Beer Rants: Session Beers
I’ve been working on a tasting video for Kick Back IPA because life is all virtual now, and in the process, I started thinking about session beers. Session beers are kind of a big deal at Drake’s. We’ve been putting on an entire beer festival devoted to session beer since 2013 (our friends at Eagle Rock Brewery were the first), and we usually have multiple beers on tap at any given time, that we consider session beers.
BREAKING DOWN SESSION BEERS
So what’s a session beer? In broad terms, it’s a beer you can knock back a bunch during a drinking ”session.” This implies a couple of things. First, the alcohol content of the beer is on the lower side. A drinking session with Denogginizer isn’t going to last very long, and possibly won’t end well (or it will end epically!). For most of us, a lower ABV means we can drink more over an extended period, while we’re bullshitting with friends or just hanging out.
Now, what do we mean by low ABV? Generally, people are looking at a 5% cutoff there. That’s our line for Session Fest. Personally, I think that’s a bit too high. The idea of a session beer traces back to standard British pub beer, where an Ordinary Bitter or Mild Ale is going to clock in under 4%, or often under 3.5%. So for me, I’d like to see the definition under 4%, but American beer drinkers have demonstrated that they’re not looking for sub 4% beer.
We have an example at Drake’s. In 2012, we started packaging Alpha Session. It was a 3.8% well-hopped Pale Ale. While people really loved it, it was a difficult sell, so we replaced it with Kick Back IPA at 4.3%. It’s now one of our fastest-growing brands. Fine then, session beers are under 5%.
DRINKABILITY OF SESSION BEERS
OK, low ABV, is that the definition of session beer? It is for some people, but I would submit that ABV is just a component of overall “drinkability.” Now that’s obviously a more subjective term, so what am I talking about here? Well, I’d stipulate that drinkability generally relates to mellow flavors.
Again, we’re looking to do some long-haul drinking, so we want to avoid palate fatigue. Just because a hazy sour fruited milkshake IPA is under 5%, doesn’t mean it’s drinkable like a British Mild. But this doesn’t mean the beer has to be insipid! I think Kick Back IPA is an excellent session beer. It has plenty going on, maybe even too much for some people (YMMV).
I recognize that may be a bit unsatisfying. It’s certainly not a definition in any sense, but I think the concept is clear enough. At Drake’s we fully embrace these beers. We make these beers year-round. Most of them only show up at our tasting rooms and are gone in a couple of weeks.
They seem to sell well enough to justify making them, which is fortunate, because these are the beers we like to drink! We’re brewers! In many ways, these are the most authentic beers we make, because we make them for ourselves.
BREWING SESSION BEER REQUIRES SKILL
We make session beers in all styles. We’ve made American Dark Lagers, Saisons, IPAs (sigh…they’re really Pale Ales), Milds, Bitters, and Viennas, that were all 5% ABV or less. Because we like to drink them, but we also like to make them. Making session beer is perhaps the height of a brewer’s art. While it takes skill to manipulate big flavors in higher ABV beers, mastering the subtle flavors of a session beer is where brewers really show their talent.
Brewing session beers is hard. Let’s look at Session IPAs. We’re tasked with creating a low ABV beer that can still support the hop load required to make it IPA like. They can easily turn out too bitter or too thin. I judge other brewers on their execution of lower ABV beers. This isn’t to say any hack can make a good Double IPA, but I do believe that they’re less of a challenge.
You have to be at the top of your game to make perfectly balanced, drinkable, low ABV beer. That’s a challenge our brewing team has embraced. We want to make more!
A THEORY ABOUT GATEWAY BEERS
I find it interesting that selling session beer isn’t the easiest thing in the world! I mean, we’ve defined these beers as drinkable. Isn’t that the first thing people are looking for in a beer? If nothing else, shouldn’t they be gateway beers to stronger, more flavorful beers? It makes sense on an intuitive level, but it doesn’t play out that way. I’m pretty sure I sell a LOT more Denogginizer than Kick Back, so what’s the deal with that?
I was recently introduced to a heterodox theory by Collin McDonnell, CEO of HenHouse Brewing Company. According to Collin, the real gateway beers are “extreme” beers. All that fruited milkshake sour pastry stuff. Why? Because the flavors are easy. If you get a strawberry milkshake IPA and it’s thick and sweet and smells like strawberries, well that’s what you were expecting!
But a 4.5% Altbier? What’s an Altbier? A “German Amber ale”? What are your expectations? What words describe the flavors you are experiencing? Over time, you slowly develop that vocabulary, but a subtle beer in a lot of ways is more work, and pretty much the opposite of a “gateway.”
It also tracks with what I wrote above. Brewers like session beers because we’re into beer! We have a vocabulary for those more subtle flavors. So, damn Collin, nice work on the theory. So let’s all agree that there’s nothing more awesome than session beer. It’s easy to drink and it’s the best way for brewers to show off their skills. They’re the pinnacle of our art.
Written by John Gillooly, Drake’s Brewmaster