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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Session Beer, Extreme Beer: there's no "versus," how about "and"?

There are two odd pieces of writing out in the beer press right now. Sam Calagione wrote a response to my last "Steaming Pile" column in Ale Street News, the column in which I opined that 'imperial' beers, while riding high, may be coming to the end of their cycle on top of the beer hype wheel. In Beeradvocate magazine, the Alström brothers' "Beer Smack" column was titled "Session vs. Extreme Beers."

In both pieces, the desire and nascent movement to popularize session beers was portrayed as being planned at the expense of extreme/imperial beers, implying a wish and a hope for failure of big beers. To make things short and clear, that's ridiculous. There is no versus in the equation. I don't speak for everyone, obviously, but speaking for myself and nearly everyone I've talked to about session beers, we'd love to see all types of craft beers thrive. I can't imagine why anyone would feel differently. This is not about taking away anything. This is about the classic image of the craft beer market: not a bigger slice of the pie, but a bigger pie.

The last thing we need is a trumped-up "fight" between segments of the beer biz. We had enough of that with the Sam Adams wars in the 1990s. There's nothing to fight about here. I'd like to see session beers get more attention from the beer press, and from beer drinkers, and from brewers. I'm doing what I can to help that along because I'd like more choice when I go out to drink. I'm not doing it to bash extreme beers, to benefit one brewer over another, or to make money for myself; believe me, The Session Beer Project ain't a moneymaker. Like Rodney says, can we all get along? There's no reason to make it look any other way.


Alan said...

Why not? Trumped up fights are good for over all business if handled correctly. Where would the mud wrestling industry - or freedom of the press for that matter - be without it?

I do take your point yet extreme beers need to be put in their place but not fail. They are at the top of a pyramid or at one end of a continuum. They should not be where all the attention goes. The good traditional lighter beers as well as sensible portions for the stronger ones have been chucked out the window. Knowing that quality lighter beers were once more common is also knowing that the marketplace has shifted and sometimes that means has been shifted. Are they more profitable per unit? Maybe they are. But I still want a good tasty 3.5% beer and expect brewers to be able to supply it.

Given there is no consumer organization for North American beer drinkers, it is incumbent on those who have a position on the issues facing consumers to put that on the table event if it is uncomfortable for others in the marketplace. We deal with this when we ask why beer prices went up with the input costs but did not go down. We deal with it when we question the expensive layers of bureaucracy between the brewer and my glass. These sorts of questionings are valid demands of the market.

And I haven't read the articles you cite as they are not readily available and not on line but I would be interested if the portrayal is implicit or expressly stated. Can you provide quotations?

Lew Bryson said...

Sorry, Alan, I was working too early in the morning. I've added a link to Sam's piece; I'll work on some quotes from the BA piece.

And it's definitely too early to respond to you...except to say that your opening remark hits way too close to the mark. Or at least, what I think the mark was. I just don't intend to play the game. I got sucked into it with the "Seasonals Rule/Seasonals Suck" columns Steve Beaumont and I did in the latest issue of ASN, and I don't like it. More later.

Lew Bryson said...

Oh, and...nice CAMNA plug!

Lew Bryson said...

Here's one pertinent quote from the BA piece: that those in favor of session beers "...have made it their personal goal to dismiss extreme beers at every opportunity in a manner that's reminiscent of craft vs. macro bashing. Their platform is a call for more session beers -- i.e., beers 4.5 percent alcohol by volume and under, with just enough flavor to keep you interested in drinking more than one, or many. Their target enemy is extreme beers, and they narrowly focus on pockets of hype surrounding some of the more popular big beer releases."

And this provocative bit, which I assume references a NYT piece on extreme beers that was illustrated with a floridly tattooed arm: "Many crusading for session beers are stereotyping and belittling one of the greatest and uniquely American beer movements in decades by equating extreme beers solely with either beers that are highly hopped, beers high in alcohol, or both, and associating people who are into them as tattooed, pierced freaks who guzzle alcohol quicker than an eight-cylinder SUV hopped-up on road rage."

Extreme beers are going to both attract and generate extreme behavior; it's all part of the show. Live by it, but know you're going to have to live with it.

Another quote then, which blurs the line tremendously: "While some extreme brewing does indeed result in highly hopped and high alcoholic [sic] beers, it's more about flavors, using exotic ingredients, employing strange brewing methods, revisiting the past and creating the new."

