Sessionable vs. Drinkableby brandon / Aug 11, 2012
Editor's Note: Come one, come all, for the triumphant return of our friend and guest blogger Brandon Plyler (a.k.a Old Time, a.k.a Professor Plyler, a.k.a The Sauce Boss)! Today, Brandon speaks eloquently on the truth about session beer, educating the uninitiated and maybe settling some pesky, persistent, trans-Atlantic arguments. Check out Brandon's beer reviews on his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @NoSassBack. -ETP
“This 7% IPA is very well structured with a seamless body and dry aftertaste. I want another. What a great session beer!”
-American Craft Beer Drinker
“Umm, anything over 4% is not a session beer!”
- People Who Know What Session Beer Is
"Naturally, borrowing any cultural idea leads to the inevitability of that idea’s progenitor raising a stink regarding misrepresentation."
–Benjamin Franklin (not verified)
Goal-wise, the idea of session beer is to leave the imbiber coherent and able to function safely after 5+ pints over an EXTENDED period of time. Something got lost over the pond. Somehow Americans began the curious, if not irritating, practice of describing drinkability with a word that defines an entire culture.
Great Britain: 20-ounce pints (Imperial)
Many Europeans drink customarily in rounds. In the pubs of Great Britain and Ireland, the idea of the round is that everyone at the table buys one. So if there are 6 of you, that is how many 20 ounce (Imperial) pints you will be drinking. Now, before you start adding the ounces up into 40oz math, please consider the strength: 3.0 - 4.0% alcohol by volume. Naturally, no posse is required to accomplish this, but pacing and duration of consumption is in place. Of course consumption (not in a session) is not frowned upon at any time of day as long as it is within reason.
In the U.S., macro lager hovers around 5% while many craft beers trend closer to 5-6%+. Through the rationing of two World Wars and the subsequent limitations on pub hours, beer strength in Britain fell from around 6% to 3-4% in just a few generations. Remarkably, British brewers were able to hone beers that delivered full flavor and complexity within the confines of strength limitations and scant availability of raw material.
Lunch: Not 5 o’clock
“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!”: perhaps the most demonstrative, and differentiating proclamation of US and European alcohol cultures. Insinuating that not only is there a designated and accepted time of day to start consuming, but also that once it begins, all bets are off. We certainly enjoy our booze in this country! In fact, the United States has fairly much been considered a nation of rowdy drunks since the early days. Take a look into The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, if you ever have the free time. Many of us beer consumers were raised on the lowest price points as a standard, and when making the move to the "craft" side of things there can be a bit of sticker shock. We would probably be hard-pressed to not associate alcohol content and price point as a source of value. Consequently, lower alcohol beers are not very popular here. Terms like "Mild" and "Bitter" are not generally what American consumers, even craft beer geeks, want to run across. Mild and Bitter, however, are wonderful styles of beer that serve as an essay on brewing ingenuity and skill. Unfortunately, they don’t travel well, so we must do without the Real McCoy from England.
Casks and Well-Conditioned Bottles
Lower alcohol beers do exist here in the U.S.; in fact they are all around you. They’re called “Light Beers.” Not much alcohol, not many calories, and none of that pesky flavor or character to be bothered with. All deathly filtered and microwaved for shelf-stability. Not much in the way of real. In fact, for the cause of good beer many folks in the U.S. have worked tirelessly to update legislation and slowly change palates one glass at a time. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) fought hard against the obscenities of kegged beer and pasteurized bottles long before this. Passionate Brits staged mock funerals for independent breweries closed by national conglomerates that at best would devolve a beer into the lowest common denominator. They demanded standards of handling and serving naturally conditioned/living beer from casks and bottle-conditioned package. One can’t be shocked that ex-pats here in the States are rather persnickety, sometimes grumpy about what passes for real ale and session beer. Can you blame them when we refer to a 7% hop-bomb as refreshing and sessionable? Session should serve as a catalyst for conversation rather than the couch on the railroad tracks that an IPA would.
‘Merikans, Brothers and Sisters:
While the Brits' presentation of opinion can manifest itself as cranky, harping, withering annoyances from former Empire owners, please avail yourself to a different way of thinking. Feel free to have a glass or two at lunch, or maybe one more before calling it a night. Session beer can provide these freedoms. Support your local breweries when they brew lower strength beers. Westbrook Zwickel, American Bitter, and Gose; COAST 32/50 Kölsch and Export Scotch Ale; Holy City Weak Sauce Stout, etc. *
Recently, after a rather blistering 4 hours on the beach, I retreated to a local Public House and ordered a Westbrook Grätzer (3.4% ABV). This slightly smoky wheat beer was exactly the protein- and flavor-rich restorative that soothed me into place. Ironically, I had more than a few while discussing the reason behind my investment in a beer so low in alcohol with shocked craft beer lovers at the bar...
*Just a reminder, session in England does mean 4% or less. While not super-defined, the term is brought up frequently by The Mr. Jackson and never in reference to any beer over 4%. Although, in the author’s opinion, under 5% is just fine.