Tuesday, April 07, 2015

In observance of Session Beer Day, 2015.

NABC celebrated Session Beer Day early this year, but today is the official marker nationwide. Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project has a web site and is on Facebook. Also see Happy Days are Here, Again! It's Session Beer Day! at Yours for Good Fermentables. Following is a repeat of last year's column. Anyone for a pint of Ordinary?


It is Session Beer Day. Long live session. We've come a long way to get back to first principles, and that's okay. It may be time for a beer.

There is somewhat of a digression to all of this.

Occasionally a cliché bears passing resemblance to reality, and recalling the eagerness of every politician to stump by heaping effusive praise on the genius of good, old-fashioned American workplace creativity, permit me to note that in spite of all my various and cranky complaints, this characterization is spot-on when it comes to contemporary American brewing.

Seeing as New Albion was born during the nation’s Bicentennial year, we’re now almost 40 years into the American brewing renaissance. There now are more than 3,000 working breweries in the United States, collectively producing thousands of different beers.

If there’s one approximate generalization to be made as to where these breweries have come from, and where they’re going, it probably would be this: The boundaries of previously accepted beer style have been pushed, pushed – and pushed again. Often, they have become unrecognizable.

In today’s brewing circles, creativity and extremism have too often become synonymous, with good and bad implications. On the positive side, “extreme” beers twist and expand style definitions, combining unexpected characteristics and conjuring innovative, over-the-top specialties: Cherrywood-smoked Imperial Saison? India Pale Ale with coffee? Beers aged in every sort of used barrel known to man?

All veritable child’s play, these days.

Conversely, the alcohol contents of such creations can be as extreme as the recipes, and have been known to cause blood alcohol machines to proclaim “tilt” before collapsing in a heap of fractured plastic and rusted metal. That’s why at reputable establishments, you see extreme beers served in small glasses.

It remains that throughout human history, revolution inevitably begets complicated cycles of counter-revolution, reaction and retrenchment, and many beer aficionados are joining me by turning back to what is commonly referred to as “session” beer. But credit must go where credit is due, and the prime mover in session advocacy these past few years is beer writer Lew Bryson, who defines his terms at Session Beer Project:

► 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
► flavorful enough to be interesting
► balanced enough for multiple pints
► conducive to conversation
► reasonably priced

In fact, there is a “back to the future” aspect to the revival of session beers. All the European brewing cultures from which today's brewing have drawn inspiration always featured “smaller” beers for daily consumption. Because virtually all American mass-market lagers eventually devolved to smallness, with flavor a forgotten afterthought, new age brewing arguably found its greatest success in going big, but this doesn’t change the question.

Can a beer be lower in alcohol without sacrificing flavor?

There is little doubt it can be, and metro Louisville breweries tend to have fine examples on tap. At NABC, we try to keep three session-strength ales flowing at our two locations, year-round. One of Against the Grain’s revolving style pours is Session. Apocalypse, the BBCs, Cumberland … all have beers during the year that dip below the mark and retain plenty of flavor.

On the occasion of Session Beer Day, permit me to reiterate: Having been there and done that, the very notion of session beer reanimates the pleasing imagery that drew me to beer in the first place: Pints to return to, with good conversation and perhaps a cigar (mood and weather willing); imbibed in a clean, well-lighted joint or a breezy garden; and not so strong that I lose the power of speech. Localism and session are intertwined, and go together like Best Bitter and bangers & mash.

I’ll always enjoy the higher echelons of alcohol in beer, but for me, they’ve become reserved largely for special occasions – as was the case for centuries. Meanwhile, session beer signifies coming full circle, back to a more relaxed beer-drinking ethos. The vigorous chase is for youth. Craft (and craftiness) are better suited to a more mature perspective.

At least that’s today’s rationalization, and I’m sticking to it.

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