So...a 3.5% bitter that added lemon verbena or elderberry flowers for flavor would ALSO be an extreme beer? In fact, if you're 'revisiting the past," wouldn't a 3.5% bitter be an extreme beer? Hell, if ALL beer is extreme beer, we obviously have no issue.

That should do it.

Anonymous said...

from reading the posts on beer advocate the extreme beer drinkers like to give off the impression they only drink 7 beers a week . which i say is bs .i like extreme but i prefer a session .

Bill said...

A modest proposal for the beer press: copy the wine publications/reviewers. In a year's time, I know Wine Spectator will review pretty much every wine region and varietals within each region. As will Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate. Getting close to this on a "what-can-we find-where-I-publish" model are the NYTimes' Eric Asimov, the Chicago Tribune's William Daley, etc. The big pubs break up their reviews by type, so that Napa cabs are reviewed against each other, not against other types... and so that their reviews are understood to be against each other, not against rieslings, roses, pinot noirs...

Beer press -- follow this model, and primacy won't be given to one category, or to one "short-hand" term for a bunch of styles/techniques. Otherwise, it'll be you folks creating and perpetuating said fights, no matter how carefully you write, no matter if your intent is to grow the pie.

I've met and like many of these folks, but if I never read another word from brewers extolling the virtues/dangers of creativity/freedom in brewing, that'll be fine. Because very few of these articles in which I find these brewers quoted are saying "It's all good. It all benefits beer drinkers." The articles imply -- even if the brewers don't mean to do so -- that one is better than the other.

Lew at least is owning up to being drawn into this. Beer Advocate is being a bit disingenuous about their role, but they've been willing to correct their path many times in the past.

You want to grow the pie? Remember that your audience is both newcomers to craft beer and to longtime drinkers who want to know which things to try and what that experience might be like. And look at how the wine guys do it.

Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Bill, All About Beer does follow that model already, and they have for years.

Anonymous said...

The next movement? Session Beer, Extreme Beer, or will it be... Healthy Beer! For the next 15 minutes, anyway.

Alan said...

"...have made it their personal goal to dismiss extreme beers at every opportunity in a manner that's reminiscent of craft vs. macro bashing..."

Oh, well, that is just silly - which sometime the Alström brothers' are... and as we all are. There is nothing wrong with being silly and polemic but you have to realize that you are being silly and polemic when you do.

I was not aware of your "Seasonals Rule/Seasonals Suck" angst. But I think it is important to be comfortable with discussing what is essentially a branding issue as much as a beer quality issue - whether it is the X3M of BA, the off-centred of Dogfish or the oft-less-than-splendid seasonals with the premium price.

[And, as always, I know not where the mark is myself for most of what I write as I sit here at the edge of the earth with no access to ASN and a lapsed BAer subscription - but with one of the better collection of punk lps actually bought in 1977 by a beer blogger in 2009, which gives me great comfort and confidence for unknown reasons.]

For those reasons, I am quite comfortable saying (and I am also not suggesting you are saying) that:
(1) there is far too much attention to the high alcohol end of the beer spectrum by US craft brewers,
(2) I suspect there is a profit motive in it all and
(3) there is a bigger profit opportunity and evangelizing opportunity being missed as it takes a far better brewer to make a great 3.5% beer than a great 11.5% one.

RICH said...

A few weeks back, Eric Asimov in the Times wrote about a "movement in Californais to produce, essentially "lighter" wines (he used the term "finesse" repeatedly); I'll be blogging about that shortly; I think he's onto something going on in the wine world too.

Joel said...

The Alstrom brothers stirring up shit with ill-reasoned, strawman garbage?! Say it ain't so!

You hit the nail on the head with this piece. Any real beer lover revels in variety. The pendulum has, in my opinion, swung too far in the "extreme" direction. We need a bit more balance. I'll continue to seek out big, brash, bold beers, while also appreciating the quaffable side of town. Variety is the spice of life.

Steven said...

"...have made it their personal goal to dismiss extreme beers at every opportunity"

I told you that you had too much time on your hands to be railing against extreme beers! :-/

I also should have taken a picture of you drinking that Matilda a few weeks back, no one will believe me now. ;-)

Lew Bryson said...

Indeed. All Trappist and Trappist-inspired beers are, of course, extreme, and so I cannot drink them. Won't Mom be surprised...

