July 9, 2010

Session Beers

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.

Comments are welcome, this post is full of wild speculation and personal opinions. Where do you stand?


  1. Great post. More and more, I find myself seeking out session beers when perusing the beer list at a bar or restaurant. Not that I don't love a good imperial stout or IPA, but I'm past the point in my drinking career where I enjoy getting wasted. (This conflicts somewhat with my constant craving for beer!) Nowadays, when I'm out with friends and I know I'll be having several, I try to stick to brews that are at least below 6 percent ABV. I would happily order something with 3-4 percent ABV, but craft brews of that nature seem pretty hard to come by in most places. At home, I've been drinking a batch I made from NB's British Bitter kit, and that's been treating me pretty well...

  2. I just stumbled across the recipe for the super low-gravity Belgian beer I mentioned up above:
    Schoolhouse Tafelbier
    For 5.5 US gallons OG: 1.025
    3.75 lb Belgian Pilsner
    1 lb Caravienne
    .25 lb Aromatic
    .5 oz saaz at 60 min
    1 tsp freshly cracked pepper 5 min
    Mash for 60 minutes at 155,
    boil first runnings of 1 gallon down to 1/2 gallon to caramelize.
    This is from a Zymurgy article from last year.

  3. Hear hear! Session beers are sadly under represented in the craft beer world.

    If you missed Mark's keynote address, like I did, you can download it here:

  4. Funny thing about the stronger beers made me craft my favorite pale ale, an xtra pale ale. I love the really hoppy ipas, but the alcohol has been kicking my butt. I wanted to brew a more session strength beer with all that hoppy goodness. So, I made my Xtra Pale ale, apa strength and IPA to IIPA hops.

  5. Agreed, my taste buds got burned out on all those IPA's and Barley Wines...but I was drinking those like session beers. You'll now usually find me drinking the craft Pilsners, Lagers and Saisons. I usually treat those taste bud bombs like a cocktail. Here comes the revolution!

  6. Three cheers for Session Biers... hip hip - Hooray! hip hip - Hooray! hip hip - _______

    So what yeast is used in the schoolhouse Belgian? Looks tasty.

    Less than 20% of my brews are over 6.5% while about almost half of the bier I brew is 4.5% or less, I simply love having 3.3% abv bier around. I can drink a couple of bombers during a game or while cooking then with the meal and have absolutely no effect on me. It's a beautiful thing especially when you you can make smaller versions of 'bigger styled' biers such as ipa, ameican stout, etc.

    The session beer project is a very nice blog, one I follow along with yours and a good read to broaden our homebrew mentality. Gotta go, need to check the temp on my 4% IPA!

  7. Thanks Brother Mac, feel free to post a recipe if you've got one you'd like to share. The article didn't specify a yeast, I think it just said "Belgian yeast of your choice" or something like that. I can see Belgian Abbey II from Wyeast working well.

  8. Thanks Tom, I'm happy to share! Sorry so long since I checked this far down the blog.

    Mash temps are very important, 154.5-155 is where I shoot for. Normally I'd mash an IPA at 151 to get it nice and dry, however as this brew is both bitter & small/low abv I had to adjust the mash temp to keep the body/mouthfeel from getting too thin. Otherwise the level of bittering is important for balance. I first-wort-hop as it seems to be a bit smoother, as such it's perceived as being a little less bitter than it is. Original version of this brew was a fresh-hop bier so I've substituted regular hops to simulate the same flavor as close as possible.

    3.6% IPA
    6# Maris Otter
    9 oz. Crystal 40
    6 oz. Flaked Wheat
    5 oz. Victory (I like it toasty, cut back or eliminate if you don't like this quality in an IPA)

    1 oz Willammette - 5.4 AAU - FWH
    .75 oz Cascade - 5.5 AAU - 20 min.
    .75 oz Cascade - 5.5 AAU - 15 min.
    .6 oz. Nugget - 12.5 AAU - 15 min.
    .5 oz Cascade - 5.5 AAU - 10 min.
    .75 oz. Amarillo - 7.5 AAU - 10 min.
    Dry-Hop with .5 oz. each Cascade, Nugget, & Amarillo

    Yeast US-05

    OG - 1.040
    FG - 1.013
    ABV - 3.6%
    SRM - 7
    IBUs - 50.2
    BU:GU - 1.25