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.

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