don't have cask, after living in such a cask-rich state.

Oh, yes, I think if this place opens, the people will come. There is a reason there isn't a place to stand when Selin's Grove taps a firkin and why Great Taste of the Mid-West offered an entire tent with 50 cask ales. It tastes great, and it's less filling.

sam k said...

OMG, an onion omelette AND fried oysters on the same sammich???

Why is anyone in this conversation focusing on anything else??

bilking said...

Lew, the 4.5% ABV is a logical limit. However it also excludes quite a few good beers coming in at <5%. The brother's board set the same limit in a forum and then immediately started recommending higher ABV beers, some over 5%. When I questioned the logic I was told 4.9 is really the same as 4.5 and you do not question the brothers. You know, respect beer but not each other.


Here is a pretty good list with ABV's. Not a lot of choices that don't have light, lite, select or ultra in their name. As a brewery the winner appears to be Yeungling with 6 of 7 beers meeting the criteria.


http://www.realbeer.com/edu/health/calories.php

Stan Hieronymus said...

Perhaps I should have been clearer, but a quiet revolution because if it happens it's likely not to be because of the buzz in the traditional "beer geek" forums.

It has to be people in pubs drinking a session beer and telling the person next to them "Hey, have you had this?" rather than recommending the 22% abv beer infused with tobacco.

Maybe cask is a "hook" that gets attention, but given the percentage of beer consumed in bottles there has to be a bottle mate as well.

Bill said...

Lew, unfortunatly, "drinkability" has already been claimed by the leading under 4.5% brewer... :)

Economics starts to play a role in this: The largest players, macro and craft, have low abv, drinkable flagship brews. If you're brewing 10,000 barrels, do you want to do brews like those, or do you want to do something different for those who aren't being served by the larger brewers? Brewpubs can and should have a couple of sessionable offerings available(and in Milwaukee, they always do, by the way -- Water Street, the Ale House, and Rock Bottom usually have two brews on that fit your description at any given time), but I don't know how much pressure I'd put on the smaller production breweries because I'm not sure it would make economic sense to compete in that realm.

But I _know_ larger breweries such as Sierra Nevada and Bell's could do great session brews. Bell's does, in fact, with Third Coast Beer (not to be confused with their Third Coast Old Ale). I still say if SN marketed a Pale Ale Light, they could make a mint!

JP said...

America has been drinking like this way since Repeal or at least since the end of WWII maybe not with beer engines and such, but light lagers and golden/sparkling ales under or around 4.5% are an american institution that are just Amazing when done correctly and local of ccourse. What goes around.......welcome back !

Lew Bryson said...

Stan,
I was actually being a bit facetious on the "quiet revolution," but thanks for the clarification. Session will definitely have to be not a cask-exclusive; won't work as cask-only, no way. It has to be bottle and regular draft, regardless of anyone's CAMRA longings. CAMRA's not going to work here, for a variety of reasons that would make a good blog post, now that I think about it.

But I think it could be a hybrid revolution (which is quite chic these days, even with lower gas prices): get those normal drinkers, and spread a beer-board counter-revolution. "Your 22% tobacco-infused rye-wine (Rye-wine! Has anyone done one of those?) is great, man, but this bitter is bone-crushingly authentic ("authentic" is a real good word to use, I hear...), and I'm going to have five of them! WooHoo, now that's extreme beer!"

A guy can dream. And I think that dream's closer to reality in 2009.

Lew Bryson said...

bilking,

Guy's gotta draw a line, and I made a mistake by not drawing it lower in the first place. No, there aren't a lot of beers below 4.5% now. But if that's not what we're asking for, that's not what we're going to get. We're getting sub-4.5% beers here in Philly, and I'd like to see more of them, or a couple of them that show up in a lot of places (O'Reilly's Stout? Brawler? Mirage?)

Thing is, I'm not going to be doing anyone any favors by saying, "Okay, 5% beers are session beers." Likely, they're not. And if we leave out a lot of good beers between 4.5% and 5%, well, we're leaving out some good ones between 5% and 5.5%, too.

