I love session beers, but lately I’m wondering if that puts me in the creaky minority.

Last week Philadelphia beer and booze blogger Lew Bryson posted on session beers for the first time in months, and he’s a major proponent. Lew pretty much sent readers straight to a piece by Ken Weaver with a headline that eulogized the American session beer.

Quick BG: For a couple years now there’s been a sense in the beer community that low-alcohol, high flavored beers were finding a spot at the bar as an important counterpoint to imperial IPA’s, high-gravity barrel-aged beers and the like. Evidence an August 2008 New York Times headline: The Other Extreme: Low-Alcohol  Beers. A good seven months prior Bryson had launched the Session Beer Project to celebrate and promote flavorful, balanced beers with an alcohol by volume level of 4.5% or lower. There are 290 people on the Session Beer Project’s Facebook group.

Weaver’s article takes all this into account, but it is really focused on the upward trend in alcohol content of all craft beers in the U.S. I think Weaver’s headline, and Bryson’s nod toward that post conclude that session beers are falling out of favor. I won’t argue with the stats, but I hate stats, and for anyone who prefers anecdotes and observations, read on.  

In Weaver’s post (and in the enviable number of comments it generated) there is some agreement that session beer is an acquired taste and a moderation point reached by beer drinkers who have been enjoying craft beer long enough to have been wowed a few times by beers with 12% ABV and 100+ IBU counts. Once you’ve wrapped your head around big bold beers for a while you can then appreciate a more subtle, reserved, elegant (to borrow from my new friend Shaun Hill) beer, and differentiate it from the plain and the bland. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience, and no, I’m not sick of big hop bombs, but I find it more interesting on occasion to discover a beer that dances delicately. I’m also not the first to note that the craft beer audience has gone through a growth spurt of younger drinkers, and these guys are looking for The Big Wow, rather than seeking an imperial pint of Seinfeld (a beer about nuthin’).

But I will argue that session beer is not dead (yet) and should not be abandoned. Here goes.

Ask your favorite professional brewer about session beers. They love them and hold them in esteem. An ordinary bitter is a finesse job for a brewer, much easier to mess up than a double IPA. This is why you see breweries of all philosophies at least dabbling in session beers. Until this year, Sierra Nevada sent its lovely Early Spring Bitter coast-to-coast (this year it was replaced with Glissade Golden Bock, and I will start a campaign to bring it back), but Surly Brewing also comes out of the Darkness on occasion to brew a batch or two of its Mild and its Bitter Brewer.

Here in Chicago there are more than two dozen area breweries making the gamut of styles, and there is an ongoing interest in session beers among Chicago brewers. Goose Island Brewing, the city’s oldest craft brewer, is rightly excited about its Belgian-styles and barrel-aged wonders, but when it recently embarked on a major sustainability program it created a session beer to hitch it to. Green Line Pale Ale is well-mannered, with 5.0% ABV, 30 IBUs but miles and miles of character.

When the Craft Brewers Conference convenes here next week the visiting brewers are likely to empty a few kegs of Green Line (sold only within the city limits), along with some casks of hand-pulled Honkers, Goose’s Brit-inspired flagship. Also worthy of a good session are the Workingman Mild and Iron Fist Pale Ale from the shiny new Revolution Brewing Co. The average ABV of those two is 4.5%. Stone launches in Chicago starting tomorrow, and sure, there will be Arrogance, but there will also be Levitation.

Okay, so maybe the idea of a session beer trend has left a pretty corpse, but I think the session beer itself is alive and well. Cheers!

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  1. Very interesting post.

    I think there’s little doubt that session beers are both alive and well around the globe, and to the average American beer drinker. They are also certainly appreciated by me. I don’t think the same can be said of style among American CRAFT beer drinkers. While there are plenty of examples of sessionable crafts here in the states, they don’t get anywhere near the hype of their bigger brothers, which should say something to how ‘well’ they are doing.

    I too have had more than my share of hop/malt/bourbon-barrel bombs over the last ten years, and about a year ago, began actively looking for lower abv choices. As I repeatedly get wowed by an amazing bohemian pilsner, or German Dunkel, I’ve also toyed with the conclusion that our beer-drinking forefathers had gone through this discovery long ago, as evidenced by the strength of most English and German beers, as well as many Belgian examples (gueuze anyone??). It’s also hard to argue with Pilsner’s meteoric ascent to popularity across the globe.
    Perhaps we’re just now in our awkward teen years as a craft-beer drinking nation? Perhaps it’s like Randy Mosher likes to point out, that nobody wants to drink their father’s beer?
    I tend to think that the ABV trend will ebb and flow, but ultimately settle at a place where you can sit with friends and watch a baseball game comfortably, drinking steadily.
    Say what you will, but Bud/Miller’s success is, after marketing, largely due to their high drinkability factor, which people like, as evidenced by AB’s 50%+ market share here in the craft beer capital of the world.
    More importantly, does it really matter which is the most popular, as long as there’s something for everyone?

    Thanks again for the great post. Keep it up!

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