A Good Beer Blog

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Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


Comments

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Gary Gillman -

I'd argue session beer is simply a restoration, or re-assertion, of the strength level found ideal in past centuries to promote tavern life. In the mid-1800's, by my reading, the drink of Londoners, regular porter, was about 4.5% ABV and sometimes weaker if you factored the pervasive watering of beer by publicans. Ale was stronger, and probably took the position the modern IPAs/DIPAs have: those who wanted a stronger drink with less volume drank that, but it was more expensive. In Germany and Austro-Hungary of the same era, likewise lager was generally around 4%. A survival of this tradition is Pilsner Urquell, at 4.4% ABV - the original session....

Small beer was in a different category, being around 1% ABV, maybe a bit more, but almost not beer at all. I believe it stood for water as a safer, boiled alternative, not as an alcoholic drink, essentially. Its metaphorical use as you well explained Alan was well-justified since the comparison really was between the genuine and legitimate, the "royal road" (a quart of ale is a dish fit for a king) and the illusory and valueless drink. It is my belief again that as water got safer, there was no further purpose to small beer which is why it died out by the later 1800's.

People might argue that 20th century session in England whent even lower, to 4% ABV or even under, e.g., for mild of the era, but to me this is similar to porter's strength in around 1850. say. And similar to what became the pre-craft choice of many in the States and Canada: light beer (4% ABV).

Since there was a spike in production of strong beers by craft producers, a counter-movement started which had brought things back to where they started in 1983, where the norm was 5% ABV.

Gary

Gary Gillman -

I hasten to add that 5% is probably not a session strength, it is more like 4% or at most 4.5% as the beers mentioned in Lew's piece suggest. But broadly speaking, I believe the modern session idea is to bring the ordinary drinking experience closer to what it was in the early 80's from what you see in beer bars today with numerous beers often at 6.5-10% ABV.

Gary

Alan -

Not sure I am with you on the 1% standard, Gary. I am separated from my Ungers, sadly. In the meantime, consider this.

Alan -

But now you have me thinking about sorts of low alcohol beers. Schenck-bier or "innkeeper's beer" is 2.09% in 1869. There is also "ship's beer" as opposed to harbour beer in 1670s Arctic Canada.

Stephen Beaumont -

With due respect to Messr's Bryson and Russell, both of whom i call friends, the notion of session beer is a most malleable one. When in Belgium, for example, I am perfectly able to drink 7%+ beers all day because I drink them as a Belgian would, which is at leisure and often with food. Many is the time I have awoken in that country, feeling fresh and fit, and realized that the day prior had been spent drinking strong ales from before noon until late at night, ending the day with an admitted buzz, but hardly perishingly drunk.

A sleight 5'2" lass barely topping 100 lbs. soaking wet, on the other hand, might pound two Bud Lights and wake to find an embarrassing video posted to Facebook.

Craft beer has built its reputation on not strength, but flavour. the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has been created upon the success of the 5.6% Pale Ale, which delivers precisely 3.905 ml of alcohol more than would the equivalent volume of 4.5% "session" beer, or the equivalent of 3 ounces of extra beer. Boston Beer is built on the back of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, the best-selling craft beer in America, a 4.9% beer with an additional 1.425 ml of alcohol over a "session" beer, the equivalent of about an extra 31.5 ml of beer per bottle.

Most of us Old Guys grew up drinking "sessions" with beer 5% alcohol and higher. I dare say most of us are still pretty good at it.

Craig -

I have to agree with Gray on this one. I'm not sure that small beer begot sessionable beer. I think public taste and consumption habits resulted in the success of session drinking in the UK. Barley restrictions and taxation during the first and second world wars gave them their session-strength beer and since beer that is lower in ABV also has a tendency to be cheaper to make and sell, I think it caught on—plus multiple lower strength beer meant more time down to pub.

Bailey -

Any beer can be a session beer if you can manage a session on it, but I take it that what Lew and others are arguing for is beers it is *easier* to session on. The best British session beers (to my mind, pegged at <4%) can be drunk without restraint for as long as you want to stay in the pub. You feel full before you feel drunk. The next morning, even after six or seven, there is only the faintest ghost of a hangover -- nothing a boiled egg and a cup of coffee can't chase away.

Alan -

Hornsey indicates that small beer was morphed out officially around 1802 being replaced by table beer, another light sipper.

Alan -

Ron proposed we all brew a 2.5% table beer from 1868 a few months back. In 2008, he equated small beer and session beer at a strength of around 3.5%. Not that I am saying he is the be all and end all... but not that I am not either.