I'm drawing the line at 4.5%, because I'd like to challenge American brewers to get us good, delicious, varied, drinkable beers at an ABV under 4.5%. You don't get that by expanding your definition to include existing beers.

Steven said...

>>"The brother's board set the same limit in a forum and then immediately started recommending higher ABV beers"

And the trouble with the majority of the "traditional 'beer geek' forums" is that the contributors have no concept of the true definition of a session beer. Most of them believe a session is just picking one beer and drinking it in quantity -- being it an Imperial Stout or a Berliner Weiß.

I think the revolution is long overdo, and deserves to be a little noisy.

Steven said...

Something came to mind as I linked in this BLOG entry to a new discussion thread at RealBeer; one of the road blocks I've hit with a session beer is the usual beer enthusiast's palate that is tuned to high ABV and high alpha acid. The (usual) subtlety of a true session beer is so far below their radar that they can't enjoy it -- and often don't take the time or effort to readjust and realize that good flavor can really be found in a low alcohol beer -- if it's done correctly, of course.

Case in point, Sam Adams Light or Guinness Draft Stout.

Al said...

Boy, I hope you're right. Not that I don't like a beer that kicks me in the head, I sure would like to see a nice, flavorful, under 4.5%ABV beer or three hit the market.

Lew Bryson said...

Bill,
I don't think the leaders do make what I'm looking for. I'm not interested in mainstream light beers -- not in the least -- because they fail on a major test of a good session beer: flavorful. The major craft brewers only make one session-strength beer that I know of: Sam Adams Light, which I think is pretty decent.

I don't think every brewer should make a session beer! I'd just like to see more of them. Right now, there aren't enough. Had an interesting discussion with a brewer last month: essentially, if craft is going to make it to 10% of the market or more -- and he was very confident it could -- craft is going to have to make good, drinkable beer under 5% ABV, without going to extreme on flavor. There are great examples of beers like that: bitter, mild, helles, pilsner, wheat ales, etc. Good path to financial success?

Lew Bryson said...

Steven,

Just so. If I hear one more BA describe a 7.5% beer as "very sessionable!" I might puke. Actually, I might stop by their house to watch them puke.

Stan Hieronymus said...

A guy can dream. And I think that dream's closer to reality in 2009.

I hope so, and I won't be bothered if it stays below the radar. Maybe that's even the way to go. If the beers are "secret" then they become worth the hunt.

In the Czech Republic we had six different versions of Pilsner Urquell. Imagine if you could do that with Sam Adams Light. A tickers dream.

jp said...

In my limited opinion, Selin's Grove cream ale best defines the American session craft beer for me, that is .

Lew Bryson said...

JP, I like it! An American style of session beer. The CREAM ALE REVOLUTION! And awesome if it starts at Selin's Grove...

Lew Bryson said...

Steven,

Maybe that's why the geekerie don't like session beers: no numbers to toss around except ABV. And if they get in a competition for lower and lower...well, as air racers say, trying to fly lowest can only ever end in a tie for first that you don't want to win. This touches on something else I don't like about our warped "beer culture": it's way too focused on numbers. Yuck. Numbers are for brewing, not drinking. Sounds like a good t-shirt slogan to me...

Steven said...

In many ways, I like Stan's idea of making a good session beer nearly unattainable on the market; rarity for rarity's sake will make others seek it out.

But then, someone will start a "What's all the fuss about?" post at BA because they won't understand the style.

Just about all lagers (good or bad) get that treatment around the 'net (just to show I'm not singling out BA... at least not all the time).

Bill said...

"The major craft brewers only make one session-strength beer that I know of: Sam Adams Light, which I think is pretty decent."

Go, Chicago! Goose Island's Honker's Ale is 4.3% abv, its 312 is 4.2% abv.

Lew Bryson said...

Didn't realize Honkers was that low! Go Chicago!

Steven said...

