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Session Beer

AMERICANS DO NOT have much experience in consciously limiting their alcohol intake.  Out history has been punctuated with periods of government enforced moderation or prohibition and our doctors have informed us of the health benefits surrounding limited alcohol consumption.  But as a drinking populace, we have not yet embraced the concept of session drinking, or purposely selecting lower alcohol products in order to sustain a lengthier drinking session.  We’ve just generally viewed alcohol as a means to a socially lubricating end.

The origins of the term “session drinking” – as with all things beer history – are a little hazy, but the concept remains a relatively accessible one.  A session beer is one that allows its imbiber to consumer several glasses over a few hours without becoming disturbingly and painfully drunk.  The term can be applied to many styles of beer and doesn’t reference any particular method of production beyond lower alcohol content.  This concept comes with some negative perceptional baggage here in the United States.  With our legacies of Prohibition era “near beer”, 3.2 beer and modern non-alcoholic offerings, the concept of session beer can often times be a hard sell.  For starters, we’re not talking about no alcohol, just lower alcohol than usual, which compared to the elevated ABV’s of modern craft beers may hardly seem slight.  In defining session beers, this can refer to any beer that possesses less than 5 percent ABV, even though the British tend to apply the term to beers under 4 percent.  While the British definition is certainly a truer acknowledgment of the powerful physiology effects of alcohol, American brewers don’t actually make very many beers that weigh in at 3.5 percent.  That is a bit of a shame – many British brewers have demonstrated that their session beers, while small in alcoholic prowess, are anything but diminutive in terms of flavor.  When viewed through the bottom of a 2O ounce British imperial pint, however, it’s easy to understand why they felt compelled to shave an extra half-point or two of alcohol off their session sipping beers.

Today, it can be challenging for the drinker looking to undertake a session of beer enjoyment without incurring the taxing, if pleasant, after-effects of alcohol.  For one, most bars don’t list the alcohol levels in the beers they serve unless it is mandated by law.  So undertaking a true session might require asking bartenders about their selections or doing a little advanced legwork.  With that said, certain beer styles are often safer bets in terms of limiting your alcohol intake.  These styles include Mild, Golden Ale, Kölsch, Hefeweizen, American Wheat Ale, Witbier, American Pale Ale, and many fruit beers.  But substantial alcohol deviations can appear in individual brands so even this list is anything but a sure bet.  The best option is to come armed with a little knowledge, ask the bartender, or patronize better beer bars that provide you with a descriptive menu.

It’s important to note that the best session beers provide a focused and complex flavor experience without relying upon the diverse flavors and aromas contributed by alcohol.  By selecting high quality and flavorful malts, brewers can produce highly drinkable and nuanced beers that sustain your interest every bit as much as boozier offerings.  Hop heads also need not worry either as brewers remain fully capable of brewing less robust beers that still pack the full range of hoppy aromas, flavors and bitterness levels.  For example, the Stone Brewing Company, celebrated by hop and alcohol fans alike, brews a beer called Levitation that gives consumers a rise not from alcohol but from prodigious amounts of Amarillo, Simcoe and Columbus hops.  With its snappy hop aroma and pleasant malt flavors, you’d never guess Levitation weighed in at a meager 4.4 percent alcohol.  American brewers produce many such beers that result in twists on the old session beer concept.

While the phrases “session beer” and its sibling “sessionable” are not of long-standing origin, their underlying concepts have been in long practice across the globe, especially in the United Kingdom.  As the concept of session beer has started to take stronger root in the United States, some quiet but substantial debate has erupted over how to define the term.  For the first few decades of its application here, anything under 6 percent ABV might have qualified.  Purists, including those drinkers who have spent a substantial amount of time drinking in the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and other historic brewing nations, would strongly disagree.  To qualify as a session beer, most Brits would expect the beer to contain less than 4 percent ABV, thus allowing the pub goer to enjoy several rounds during an evening without succumbing to the perils of over-consumption.  It remains a badge of honor among British beer drinkers, with the session or sessionable label applied to particularly good beers of low alcohol content.

The culture of lower alcohol beer in Britain is largely a product of the taxation scheme that nation applies to its brewing industry.  Based on strength, beers with a lower alcohol level faced less aggressive taxation, leading to a culture of session beers, even without the name.  A British beer consumer group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), has gone so far as to advocate that the government adopt a zero tax policy for beers that are 2.8 percent or lower in alcohol buy volume.  CAMRA’s policy suggestion would have the effect of promoting sobriety and encouraging lower taxes on beers.

By contrast, the taxation system applied in the United States rarely taxes beers based on their alcohol content.  With that said, America has somewhat unknowingly adopted a lower alcohol culture as the vast majority of American style lagers, such as Coors Banquet and Budweiser, topping out at 5 percent and lighter lagers, such as Coors Light, Miller Lite and Bud Light, coming in at 4.2 percent.

Today, we’re starting to experience the overuse and hyper-extension of the session label, seeing it applied to beers closer to 6, 7 or even 8 percent alcohol and beyond.  Apparently one man’s session is another’s direct avenue to inebriation.  Just as with IPA, which is now frequently applied to beers that in no way qualify for the style, the session sobriquet is increasingly a way to make money and market a beer.  While this unfortunate situation persists, as education about session beer and its underlying tenets becomes better understood, craft breweries misapplying the term to higher alcohol beers is likely to fade.

Another concern some beer drinkers have about session beer is that it equates to a lack of flavor.  While it is certainly a challenge to brew flavorful beers at lower alcohol levels, in the absence of the full benefits heavier doses of malt, it is certainly not an impossible task.  Quite to the contrary, several American craft brewers have gained great attention specializing in the production of lower alcohol beers that brim with character.

