Beer and Pavement

Session Beers

Posted in Beer by SM on July 29, 2010

My beer club is having a session beer tasting next month. What a session beer is, I’m not completely sure. I knew that it was something lower in alcohol so as to keep sessioners from over-doing it. I also knew that session beers has a different meaning to those in the UK than here. Steve over at Wait Until Next Year shudders whenever I mention drinking beers 6% or higher, yet he loves to partake in the beer session whenever possible. To me, a session consists of a beer or two at 6-7%, followed by a 9+% beer to finish off the evening[1].

Over at Make Mine Potato, the author ponders the end of the session beer as limited to 4 or 5% ABV. He proposes some nice IPA’s or extreme sours as the ideal session beers, none of them fitting neatly beneath the British threshold of 4% ABV. Instead, he views the session as a daily occurrence when he can enjoy a beer no matter the ABV. Of course, as he argues elsewhere, who’s the deity that decided a session beer had to be 4-5%[2]?

My good friend at Double Word Score had his own take. To make a long story short, he defined a session beer like so:

A session beer is a beer an individual consumer enjoys (subject to personal tastes in, among other things, hop to malt ratio and logo design) and is able to enjoy and drink more than two 12 oz. cans or pints of without doing something stupid (including but not limited to: making a wager of more than 10% of your paycheck on a poker game, calling old rivals and/or former lovers, urinating on your neighbor’s porch, etc.[3])

I don’t know that there’s a better definition I’ve read than the one above.

So, where does this all leave us? I don’t really know. Is ABV a good barometer over taste or quality[4]? Is an arbitrary number what I want to use to choose a beer for a session? What about sessionable beers that are crap? Are they worth an evening of my time?

To take the argument in another direction, I responded to Steve’s own post on the session beer in this manner:

That’s a rather reasonable take on the subject. However, I’m not sure why a higher gravity beer cannot be sessionable. Say we hit the bar and over the course of a few hours, you down four or so beers near 4% ABV and I sip on two beers in the 8-9% range. We’re looking at about the same amount of alcohol even though it’s obviously not equal amounts of liquid. I would argue that the advantage in the session goes to me.

1. Since you are drinking more beers, you are hitting the can at least twice as often during the session than I[5]. In fact, I may never once interrupt conversation with a trip to the restroom.

2. When one consumes more, they spend more. Typically, a session beer might run in the ballpark of $3.50 for a pint (usually tonic, not imperial). My barley wine is probably $4.50-$5.00 a glass. You’ve just spent $14 and I have given the bartender $10 at the most.

3. “Traditional British beer is best when it is quaffed. It is not there to be sipped and savoured [sic][6].” I couldn’t have said it better myself. While I would like to discuss the complexities of the beer on hand, you would gulp the remainder of your second, immediately raising a finger for another. I look at beer drinking as more of a Zen-like experience, meant to be savored in the moment.

4. What do binge drinkers really drink? A hefty Russian Imperial Stout with notes of coffee, chocolate, and cherries as it sits at 10% ABV and 70 IBU’s or the bros downing a case of rather sessionable Bud Lite and it’s sub-4% 10 IBU status? I’d argue that the more sophisticated, more civilized drink is the high gravity beer.

That comment pretty much sums up my entire opinion of drinking beer. The question of what’s sessionable is merely a distraction[7]. What we’re talking about here is drinking beer. Which would you rather do? Would you rather drink all that your belly can hold over the course of an evening or would you rather sip and enjoy a finely crafted beer over the course of a session? I mean, we all know the results of the former, don’t we Great Britain?

I choose the high gravity session beer for the same reasons I choose LP’s over MP3’s. There is care put into the recording and sequencing of an entire album. I don’t want just the hits, give me the filler; give me the bridge between hit #1 and hit #2. I want the big picture to give the great songs context. I want to enjoy all aspects of the craft, not simply consume it.

