Session beers come of age in America
By Tom Morgan
Photo: Figleaf’s CinDay, a British best bitter; photo: Jeff Fortney
Once upon a time, American craft beer drinkers routinely and well-nigh exclusively worshipped at the altar of big. Big hops, big body, big flavor, big alcohol. As with most things distinctly American, the logic was that, well, bigger was better. You know, like, duh. Hello? So obvious. And craft beer happily followed along, from the Michael Douglas-esque “greed is good” screed—which might as well have been “big is good”—to the “love it or leave it, you pinko Commie” version of Cold War nuclear proliferation and Tactical Nuclear Penguin. While not all of this has necessarily changed of late (sadly), craft beer has, at least, undergone some self-reflection and introspection in reassessing the ethos of bigger is better. Anyone even vaguely paying attention to craft beer the last couple of years has undoubtedly seen the recent spike in both session IPAs and goses. Not only are these two beer styles the current beer de jour of craft cool, both are excellent examples of the rise of session beer within craft brewing.
Session beers, however, are really nothing new. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, session beer is more concerned with size than style, albeit in a different direction. Originally, session beers referred to British beers in the 3-4 percent ABV category, most oftentimes of the British bitter or mild variety, but occasionally there was the stout version as well. Of the many, many competing definitions for session beers, the most contested part of that definition is alcohol content, with purists arguing for a 4 percent ABV limit, while those in marketing and sales more often arguing for 5 percent ABV (or sometimes even higher) as the cut off for session beers. Why, you may ask? So more beers can fit into the session beer category. That road, however, leads almost directly back to “bigger is better.”
More commonly agreed upon are the other characteristics of session beers. Drinkability defines session beers, as does balance. If the goal is an afternoon or evening of drinking without excessive intoxication, session beers offer flavor without the reciprocal palate fatigue that can accompany the bigger, more aggressively flavored beers that many craft drinkers still gravitate toward. One of the strengths of session beers is the wide range of beer styles they can encompass.
In the Dayton area, there are a good number of session beers readily available. Two local breweries, Yellow Springs Brewery and FigLeaf Brewing, have embraced session beers as a part of their regular lineup. When I asked each brewer about their interest in session beers, both had similar things to say. FigLeaf brewer Jeff Fortney observes, “I’m interested in beers that aren’t a chore to drink. Beer is meant to be shared with friends. It’s a conversational beverage at its best. Lower alcohol beers allow you the option of getting involved in a longer, thoughtful conversation.”
Jeffrey McElfresh, brewer for Yellow Springs Brewery, was similar in his admiration for session beers: “I love beer. I love the taste of beer, the fizz, and the aroma. This is particularly why I enjoy session beers so much. I can drink and enjoy a few beers in a sitting without worrying about getting belligerent.”
For those of you interested in checking out some of the locally available session beers, you have a good number of options. Yellow Springs Brewery offers a couple of interesting and tasty choices, including Kerfuffle, an English dark mild that clocks in at 3.1 percent ABV. Modeled on classic English session beers, it has a rich, rounded mouthfeel for a beer its size, with chocolate, bread crust, and nuttiness the main flavors. YSB also features First Lost Episode, a Belgian-style fruit beer with Montmorency cherries. At 4.9 percent ABV, it is a bit bigger, but the focus is on the balance of yeast and fruit flavors.
FigLeaf Brewing also offers multiple session beer options. Of particular note is the Pride of CinDay, a British best bitter weighing in at 3.9 percent ABV. Flavors are toast and biscuit up front, with hints of nuttiness and toffee in the middle to finish, balanced with a creamy and rounded mouthfeel on the tongue. Their other offering is their Golden Mild, a 3.4 percent ABV beer intended to showcase a lighter colored version of the British mild, one that is bready, balanced, and bright.
Other notable local session beers include Fifth Street Brew Pub’s Cure-All Cream Ale, which comes in at 4.8 percent ABV. Crisp, clean, and refreshing, this beer makes use of both corn and rice to lighten the body in order to create a classic example of a flavorful lawnmower beer. Similarly, Warped Wing’s Trotwood Lager, which at 4 percent ABV fits with more traditional definitions of session beers, is an homage to American light lagers re-imagined through a craft brewing perspective.
Finally, slightly south of Dayton, MadTree Brewing also embraces the session beer ethos. PSA—an acronym for both Proper Session Ale and Public Service Announcement—is a 4.5 percent Pale Ale that foregrounds citrus and tropical fruit flavor with Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic hops. This beer is readily available in cans, and with the emphasis on hop flavor and aroma, it borders on the session IPA style, although the balance between malt and hops is more in line with traditional pale ale. MadTree also offers Shade, a 4.6 percent percent gose that includes sea salt and blackberries. It, too, is available in cans, and the tartness provided by the Lactobacillus balances the sea salt and fruit, creating a brisk, refreshing, enjoyable drink. Finally, they also offer Lift, a kolsch that is 4.7 percent ABV, and one of a couple of lagers in the MadTree lineup designed to round their session offerings.
So remember, flavor can be packed into the small as well as the big. Session beers offer a new direction for craft beer growth and experimentation, one that can showcase the skill and knowledge of brewers. Don’t be afraid to try a couple of them.
For more information on FigLeaf Brewing, please visit FigLeafBrewing.com. For more information on Yellow Springs Brewery, please visit YellowSpringsBrewery.com.