Ken Weaver’s “The Untimely Death of the American Session Beer”, and the comments that follow, is absolutely essential reading for anyone who likes beer, and is highly recommended reading prior to reading this article. Go on, I can wait.
There was a time in my beer drinking life when I didn’t know what a “session” was. I was naïve, incredibly uneducated in all the craft jargon, didn’t even know how beer was made or how it got to a store shelf, had never heard the word “barleywine” or the term “Great American Beer Festival”. I just knew I liked a bold flavor, porters & stouts mostly, and the sense of superiority craft beer gave me over my Keystone Light drinking college brethren.
I think I know the exact moment all that changed. While visiting Alesmith Brewery in 2009, I as well as my accompanying best friend and my fiancée, laughed at how ridiculous and insane their tap board was; we gawked at the ABV of the beers on tap, averaging 9-10%. And at the bottom: Speedway Stout. 12% ABV. To be honest, it kinda scared and intimidated me. But then the sample came and I tasted it.
It was, and is, the best beer I have had in my life and, for better or worse, determines how I judge all stouts and other beers in general. It was an experience so profound I decided I needed a RateBeer.com account so I could tell the world how perfect I thought that beer was. My inner beer geek hit puberty and I searched high and low to find another beer, of any style, that would blow my mind like that again (Alesmith was/is not available in Texas, where I lived). I found a few gems here and there, moved to Colorado and found even more gems, even discovered that I do, in fact, enjoy beers of a yellower hue with a bigger hop profile. And I have learned that every style has its virtues, and not every big ABV beer will taste as subtle as Speedway’s 12%, and just because “stout” is in the name does not mean I will enjoy it.
And along the way I discovered what a session beer was. Again, its relevance and importance cannot be understated, particularly in regards to Ken Weaver’s article (re-referenced here to try to convince you to read it). At some point, 5% ABV became “too low”, and the new session is somewhere around 6 or 6.5%, thanks in no small part to the Californians (no offense). There’s nothing wrong with “session beers”, and to my palate and opinion can be just as delectable, if not more so, than any of the beers in the middle of the spectrum (see also: Odell Levity, Boulevard Zon, Fuller’s London Porter, Boulder Beer Hazed and Infused, St. Peters Old Style Porter). But that is not to say their low-ish ABV is part of what makes those beers and so many others so great. They’re just great beers on their own merit, and it is somewhat of a shame to see the market trend away from these foundations towards barrel aging, high ABVs, and the like. Frankly, I think it takes more skill and finesse to brew something so flavorful into such a small package.
But the point of a “session beer” is lost on me. I am not the kind of guy who is going to drink a whole 6-pack of beer in an evening, no matter how good it tastes or how low the ABV is. You see, I “respect beer” in the sense that I know it’s somewhat bad for me. Let’s just say there’s a good marketing reason why no beer has the nutrition facts on it. It’s the same mentality as ice cream; if you’re having a bowl every night (or rather, >24oz in one sitting), you have issues. Craft beer is awesome, especially nowadays, but I cannot in good conscience have more than 2 bottles in a night. I push that rule when visiting breweries, but that’s beside the point. I’m a fat boy who doesn’t count calories and loves pizza more than most people, but even I know the negative health effects of this stuff. You want to “session” a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale? Go ahead. I’ll just have one, thanks.
That being said, I have no qualms with higher ABV brews per se. Most of my favorites lie somewhere between 6-8%, with a few reaching even higher (have I mentioned that I am enamored by Alesmith Speedway Stout?). But my ice cream rule still applies: just three a week. No matter the ABV. For some reason I cannot fully articulate, a Dogfish Head 120 Minute holds the same personal health-guilt as a Stone Levitation. The only gripe I have is the bandwagoning trend of high ABV for the sake of high ABV, barrels, boozy overtones, and the fame they seem to have. It is a trend with decreasing creativity values, and I feel that certain brewers create them just to keep with the trend. And some of them are just plain gross. I would love more than anything to sit down at a table with someone who really really really enjoys a bourbon barrel aged 15% imperial whatever, and have them explain to me, as they drink it, what it is about that beer they enjoy so much. Because I am completely at a loss to explain how so many people can find Port Older Viscosity a pleasurable experience. (No offence meant towards Port Brewing or its brewers).
So in the end, I wouldn’t be too terribly upset if 5% sessions became a thing of the past. They most likely won’t, but I prefer they stick around nonetheless. They’re good for the industry, good for introducing craft beer to the uninitiated, and just plain good fun without much guilt. But if the craft beer scene keeps trending towards the 7-8% more frequently, I won’t mind as long as it is done with a spirit of creativity and a passion for something new, which kinda got me into craft beer to begin with.
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