Of course, the biggest difference in opinions with which we are working is between the opinion held by Brits and the one promoted by Yanks. As with most of our language, the session is based on a British idea. The trouble is that a session, like many British philosophies[8], doesn’t work in an American context. There was never a prohibition period in the UK like there was here[9]. That time greatly affected the way Americans viewed beer. While British brewers continued to perfect their craft and beer drinkers across the United Kingdom met in pubs for a session of pints, Americans were going ape-shit for any beer or other alcoholic beverage they could obtain.Prohibition was lifted and the few brewers who survived produced a bland shadow of beer, opting for abstracts such as rice and corn, brewing flavorless, characterless “beer”.

American beer became something to guzzle. It was a means to an end. That end was to get wasted. Sure, there were sessions, but Americans do everything to the extreme. Binge drinking became a common occurrence as beer was cheaper by the case. It’s ingrained in our modern culture that to drink beer is to consume as much as possible. That has somehow become the norm in the American beer session.

Enter the craft beer movement…

Another group of brewers and beer enthusiasts discovered that beer didn’t have to be flavorless. They discovered the sessions in British pubs. They found there were monks in Belgium crafting the most beautiful beers. In other parts of Europe, brewers used the best ingredients in order to produce the tastiest beers. These were people who were choosing beer for its flavor and not just its “medicinal” purposes.

So, the session here in the States is either a binge-fest with your bros or an opportunity to sip on something more refined with other beer enthusiasts. This model doesn’t fit the British session. In the UK there is a culture of the session as community builder. The beer is merely the lubricant that does little damage in the process. I won’t bash British cuisine too harshly here, but let’s just say the flavors enjoyed across the pond are not the most spectacular, especially when it comes to the beer[10]. Of course, that’s OK when you’re not sipping the beer slowly. The British session doesn’t depend on flavor as much as the American craft beer session. It depends on friendship, good conversation, and whoever is buying the next round. It seems to me that the Brits aren’t about savoring the beer, they’re about savoring the experience.

At some point, Steve proposed that maybe there needs to be a new term for the session of higher gravity beers I prefer. I considered something like “high-gravity session” or “craft beer session”, but they seemed to take the fun out of the session. Maybe it doesn’t matter what I call it. It’s a session. It’s a chance to try a really great beer. It’s beer on my deck on a hot summer night. It’s beer in front of the fire in the dead of winter. It’s beer with pizza. It’s beer for dessert. Really, it’s just beer.

So, I still don’t know that a session beer is the same for everyone. I guess it doesn’t really have to have one definition. I suppose it’s whatever you want it to be. If you’re at the pub, it’s probably a 4% bitter. If you’re at Sycamore, it might be a 9% hopbomb. If you’re at the frat house, it might even be a case of Natty Light[11]. The term “session” doesn’t really matter. I’ll show up to my tasting next month with a beer in the 4-6% range as anything lower isn’t really worth the cost in flavor, but I’ll long for the session that will take place after the tasting when I finally get a chance to sip on that big, oak-aged imperial stout I’ve had my eye on.

[BA’s Top Session Beers]
[The Session Beer Project]

Notes:
1Although, I don’t choose my beers based on ABV. It just usually ends this way. Also, I usually opt for a lower gravity beer at the end of the evening in order to keep that hangover bug away.
2Please don’t name-drop some king or queen here. First, monarchs are not deities. Second, they have no say over Americans via the Revolutionary War.
3I have never done any of these, but I suspect the “etc.” refers to the things I have done when intoxicated inebriated annihilated.
4However, we beer geeks often discuss the booziness of a beer, suggesting that ABV does have an effect on flavor. Also, it was suggested somewhere that American brewers up the ABV so as to squeeze more flavor out of generally flavorless American strains of malt. I don’t think that’s true at all. However, if American malt is weak, I’d argue that British yeast tastes like stale vegetables. I don’t want to go there. This is not an anti-UK post. I promise.
5This is quite possibly the strongest point of my argument.
6This “[sic]” is only meant as a jab at British spellings. It’s meant to be funny. Even more ironic is how many grammatical and spelling mistakes can be found in the original comment which I have conveniently edited for the purposes of not looking like a bumbling idiot on my own blog.
7A distraction that has warranted many a blog post.
8“Philosophies” is a bit hyperbolic, I admit, but we’re talking about a cornerstone of British culture here.
9I sort of half-assed Googled this and decided Britain has never had prohibition. This very well could be wrong, but I stand by the fact that the British never experienced anything like our prohibition.
10A friend often refers to beers as tasting “British”, meaning that odd, stale, vegetably flavor in British yeast. The Belgians produce raisins in their beer; the British produce old vegetables. That’s not a knock on British beer. That’s just how it tastes to me.
11No. It’s never a case of Natty Light.