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Lew, reasonable beer drinkers can certainly "get along."

But the fundamental problem, in my eye, is that a great many of the advocates and apostles of "extreme beer" are engaged in what amounts to little more than a [fowl-word-for-male-organ]-wagging contest. And anyone engaged in such a contest is typically not inclined towards "getting along."

The perfect answer for all this, of course, is for Bud, Miller, Guinness, Pabst, or Corona to jump on the "extreme" bandwagon. Then all of us will be throwing ourselves under the wheels of said bandwagon jumping off.

Mmmmmmm..... extreme Stella Artois....

Stan Hieronymus said...

Alexander, how about Michelob's "Tomahop Double Rye-PA?" Made with 8% rye, 9.2 abv and has shown well at a few festivals where they've taken it. Measured (as opposed to calculated or just made up) at 97 IBUs.

Glenn said...

Lew..I've seen you and Sam C. In a cage match you could take him! ;-)

On a serious note I think a lot of extreme beer brewers have gotten a little lazy. It is easier to make a big beer with lots of flavor, then it is to make a lower octane version. Because in the bigger beer you have lots of things you can hide behind. I mean after your tongue explodes from 98IBU's you might not notice how out of balance the beer itself is. A lower alcohol yet flavorful beer is a thing of beauty. What we need to do is challenge the Sam C.'s of the world to see how they would do with a session beer!

Anonymous said...

from sam's response:
I love many session beers but beer folk, wine enthusiasts, and foodies alike are discovering that imperial and intensely flavorful beers work better with most foods then session beers.

in a word- no. not even close..but then, that's the problem here.. folks are srguing over what amount to their own personal preferences. no beer destroys, negates, or supercedes anyone else's. don't like it? don't drink it. i really don't get the impression that lew was trying to snipe at imperial beers, just the blind hype that they often recieve from beer geeks...he was imply pointing out that, if you appreciate good beer, an authentic british bitter is just as mind-and-pallet-blowing as a double IPA.

@SKeithJ said...

I see a Sam/Lew PBW 2010 Session vs. Imp Beer Dinner in my future. If I was the first to mention this, please put me on the advanced list for tickets.

Goal is to grow the whole pie, so I think its great that two guys like you and Sam can have a semi-open debate. I understand that you believe there's a place for both high abv and low abv "extreme brewing," and maybe Sam jumped a little too quickly to the defense of Imp/Extreme, but that's his thing just like the session project is your thing. I also know Sam's not one to back away from a challenge... so I also see a 2.5% DFH somethingorother at that beer dinner.

Lew Bryson said...


Daniel Bradford said...

Now that's a hell of a long thread and I don't know what the consensus is.

I've published All About Beer Magazine for over a decade and a half and I have always tried to support the whole beer industry. And I do love both extreme and session beers.

However, I did get blasted when on an Extreme Beer Fest panel I brought up session beers. Clearly there is a perceived demarcation between the virile testosterone extreme beers and the effete, sensitive session beers. However, each has a place.

I love sitting at a bar for four or five hours over pints, many pints, in great company. Gimme a 4.2% with great flavor and complexity. Just not boring, please.

I also like sitting back in a leather chair with a big, ain't-life-so-damn-wonderful beer. Pop a killer Quad and reflect on Nirvana.

We have bigger fish to fry then an invidious distinction bereft of merit. There are more than enough beers for everyone to enjoy and little value in casting psychological aspersions based on the beer of choice.

My approach is to consider the context and outcomes. No Belgian big ones at lunch unless I'm blowing the boss off and heading home. No sessions when the day is done, the evening half over and I'm feeling reflective.

Consider also the laddering approach from modest to robust. Start the evening (afternoon?) off with a few cozy session beers than as evening closes in treat yourself to a rich night cap.

In short, our magazine's mission is to educate the public about beer appreciation and beer quality. Choosing the right beer for you at that particular moment is the height of public eduction, in my mind.

Steven said...

Daniel -- how dare you be so logical.

Oh, wait -- that makes the most sense in the world of beer, doesn't it? ;-)

I've always tried to say that diversity is our best friend in our choices of beer, but the fact that there are too many out there who think that a Double IPA is a session beer (no matter what anyone tries explaining to them) just shows that the wide and varied (dare I say, complex?) history of the drink is lost on many a modern enthusiast.

Anonymous said...

DFH Black & Red, fool!