October 23, 2018

Session Beers and Why They are Great

Some factors have been merging recently, bringing me to write this blog post on session beers. And I'll talk about each of them in turn: brewing a run of 4-5 batches in a row of above-6% ABV beer, drinking some truly amazing low-gravity beers, checking out The Session Beer Project blog, and listening to Mark Stutrud's keynote address at the NHC this year.


Now, I'll admit that I enjoy me some extreme brews. Hell, I like drinking whiskey. But most days, I've found that I don't really want or need a highly alcoholic and intense beverage. The mental effects of large amounts of alcohol are dramatic and can be quite unpleasant, as we all know, and intense flavors can quickly wear out the sensitivity of the taste buds. Recently I brewed a string of beers that all had fairly high amounts of alcohol. It started with a Schwarzbier, then a Maibock, then a Belgian Dubbel, then an IPA, then a batch of mead and a couple batches of wine. Then a local liquor store was having a 30% off sale on all of their single bottles of beer, so I picked up a few Tripels, some big barrel-aged stuff, and some other odds and ends. The end result was that my house was well stocked with beer, but when I got home at the end of workday, after my 10 mile bike ride, I didn't really want to drink any of it. And when I'd sit down with some friends for a few homebrews, we'd often wind up slightly and unintentionally drunk.

Then I found the answer in the bottom of a pint glass (it worked this time!). I had a really amazing and flavorful ordinary bitter, followed by an awesome Berliner Weiss and a fantastic small Belgian that was only 2.8% alcohol! I could have drunk any of them every day for months. The recipes for these were all fairly simple, but required great attention to balance and prominently featured interesting yeast flavors that can be buried in a stronger beer. As a brewer, it can actually be scary to not hide behind hops or crystal malts, but the effort is worth it.

Checking out the Session Beer Project, linked to above, was another eye-opening experience. There is some excellent commentary on cultures of drinking and much impassioned veneration of the humble session brew. The advocacy and passionate approach reminds me of CAMRA, Britain's outspoken real ale supporters. The discussion of session beers has really got me thinking about what beer and drinking means to me. Is it about bringing people together, creating a favorable atmosphere for conversation and life, or geeking out about crazy flavors and delving into connoisseurship?

Perhaps a little bit of both, but in the right proportions. The NHC's keynote address by Mark Stutrud raised some interesting and relevant points. Mark's company, Summit Brewing, has been around since the 80's and has weathered many trends in the beer world. The main thrust of his speech was that craft and homebrewing should always be inventive and creative, but also stay grounded. He emphasized reaching out to the massive general public that has not yet caught on to quality craft beer. How many people are really going to enjoy a double-IPA right off the bat? Some, but probably not all that many. People are probably a lot more likely to get into a simple, flavorful session beer, and continue drinking it.

The way I see it, there are a couple of big factors that keep session beers from breaking out into the big time. First of all, Bud and Miller and all those guys essentially already make session beer. It's fairly low in alcohol and designed to be very easy drinking. It may not be the best tasting session beer around, but basically if you're marketing a session beer to the general public, you've got to go up against the big boys to some extent. This is part of why commercial craft breweries have focused on types of beer that the big companies don't make, and they've found a nice die-hard cult market in insanely hoppy and/or Belgian-style beers, which is about as far away from MGD as you can possibly get. Secondly, there are a lot of costs involved in producing and distributing beer that are constant no matter what type of beer you produce. Much of the equipment, and very significantly the costs of transportation of beer don't change if you make an 11% IIPA as opposed to a 3.6% Bitter. But, of course, you can charge a lot more for that 11% beer, and customers may even perceive it as a better deal. This fixed-cost dilemma means that we don't see a lot of ordinary bitters getting exported to the States. If a British brewery is going to export a beer, they're going to send a bigger ESB and market it more as a premium product. The high cost of overseas transportation would make it difficult to turn a profit on an everyday drinking ordinary bitter. However, in a relatively small country like England, where beer was historically brewed fairly close to the bar it was served in, the culture of session beer seems strong.

Here's where you, dear homebrewing reader, come into the equation. One of my favorite things about homebrewing is that you can make beer that isn't available commercially. Want to drink an 11% barley wine made with candy canes and prune juice? You can make it. Want to drink a fruity/mineral-y 3.4% British Bitter, then drink three more of them? You can make that, too. So, as the unofficial vanguard of brewing, let us as homebrewers make some awesome session beers, and give them freely to our friends. They will enjoy them and will be looking for those elusive flavors the next time they have a disappointing commercial American lager. Now that craft beer has taken hold in the US and has girdled its loins with hop vines and domestic crystal malt, it's time for them to take the next step, and take over the session beers in this country.