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12 Responses

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  1. doublewordscore said, on July 30, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Is it a problem if a session beer becomes a binge beer? I can’t imagine anyone doing keg stands with Dogfish Head’s 90 minute IPA, but you never know…

    • builderofcoalitions said, on July 30, 2010 at 9:54 am

      I think that’s what everyone is trying to avoid. The Brits like the session, but don’t have to worry about inebriation and have a stigma against high ABV lagers, meant to get people drunk. American craft beer enthusiasts prefer longer sessions with one beer. Both are anti-the drinking for drinking’s sake.

      Then, there are people like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kGAcF6Awcs&feature=related

  2. Jeff Menter said, on July 30, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I think your main comment/analysis is spot on. No matter which way you slice it, choosing higher gravity beers is almost always the winning position, especially if you are out on the town.

    If your concern is to just get messed up, you can do that with three pints of a 10% beer more cheaply than endless bottles of Corona.

    If your concern is to enjoy and have a great beer experience you are going to be more satisfied with something like Founders Double Trouble than with something like Bud Light.

    If your concern is to just enjoy the company and conversation, you can sip a barley wine and drink water. You’ll still get a buzz and engage in conversation and you’ll stay hydrated. You’ll spend less and you’ll enjoy the beer more.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that people who drink higher gravity beers tend to, by necessity, be more careful with how much they drink. They tend to become more “professional” drinkers than the dude who is pounding Coors light all night.

    The ABV of a beer doesn’t always tell you how good the beer is going to be but it is a very good barometer. Higher ABV means they put more fermentables in (sugars) which means there is going to me more flavor. More sugar means they are going to add more hops to balance it. More of everything.

    High ABV does NOT guarantee a better beer (I’m looking at you, Moylan’s Hopsickle). There are other examples of higher gravity beers that aren’t really worth drinking. But by and large, the ABV of a beer tells you a lot about the brewery and their intentions. Can you really have an awesome beer experience with something that’s 3.4%? I have not had one yet.

    I’m a big fan of quality over quantity. If money was tight I would much rather have 1 Two-Hearted Ale after a long day (at $2 or so), than 40 oz. of Old E or three bottles of Miller.

    Here’s an example I’ve presented before: I used to play music with this drummer who would drink can after can of Miller High Life when we were practicing. This is when I lived on the west coast. My main “go to” beer was Deschutes Inversion IPA. 6.8%, 80 IBUs. You could get a six pack for around $6 or $7 if you shopped around. So let’s say it’s 8.3 cents per oz. If a six pack of Miller is $4 (kinda guessing here) that makes it 5.5 cents per oz. Inversion IPA is 1.4x as boozy as Miller. Multiply 5.5 x 1.4 and you get 7.7. So, just taking “booziness” into consideration (my drummer drank to get drunk), Deschutes Inversion IPA was *almost* as good a deal as Miller High Life.

    The thing is, though, that Inversion IPA is a *fantastic* beer. So with the drummer I argued that, for the money (or a little bit more), he could get just as fucked up but would have a much better drinking experience.

    Eventually he did me one better and started buying bombers of Stone Arrogant Bastard instead of Miller High Life.

    In summary, I do not understand the obsession with “sessionable” beers. They tend to be lifeless, underwhelming, and not fun to drink. Flavorful, boozy craft beers are a much better deal for your pocketbook as well as your soul. You can drink them and *still* engage in conversation and fellowship. It’s a win-win!

