Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Praise of Session Beers

The evolution of the craft beer consumer is fairly predictable. Raised on a steady diet of bland corporate products (or no beer at all), the new beer drinker will discover their first craft beer. It may be brewed by a local craft brewer, or perhaps it is a popular import. From that point forward, eyes are opened, tastes are awakened and what was once good is no longer satisfying enough.

Sooner or later, the craft beer consumer will find a local source for a wide variety of craft beers, and then will read a beer website online, and then all bets are off. The new enthusiast will consume with abandon, drawn to the strong, pungent elements of the high-end IPAs and barleywines, the robustness of the Imperial stouts and the intoxicating (literally) complexity of Belgian beers.

However, on the other side of this heady flavor binge lies another, more subtle arena. This place marks the maturity of the craft beer drinker—not another phase, simply a move from fervent amateur to appreciative yeoman consumer. It is certainly not the endpoint of this journey but instead another beginning. This is the landscape of the session beers.

The origins of session beers can be traced back to Great Britain, probably from one of the world wars. British laborers (or is it labourers?) worked in shifts in the factories, sometimes around the clock. During their off hours, often either before or after work, they would “pop 'round to the local” in true pub culture fashion. These visits became the origin of the drinking session, where a patron would consume four, five, six or more pints at one sitting.

The attributes of session beer arose from these British drinking sessions. The workers required a beer that was alcoholic but not so strong as to leave them impaired or outright inebriated. They required a beer that was flavorful but neither so bitterly hopped nor cloyingly sweet as to grow tiring before the end of the session. Although interesting and mighty delicious, Trappist ales and strong IPAs can quickly lead to palate fatigue, rarely have a neutral finish and the alcohol content can be regrettable in volume. Thus arose the brewing quasi-category of the session beer.

Although traditionally British, session beers can have any origin and are not necessarily limited by defined style. At their core, session beers exemplify the ideal of balance in a beverage. They are bitter yet not too much so, malty but not too much so, lightly alcoholic but with sufficient flavor complexity not only to defer boredom but to keep the drinker genuinely interested.

These session beers are the delicate Goldilocks of the brewing world. They generally have a rich malt base and are mildly hopped, sometimes only barely so. Their alcohol content is generally higher than non-alcoholic beers (which are usually around 0.5% ABV) and almost by definition all are under 5% ABV. Both ale and lager yeast are used for session beers, although distinct and robust strains such as in Belgian ales are usually avoided.

Session beer styles range from English milds, bitters and brown ales to porters and even the milder stouts and Scottish ales. Teutonic varieties include the mild bocks, Vienna lagers, altbiers and dunkels—almost by definition, the Oktoberfest/märzen style is a session beer. Many wheat beers such as hefeweizen and Berliner weisse would also qualify as session beers, as would standard lagers and a few pilsners. Across the pond, American varieties like wheat ale, blonde ale, rye beer and California common also fall into this category.

Do not take the next logical step and believe that anything you can imbibe in quantity will qualify as a session beer. Individual tolerances do not define the session beer category. Instead, it is a world of subtlety and whispers, the enticement of spotting a fawn in the wild as opposed to listening to a lion roar in his cage. Appreciation of session beers marks the successful fulfillment of your craft beer education but still only the start of your craft beer journey.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Can You Take the Heat?

Possibly the most widely circulated and believed myth surrounding beer is with regard to temperature. Most people believe that beer must be kept refrigerated always, and that once allowed to warm to room temperature, it can never be cooled again. Room temperature would essentially spoil the beer, much the same way as any dairy product would spoil.

Except that beer is not a dairy product. Fluctuations in ambient temperature do not adversely affect beer any more than any other foodstuff. Beer is remarkably delicate and yet astonishingly durable at the same time, and the common room temperature is in no way harmful to either its flavors or storage life in the short term. Beer bought from the warm shelves is no different than what is retrieved from the cooler, and may be the exact same beer merely a few hours removed.

So how much heat is too much heat? Is beer something you can leave in the car on a hot summer afternoon? For how long? Can it be stored indefinitely at room temperature? And what is “room temperature,” anyway? What counts as “hot” in Minneapolis is certainly not the same as what is experienced along the Texas/Mexico border.

Beer belongs to a special subset of our food supply that are living things. More precisely, beer is several billion living things—we call them yeast. Like most living things, yeast have a temperature range in which they are happy and comfortable, and a range in which they fuss about, complain and eventually die. We forget that beer is less a beverage and more of a microenvironment, depending entirely on your perspective.

Basically, if you are comfortable, so is your beer. During fermentation, most yeast strains prefer temperatures between 55°F and 75°F (or 45°F and 55°F, if you happen to be lager yeast). These ranges qualify as “room temperature” for most anywhere, and any of us will generally be comfortable in these environments. Over 75°F and yeast begin to produce some quite nasty byproducts, lending off-flavors to the finished product. Much over 100°F and yeast start to die, so their comfort range is pretty close to that of any other organism. But all this is for brewing; what about the packaged beer on the shelf?

For most beers the commercial product is inert, the yeast having died off long ago due to lack of food, filtered out or killed through a variety of pasteurization processes. What is left in the bottle is a mix of sugars, proteins, alcohols, oils and trace other chemicals (plus water, naturally). None of these compounds is active, so the only thing left for them to do is to degrade over time.

This is where the temperature is a factor. Heat accelerates chemical reactions, making the natural breakdown processes of large molecules into small molecules happen more quickly than they would otherwise. What does this mean for beer? Simply this: it ages faster. A general rule of thumb for the brewing industry is that beer stored at 100°F for one week tastes as old as beer stored at 70°F for two months, or as old as beer stored at 40°F for one year.

Time is as much a factor in beer quality as is its ambient temperature. Storing beer in the trunk of your car during summer months is obviously a bad choice—unless it is just for that half-hour transporting it from the store. Fluctuations in temperature are not ideal but are certainly not disastrously harmful to the beer, no more than they are harmful to your own body. A good guideline is to never leave your beer anywhere that you would not leave your dog (and for the same reasons).

Beer stored at room temperature is never bad, merely not chilled... unless it has been at room temperature for many, many months. In this case, the fault is not with the environment but with the retail establishment itself. Do not blame the storage temperature for what is actually a neglectful vendor failing to sell their product in a timely fashion.