American craft brewing has been on a bit of a binge over the past fifteen years.
Not the growth of the segment that we’ve all seen — though that’s great — but the steadily climbing ABV of the beers on the shelves and in the taps. You can see it in the beer bars — outside of Philly, and more about that later — out of 20 taps, likely 15 will be over 7%, and maybe two will be under 5%, if you’re lucky.
“So what?” would have been the response five years ago. We liked big beers, they tasted great, they were full of flavor, and they were definitively not the light beers we’d rejected. So what if there were few choices under 5%? As the joke went, people who like light beer don’t really like beer, they just like to pee more often.
That’s starting to change. One of the strong new trends in craft beer, along with sour/wild beers and collaboratively-brewed beers, is session beer; flavorful beers at lower alcohol levels. There are a variety of reasons, though perhaps the primary one is that you can enjoy more of them without getting too drunk. As opposed to the joke about light beer, the truth about session beer drinkers is that they really like to drink great-tasting beer, four or five pints in a few hours. Session beers allow them to indulge that without the full effects drinking that much of an 8% double IPA would sock them with.
The growing strength of American craft beer is not anecdotal; it’s real and documented. In 2010, beer writer Ken Weaver worked with the folks at Ratebeer.com on information from their database. He compiled the ABV data on all the new beers added to the database from 1999 to 2009, rounding to the nearest whole number and categorizing each beer by ABV and year introduced. He split them by U.S. and non-U.S. beers (“The Untimely Death of the American Session Beer,” kmweaver.hoppress.com, 3/21/2010).
First he graphed the percentage of new beers that were at or above 5.5% ABV over the ten years. The non-U.S. beer introductions showed a slow rise from a little over 30% at or above 5.5% to a little under 40%; close to steady. The U.S. beer introductions at that level or above started at about 40% and rose dramatically to over 70% by 2006.
Then Weaver considered the possibility that the new beers were merely just over 5.5%, pulling the figures higher without really being that much stronger. He graphed the ABV of the new beers, and found the difference between U.S. and non-U.S. was, if anything, even more dramatic. The average ABV of new non-U.S. beers generally clustered right around 5.5%; the average ABV of new U.S. beers steadily rose from just over 5.5% in 1999 to just over 7% in 2009.
You can imagine reasons for this. “New” beers are often limited releases, which in the U.S. tend to be bigger beers. Lower-alcohol beers are generally brewed as a long-haul alternative in brewpubs, or as an unchanging flagship: Samuel Adams Boston Lager (4.9%), New Belgium Fat Tire (5.2%), Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat (4.4%). These sell a lot, but they’re only three beers, and none of them were new in the past 14 years. But really? Go into a beer bar in California or Seattle or Chicago or New York, and see what you see: a lot of big beers on draft.
It’s slowly changing; more accurately, it’s slowly varying. Trying to put together a session beer event in 2007 would have been a thankless job; there were very few beers under 4.5% available outside of import standards like Guinness. Since then, session beers have been trickling into the market and getting more and more attention and love (witness this piece!). A declaration of April 7th as “Session Beer Day” this spring went viral in only 19 days, and gained lots of attention, as far away as Italy.
WHAT IT IS
Still, although Philadelphia and Salt Lake City are two big exceptions (see sidebar pg. 72), session beer continues to be somewhat under the radar. Part of the reason is a low-level, ongoing controversy over just what a session beer is.
BeerAdvocate (BA) has one definition: “Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish — a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.” Adrian Dingle, a fierce proponent of the idea, has another: “4.0% is the absolute maximum ABV for a beer to be accurately called a ‘session beer.’” The Session Beer Project (SBP, a blog by the writer of this piece) defines it as “4.5% alcohol by volume or less; flavorful enough to be interesting; balanced enough for multiple pints; conducive to conversation; and reasonably priced.” There is also a GABF category that puts the ABV range at 4.0% up to 5.1%, and mostly defines session beer as lower-ABV versions of bigger beer styles.
Notice that the main sticking point is the top ABV limit, though all the numbers are under 5.2%. Dingle’s low 4.0% is based on the ABV ranges of types of English bitters, and he’s quite dogmatic about it. The BA and SBP definitions are more pragmatic, recognizing that going too low in America would result in a category with vanishingly few entries.