    I do have to take you to task over the LP vs. MP3 thing. There’s nothing about MP3s (or any digital music format) that forces you to listen to individual tracks vs. albums. All my music on my phone/computer/apple tv is 160kb/sec or better AAC files. When I listen to music, I invariably listen to albums. And I abhor “shuffle.” The album is the perfect vehicle for the delivery of musical expression. So the LP vs. MP3 thing is demonstrably a false dichotomy.

    Other than that, great post!

    • builderofcoalitions said, on July 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

      That was a comment worthy of its own blog post for sure. Thanks, Jeff.

      I should have gone more into the LP vs. MP3 argument, but felt the beer issue was the most important. I completely agree with the album over the single/shuffle. The LP takes it one step further. You have the ceremonial dropping of the needle, the liner notes to read, artwork encased by the sleeve to digest, and you have to physically flip the record at a time the artist felt was the best breaking point of the record. To me, that is more of an experience than one will ever find on their iPod, and I’m an avid iPod user. It’s sort of like choosing the craft beer or style you’ve never had or are even sure you’ll like over the old standby. (Actually, that’s a bad analogy before you jump all over it.) My point is that taking the time to savor the best parts of life – craft beer “sessions”, putting on a record – is more important than just the consumption and even better than just using these pleasures as a backdrop. Or something like that.

      • Jeff Menter said, on July 30, 2010 at 11:22 am

        Regarding the LP thing: have you purchased any of the “iTunes LP” albums? I have the one for Muse’s “The Resistance”. I’ll have to show it running on the Apple TV next time you’re over.

      • builderofcoalitions said, on July 30, 2010 at 11:47 am

        No. I avoid iTunes at all costs. They don’t give indie labels a fair shake. Instead, I buy either directly from the lables or from Insound (which works closely with labels). I’d rather give the the little guy my money.

      • Jeff Menter said, on July 30, 2010 at 12:02 pm

        They don’t give indie labels a fair shake? This is news to me. AFAIK, you can sell your music on iTunes and after Apple takes 33%, the rest is yours. $6.66 per album to the artist is not a bad deal compared to traditional distribution. This is what I’m going off of:

        http://www.garagespin.com/2009/03/09/7-ways-sell-your-music-on-itunes/

        http://homerecording.about.com/od/duplicatingdistributing/a/Get_On_iTunes.htm

        What info are you going off of?

      • builderofcoalitions said, on July 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm

        I’m going off of what friends who run a small indie label have told me. When you compare what they can sell directly, they make more money selling you an LP with digital download if you buy directly from them. Also, from what I remember about Steve Jobs generally raping the music industry via Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the record Industry in the Digital Age. Besides, MP3’s just don’s sound as good as LP’s. #firestoked

  3. Steve said, on August 4, 2010 at 6:34 am

    OK…finally…my thoughts.

    “I choose the high gravity session beer for the same reasons I choose LP’s over MP3′s. There is care put into the recording and sequencing of an entire album. I don’t want just the hits, give me the filler; give me the bridge between hit #1 and hit #2. I want the big picture to give the great songs context. I want to enjoy all aspects of the craft, not simply consume it.”

    I can certainly understand that argument. I would rather spend a little more (time and money) on a decent beer than a crappy one. I have been known to savour a stronger beer at home, and take in the flavours. I see this as quite similiar to enjoying a good malt whisky.

    Yet…I think there is often just as much work and craft in lower ABV beers. Perhaps even more craft, as the brewer is working within a particular limitation, yet is still producing an interesting beer. Sometimes I find stronger beers so complex or bold that they are overwhelming. I like the subtleties of some 4% beers. They are the little acoustic numbers to the symphonies of the stronger stuff. Both can be equally enjoyable, both have their own nuances.

    “The British session doesn’t depend on flavor as much as the American craft beer session. It depends on friendship, good conversation, and whoever is buying the next round. It seems to me that the Brits aren’t about savoring the beer, they’re about savoring the experience.”