Craig -

I think we all just need to increase the length of our sessions, then Bailey's right, and any beer can be a session beer. Forget about work

Alan -

Martyn last spring on session beer.

Gary Gillman -

Point taken that 1% may not have been the norm for small beer, but surely even 2.5% is too low for a session, especially considering that beer was drunk by the quart or pint. N doubt some small beer reached a higher quality than 2.5% (per Watkins), but I still feel there is a divide between small beer and "real" beer.

Gary

Alan -

Over a decade ago, I brewed a firkin's worth or so of sub 3% ordinary bitter with masses of hops and plenty of lower fermentables like rolled raw barley. Me and two pals drained the five gallons over, let's say, a significant part of a single rotation of the Earth. One of my favorite sessions. I would buy gallon jugs of that sort of beer if it was commercially made. I also used to brew a 1.5% Caribbean ginger beer from the Clone Brews book.

Lew Bryson -

Sorry, I've been out of this loop and others -- my own included -- this week while at a craft distilling conference with iffy WiFi (and a lot of drinking). Umm... let's see. Alan, it's Philly, not Phillie, and if you can show me full cost figures on a bar-dispensed pint of 4% bitter vs. 6% IPA that show the IPA costs more than 15 cents more ON THE BAR (i.e., including all costs, not just materials), we can have a discussion about price; but if you're just talking materials costs (and maybe tank-time), we're discussing the price of homebrew. And the trademark is really tongue-in-cheek.

Yes to Gary (as usual), exactly right to Bailey (no surprise), and a big Sure, why not? to my friend Doctor Beaumont, as in...I'm not, nor have I ever, encouraged avoiding larger beers. My whole intent with this is to encourage the variety of smaller beers as well. Spent a very pleasant warm Indiana afternoon drinking New Albanian's excellent Community Dark Mild (3.7%, with a delicious chocolatey malt flavor throughout) with a bunch of craft distillers, micromaltsters, and trade reps; I had four in the course of 90 minutes, yielding a warm feeling for my colleagues and no wooziness or tanglefoot. Was I glad to have a session beer available? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed a stronger beer of equivalent quality and flavor if it were there? Sure, and I would have gone slower on it...but I did enjoy quaffing. Just another possibility, that's all I'm asking.

Alan -

Actually, Lew, it is the proponent of higher prices who has to justify that so take it away. I am quite aware of all the price inputs into beer so, no, this isn't about home brew. It's a very funny phenomena, that sort of uncited unelaborated defense of elevated pricing in North America. Part of that ecstatic relationship with brewers that Jordan was discussing. I am fine with the price being 15 cents lower of that is the real difference. It is, after all my money. But it is all academic as good low alcohol beers simply do not exist here in Canada.

But to the heart of the matter. I got corrected on the Phillie/Philly thing the other week. Need to get that into my head.

Lew Bryson -

I don't think so, Alan: I'm not supporting higher prices here. The prices are generally the same for 4.5% and 6% beers; you think the 4.5% should be cheaper based on smaller amounts of materials used in the brewing. Support your position that those smaller amounts are significant; I'm simply stating the status quo. The real issue with it being 15 cents less or more is that most bars won't make a price change on that amount; they're rounding to the nearest dollar or half-dollar (substitute Euro or Pound as needed). As to your lack of good low alcohol beers...I'm doing what I can.

Alan -

Well, that's your choice to provide no analysis. But realize that to come and make that sort of statement is a pretty weak position. When you see the last tap at Clarks being a lower price local low alcohol beer, when you read Jordan's inside views and read these sorts of posts about realities of graduated beer pricing through time, taking the position that there is a "natural order" of flat pricing which somehow has been provided to us by craft brewers as a blessing not to be assessed is pretty thin stuff.

Chris Lohring -

Stephen put a nice spin on those numbers. Here's another look: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%) has 40% more alcohol than my Notch Pils (4.0%). The problem is that some consumers think it's 1.6% more.

And the point everyone misses - Session Beer is not a suggestive or instructional term. It is simply a designation for lower alcohol beer with good flavor. The rest is up to you.

Alan -

So, its value as a definition is its vacuity?

PS - send samples. No... good 4% beer here... drowning in... booooooozzze....

Joe Stange -

I do think session beers ought to be cheaper than stronger ales (and in my experience they usually are, a bit). But we should temper that hope and realize that fermentables are a small part of a brewers' overall costs. For my part, I'll help brewers compensate for lower profit margin by drinking lower-abv beers in greater quantity. In doing so, I'll also help them turnover fresh product. Not because I like brewers, especially, but because I'm thirsty.

Alan -

See, that is what I think, too.