But that’s not the only reason to be wary of strict limits from one beer culture. While “session beer” is an English term, there are similar low alcohol beers in other countries’ brewing traditions: the Belgian Tafelbier, the Czech desitka. The Germans make do with the Radler, a beer/soft drink mix like the English shandy. Given American craft beer’s multiple roots, we have accepted all these types, and more, and continue to make new ones. Because we speak English, we use the term “session beer” to address all of them…and create our own, new definition, keeping in mind that even in the UK, the term “session beer” only dates back to the early 1980s.
WHAT IT ISN’T
It’s maybe more to the point to address what session beer isn’t. For example, it isn’t American light lager. That may be low in alcohol, but we’re craft beer drinkers! We’re looking for beer with more flavor.
Session beer isn’t simply anything you feel like having four of, either. Most of us remember — vaguely — times when we’ve given in and had four double IPAs, or imperial stouts. While you can probably still walk, higher functions would be…problematic.
Beers at 5% and up aren’t really session beers either. “Session beer” means something else; a beer that’s significantly lower in alcohol than a standard beer…which is about 5%, by world averages. That’s why a growing number of people are gravitating to the 4.5% and 4.0% definitions.
Finally, tagging “session” to an existing higher ABV style is, well, just silly. Recently we’ve seen “session IPA” popping up…isn’t a hoppy 4.8% ale what we used to call a “Pale Ale”? Actually, there are pale ales that are bigger and hoppier than some of these so-called session IPAs. If you have to call a beer “IPA” to enjoy it, you’ve got a mental issue.
The honesty of Stone Levitation Ale (4.4%) is preferred; a hoppy ale that calls itself exactly that. As Stone Brewing Co. CEO Greg Koch put it, “Stone Levitation Ale was the result of wanting a session-y beer that didn’t taste session-y. In other words, we wanted to create a big beer in a small package. We worked long and hard on it over many years. During this time, we had to constantly tweak the characteristics that were not working.”
So, a message to brewers who want to have a session beer in their portfolio: if you’re not willing to put in the work to make a great-tasting beer at 4.5% and under, don’t put “session” on the label. The brewers who have, deserve to profit from their success.
The founder of Notch Session Beers, Chris Lohring, who brews every beer at 4.5% and under, put it another way. “Jumping a train is easier than building one,” he noted in a March, 2012 interview on the SBP blog, “and calling something session beer is easier than actually brewing it. Some brewers are using ‘session’ when they are referring to ‘easy drinking.’ Not the same.”
What’s amazing about the trend to session beers is that even at this early stage, session is seen as a threat by some craft beer drinkers. They say it’s all about drinking a lot, not enjoying it; or that session beers are somehow being forced on craft brewing (by whom?); or simply that they’re not hoppy enough.
Session beer is not a threat. It’s a choice, a choice that has been largely lacking. Part of that choice, of course, is the possibility of choosing not to buy or drink session beer, and no one denies that. But craft beer is all about variety, it always has been. Session beers just represent more variety, and more opportunity for innovation by brewers, and more opportunities to introduce the everyday beer drinker to flavor.
Session beer is about drinking a lot in the same way that extreme beer is about consuming a lot of alcohol…or how it isn’t. Like extreme beer, it’s all in how you approach it. Session beer can lead you to think deeply about why you drink craft beer, and why you’re willing to pay the higher prices. Is it for the higher alcohol? Or is it the flavor? Or is it…the social great times you have with people when you’re all drinking good beer? Session is quite sociable, that’s why the Brits drink it in the pub with their mates.
The interesting thing is that some of the most successful local session beers…don’t talk about their low alcohol. Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale is only 4.5%, and Brawler is 4.2%, and they sell very strongly for Yards. Rival Philadelphia Brewing has never made Kenzinger’s 4.5% ABV a selling point, it’s just a good drinking beer that has real crossover appeal. Sly Fox’s O’Reilly’s Stout and Victory’s Donnybrook taste great; any mention of session beer status comes from the drinker, not the brewer.
That’s the mark of a great session beer. It’s one that doesn’t make a big fuss, just tastes great, eases along the conversation, and doesn’t leave you stupid tonight or sore tomorrow. Isn’t that a great choice to be able to make? Imperials and doubles and extremes aren’t ever going to go away; if they did, we’d be campaigning to bring them back! But the little beers with big flavor and plenty of social character deserve a place on the bar as well, and nowadays, they’re finally starting to get it.