    There is something in this. Yet, the actual beer quality is important, at least for us geekier beer drinkers. See: the work of CAMRA in promoting decent real ale. There is an art to cask beer that we do appreciate, and we notice when the beer isn’t being kept well.

    “A friend often refers to beers as tasting “British”, meaning that odd, stale, vegetably flavor in British yeast. The Belgians produce raisins in their beer; the British produce old vegetables. That’s not a knock on British beer. That’s just how it tastes to me.”

    I think you are drinking the wrong British beer! And here may be the crux of this. British beer culture is predominantly about the cask. US beer culture seems far more bottle-orientated.

    This has two effects:

    1. British beer generally tastes much better from the cask, if it has been looked after properly. It also doesn’t always travel that well, so to really appreciate it you need to find a pub selling local beer, with a decent cellarman to take care of it.

    2. Beer seems to need to be a little stronger if it is bottled. As a homebrewer I’m sure you can confirm or deny this? British beers are often stronger in bottled form than their cask variety. Maybe cask beer doesn’t need the ABV to be high to be interesting? Maybe bottled beers under 4% struggle?

    So, perhaps it is just easier for us Brits to enjoy ‘session beers’, as there is that cask culture, and there is the brewing culture that understands how to produce weaker beers well. Milds, in particular, often have really complex and satisfying tastes, yet are generally in the 3-4% range.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on August 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

      Your response makes a ton of sense to this beer geek. I guess all of my experience with British beer culture (primarily Brits living over here, except for that one trip overseas) has been about drinking a lot of cheap beer from bottles. So, I may have unfairly judged your beer scene. You definitely have geeked out enough for my beer-spect, so to speak.

      The bottle vs. cask issue may be the key difference. Casks are becoming more popular, but there’s not an infrastructure here for such distribution. Our system is set up for bottles and cans (and kegs). Honestly, a lot of the beer geeks with which I run tend to prefer even kegs over bottles, but certain beers are only attainable via the 12-22 oz. vessel.

      Also, I have found bottled beers from overseas seem off, quite possibly due to their voyage. I will certainly give you the freshness factor when sipping a fresh cask in a London pub over a bottle here after thousands of miles of travel.

      It’s too bad, because the beer scene in which you describe sounds pretty cool to this American craft-centric beer nerd. Plus, I enjoy subtleties of flavor and authentic tasting experiences.

      That said, I have grown so accustomed to big American craft beers that there’s no turning back. Sure, I don’t get the same experience you do at the pub, but you don’t get to enjoy the same pleasures we do either.

      Thanks for engaging this discussion. I can get pretty insulting with my assessments of beers (among other things). You looked past a few jabs and made a pretty coherent and balanced argument. Different isn’t bad; it’s just different. I guess.

    • Jeff said, on August 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm

      I have a friend from England, Stuart, who was living here in CoMo for about a year. We drank a bunch of beer here and I was always sharing my favorite barley wine and hop bomb with him.

      He returned to the England and Krista and I went to Ipswitch to visit him. We went to The Greyhound and a bunch of other pubs.

      http://www.greyhound-ipswich.com/

      It’s true that British beer is better getting it straight from the source but the experience still didn’t make me a big fan of British beers. It’s not that I think they’re bad. Some are pretty tasty. It’s just that the whole scene is just so polite and staid.

      On the other hand, going to Antwerp and drinking the finest Belgian beers for two days straight made me an even bigger fan of what that country does.

      Keep in mind that I don’t have a whole lot of experience with British beers. I’ve been to London just three times. I will go again. I will continue to search for the British beer experience that turns me around.

  4. Steve said, on August 5, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Well, all this talk has certainly opened my mind towards seeking out some stronger beers. I may brave that Imperial Porter soon.

    And if you ever make it over to London, I’d be pleased to take you on a tour of some good pubs, with some great beers.

    I think I’m settling on the truism that there are two kinds of beer. Good beer, and bad beer. I’ll raise a glass to the former, no matter how strong it is, or where it comes from.


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