A couple of articles I read this past week got me thinking again about that spiny question of what exactly constitutes a session beer. There was the last Tuesday's article in The New York Times by Betsy Andrews entitled "The Other Extreme: Low-Alcohol Beers" but I also got a copy of the summer edition of the Yankee Brew News with Gregg Glaser's front page article "Session Beers". Despite the great job describing the US east coast scene, I have some lingering concerns:
♦ The range of alcohol strength is too great. Andrews describes a bar with a "a detailed list of his finds in the 3 percent to 6 percent range next to his regular beer board." The YBN includes Ommegang's Rare Vos, a 6.5% brew, because the brewery said it considered all its beer session beers - depending on the goal of your session. This is meaninglessness. For me, a session beer needs to be out of the ordinary - a beer of less strength than the ordinary beer which means that 4.5% to 5.5% and beyond is too much.
♦ Too many of the beers listed are summer seasonals. I see a big difference between Southern Tier's Hop Sun at 4.5% and Victory's Uncle Teddy’s Bitter at 4.2%. They have a different purpose. One is about the celebration of a holiday season, the other is a workhorse. I think session beers are supposed to be your go-to beer anytime. The beer you have loyalty to because it is a beer that does not let you down by swamping you with booze. A summer seasonal, by contrast, is really just a variation on the concept of a Christmas ale.
♦ Somewhere around here a few years ago, in response to a comment of mine that truly low-alcohol beers should be available and at a lower price, a brewer responded that I didn't understand all costs - that malt and hops were not determinative. Oddly, when malt and hops bumped last year, I seemed to not understand the critical factor they played in causing prices to jump. Going by the sorts of old price lists Ron has been presenting it is clear that, at least in England, lighter beers traditionally cost less. This resulted in - whether it was a session of quaffing session ales or sipping big bombs - the cost of a session ended up being somewhat similar. I want to see that price point honoured to some respect.
Am I too unreasonable? Too focused on the British tradition? I don't think so. I would like to see session beers not turn into a label, a tool for bandwagoning marketers. I would like the concept to have meaning that the consumer can rely upon. And, for me, that means 4.5% is the absolute upper limit and, really, less that 4% should be mandatory.