Fortunately for the alcohol level purists and those seeking flavor alike, many American brewers now produce session beers that would please even the most hardened British pub dweller and American craft beer geek.

If you are talking about session beer in New England, it will only be a short time before Notch Brewing Company comes up in the conversation.  Founded in 2O1O by Chris Lohring, Notch pushed the session beer concept before it’s recent jump in coolness and popularity.  Lohring previously founded the now long-defunct Tremont Brewery in Boston, touting some lower alcohol offerings in an era long before their time.  Notch operates as an independent brewery, with no set facility, renting time on the systems of other breweries, including Mercury Brewing in Ipswich and Two Roads in Connecticut.

In terms of defining session beer, Lohring says on Notch’s website that “[b]eer enhances our good times together, session beer extends them. . . Session Beer is bought in rounds with friends and served in big glasses.  Where one leads to three, and the good times are extended without care.  It fuels the conversation.  It’s communal.  It’s in for the long haul, because the times when we are drinking beer are some of the best times of all.  It’s born of British pub culture and Czech beer halls, where multiple beers are expected, and one hour becomes three.  Yet it allows us to walk a straight line home, and answer the bell the next morning without regret.”

Cognizant of the debate among session beer purists, Lohring styles his beers as being “American session” beers, signaling that they may range up to 4.5-percent alcohol by volume.  While some view this alcohol level as being too high, when compared to many present day craft beers, which can range substantially higher, beers at 4.5 percent and lower remain a solid option for those seeking a break from bruising-and-boozing IPAs and their ilk.  Regardless of which side you support in this debate, the popularity of lower alcohol beers in American craft beer circles is undeniable and is a trend both on- and off-premise accounts have to address.

Notch Brewing Company
Ipswich, Massachusetts and Stratford, Connecticut
alcohol content  4.O% ABV
The Session Pils is starting to find itself in many new bars and package stores throughout Massachusetts, especially on the  astern side.  Brewed to honor the unfiltered pale lagers of the Czech Republic, the Pils starts with a nose of slight herbal hops and a biscuity or light toasted malt underpinning.  The flavor follows suit, with wisps of clean, zesty hops framed by a modest malt base.  Finishing dry on the palate, this soft and accessible beer heralds a new era of American drinking.  With production recently having been moved to the larger environs of the Two Roads facility in Connecticut, the beer now offers more structure and focus, improving on an already impressive and enjoyable offering.

Notch Brewing Company
Ipswich, Massachusetts and Stratford, Connecticut
alcohol content  4.3% ABV
While Lohring originally focused on the Pils and Session Ale brands, even the session concept cannot escape the market share monster that is IPA.  Perhaps one reason session beers have become so popular is their often direct association with the IPA style.  Session IPAs from many large breweries, including the popular Founders All Day IPA, have swamped other once flagship brands.  Lohring himself admits that IPA is not his favorite style of beer but he recognized the market demands for such a product.  As he says on his website, “Notch fans were asking for it, and I knew it was my opportunity to brew an IPA totally on my terms.  I think IPAs, for the most part, are lazy brewing from a business perspective.  You are pretty well assured a certain volume of beer to sell just by having IPA on the label.  It is the Pavlov’s dog equivalent for beer consumers – ring the IPA bell and just wait.”  For the Left of the Dial, Lohring employs three different malts, including Fawcett Golden Promise, and a mixture of well favored hops, including Citra and Simcoe.  The beer pours with a substantial off-white head that cascades into a slightly hazy golden-orange hue.  The nose remains enjoyably floral and fruit, touches of hop resin, with a hint of grainy undertones.  The flavor well balances a touch of sweet malt with mild but consistent fruit and juicy hop notes.  Always a welcome sight on a local beer list.

Brewery Ca l’Arenys
Barcelona, Spain
alcohol content  2.5% ABV
One of the most interesting session beer offerings in the United States has to be the Guineu Riner from Brewery Ca l’Arenys of Spain.  Weighing in at a miniscule 2.5 percent ABV, the Riner packs so strong a punch that even craft beer heavyweights will be reeling at first sip.  And here raises an interesting question: is session beer exclusively about alcohol levels or is there some implied warranty of drinkability and balance.  While an interesting subject – and one that is likely to inflame passions on all sides – it is a debate for another day.  For hard core beer geeks, the Riner may be the perfect session beer – if by that phrase they mean low alcohol. Brewery Ca l’Arenys designs and manufacture brewing systems for small breweries and also has developed a line of beers, which includes the Riner.  Essentially an unfiltered pale ale or IPA, the Riner pours with a pretty white head and displays a straw to yellow color with a touch of haze.  The aroma is a touch confusing, at times gritty and grainy, other times fresh and clean, always suggesting something interesting is lurking below the surface.  The initial sip, however, is where things get serious.  The first hint is a mild touch of grain, with almost no sweetness in a light body, followed by an absolutely palate-assaulting crush of bitter hops.  Falling more into the earthy rather than fruity hop category, this is residual bitterness at its clearest.  At 93 international bittering units, all of which come in the form of the Amarillo hop, the beer is a serious hop bomb – but one that is not accompanied by a load of sweet malts.  And just as quickly as the bitterness comes, it subsides, leaving a palate both awake and intrigued, ready for another sip. While the Riner is both interesting and delicious, it is also incredibly expensive.  The somewhat hard to source kegs from the Shelton Brothers portfolio show up in the best beer bars and at above-average session beer prices.  Unflinchingly bitter and beautiful, it would be nice to see local brewers expand the session category beyond the relatively prosaic offerings of recent years.  The Riner is an example of just such a detour to session drinkability.