I didn't realize Honkers was that low either, been meaning to revisit it again as I always do every few months.

Just can't get behind the 312, the character is pretty bland, it's Goose's true "transition" beer (as long as we're throwing clichés around!).

Steven said...

FYI -- Beer Advocate reports that Honkers Ale is 5.0 ABV. I know the Goose web site says 4.3, but I also know from experience that they don't update it too often (note that the new Winter Mild isn't on the beer list). I'll check a bottle tonight and report back.

Lew Bryson said...

Huh. Too bad...did GI feel pressure to bump it up?!

And yeah...312 doesn't do much for me, either.

JP said...

In my opinion Minhas trumps all goose island offerings hands down. What is a more appropriate session beer in Chicago than a Berghoff, Huber, or Rheinlander?

Steven said...

"did GI feel pressure to bump it up?!"

Not sure what the story is, or the bottom line of the true ABV, but I'll try to check what's listed on the bottle's label later today.

Steven said...

JP -- While the Minhas brews fall into a category of low-price beers I commented on in a previous STAG thread, there aren't many session beers in their lineup that fall into a good flavor category.

We're talking the true, original definition of session beer here -- and as Lew has defined for us a little tighter: 4.5% ABV or lower.

All respect to Rhinelander's history (used to be my favorite Bock back in 1979), its character is flatter than the 312.

As to appropriate for Chicago, Goose Island is brewed within the city limits. Minhas is out of the state completely!

Bill said...

Geez, you're considering taking BA's word over that of the brewer's? :) The Honker's Ale bottles don't list abv. They do say Honker's aims to be an English Bitter, a style with alcohol levels easily on the sessionable side. The menus at Goose Island Clybourn also say 4.3 and 4.2 for the brews in question.

JP said...

I agree I was just a bit bored at the time and wondered if I could raise some ire which is almost to easy on this blog. Although I would humbly disagree with Berghoff being not appropriate as a session beer for Chicago. Historically it was never made in Chicago but was always enjoyed there

Steven said...

"Although I would humbly disagree with Berghoff being not appropriate as a session beer for Chicago."

Don't forget the true meaning of session beer, Berghoff misses the mark by .9%.

And no "ire" to be risen, I like both brands... though maybe not equally as much.

And still no qualification on the Honkers, every place seems to be sold out!

Lew Bryson said...

Let's not get dogmatic. "Session" shouldn't be a point of argument. We should simply note that there's a difference between beer that's drinkable and enjoyable in quantities of a liter or so -- ranging from bitters to bock -- and session beer that you can knock back something like a couple pints an hour without getting totally boomed after five. (No exaggeration: I've done six pints of session-strength stuff in two hours, and blew a 0.03 half an hour later.) I don't think most people could do five pints of Berghoff in two hours without really feeling it. Doesn't mean it's not drinkable and tasty, but... And there's the difference. But let's not get testy about numbers.

Dan Searing said...

If you make good beer they will come. The idea of American Craft session style/strength beers has been a pet subject of mine for sometime. While nailing down the parameters is a bit tricky I like Lew's definition, though a few brews I consider proper session brews are slightly stronger, it's a good place to start. Anyone who has ever had a good pint in a British pub or had some of the working lagers of Germany or the Czech Republic knows you don't have to have nuclear strength to make something interesting.

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to have attended some CAMRA festivals and the array of great tasting beers under 5% is something to behold..er..taste.

Bring it on here I say.

Kelly Young said...

BTW those last comments were mine, I'm posting on my F.I.L's computer and didn't realize I was signed in as him.

Kelly Young
Washington, DC

Anonymous said...

i've been on a "session" with pbc's kenzinger since it came out, as have many real drinkers about town-- it's 4.5% abv and you can hammer them down all day and night without a problem.

you never seem to mention it as one of the most drinkable beers in philly

why is that?

Lew Bryson said...

Are you serious, or are you just trying to stir up trouble? Check out my Kenzinger love: http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/search?q=kenzinger