When size matters, smaller may be better

Craft drinkers turn to session beers

By Kevin J. Gray

Photo: Enjoy a hoppy session beer: Founders All-Day IPA

For years, the trend in craft beer has been to go bigger, bolder, more extreme – a movement that gave birth to double IPAs, bourbon barrel imperial stouts and even imperial pilsners and imperial brown ales. But slowly, quietly, a counter trend has been gaining ground – that of the session beer. Unlike their imperial cousins, session beers are smaller and pack less of a punch. Definitions vary, but they tend to be between 4-5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and are designed to provide craft beer drinkers options when they want a flavorful beer but not something high octane.

Beer writer Lew Bryson has been at the forefront of the American session beer movement. On his website, The Session Beer Project (sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com), he defines a session beer as having the following characteristics:

·  4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less (although others set the cap
at 5 percent)

·  flavorful enough to be interesting

·  balanced enough for multiple pints

·  conducive to conversation

·  reasonably priced

Session beers provide well-balanced craft beer that won’t knock you of your barstool. The higher end of craft beer can be fascinating, offering interesting taste combinations and experimentation with ingredients and processes, but many of these beers start out around 6 percent ABV and go up to as high as, in really extreme cases, 20+ percent ABV. Great if you are planning to slowly sample a single bottle or if you are sharing tastes with other people. Not so great if you are meeting friends at your favorite pub, where beer is not the forefront of the event, where the focus of the occasion is on conversation, not inebriation. That’s where session beers come in. Session beers allow craft beer drinkers to have several pints without stumbling home. They are balanced and understated beers that make way for conversation with friends.

In a recent blog post, Bryson put it this way: “Because in these days of extreme double sour fresh-hopped wild beers … there are a solid number of us who like to simply drink good beer without paying through the nose for it, or going to extreme measures to find it, or carefully, slowly sipping it so we don’t get thrashed or stopping the conversation every three sentences to point out yet another nuance [in the beer that] we’ve discovered.”

Small beers are nothing new. In Belgium, table beers are brews that are as low as 1.5 percent ABV and are meant to be consumed by the whole family with meals. Like American session beers, they foster conversation at the dining room table and promote nuance and moderation. In addition to continental models, American session beers have British origins, where bitters, milds and other small ales can be as low as 3-4 percent ABV. The focus on British session beers is usually less about the alcohol and more about the experience. Bitters and milds are the beers you and your buddies order in the afternoon at the pub, play pool or darts well into the evening and still arrive at work fresh the next morning.

Bryson met with some initial resistance from corners of the craft beer movement when he first posed the notion of American session beers. There was some fear that session beers were to replace the extreme beer trend, but Bryson notes that session beers are just another spot on the spectrum of craft beer. They offer drinkers an alternative to macro-lagers when one wants to drink manageable beers.

And like an extreme beer, a solid session beer takes skill to produce. It’s not enough to simply be low in alcohol. Instead, the beer must also achieve balance of hops and malt, creating a flavor that drinkers want more of. Fortunately, brewers are rising to the challenge. There are a growing variety of session beers available in the Dayton market:

Dayton Beer Company Broken Trolley Blonde Ale (Ohio, 4.6 percent ABV) – Drink locally! The lineup at the Dayton Beer Company taproom includes this sessionable blonde ale. Made with Vienna malt and hopped with Cascade and Saaz, the beer is medium-bodied with a crisp finish. Draft only for now, so have a pint at the source or fill a growler to share with friends.

Founders All Day IPA (Michigan, 4.7 percent ABV) – Releasing this beer as a seasonal a few years back, Founders set out to prove that a session beer does not mean sacrificing hops. The beer starts with a bold, bitter bite that will keep hopheads satisfied, but has enough body that it doesn’t taste like hop soup. Founders plans to start releasing this beer in 12 packs of cans this summer, perfect for the beach.

Stone Levitation (California, 4.4 percent ABV) – Stone was at the forefront of the American session beer movement, releasing Levitation in 2002. Caramel and hops dominate this brew, which is widely available (most Kroger stores carry it) and has become many beer drinkers’ after work go-to beer.

Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière (Michigan, 4.5 percent ABV) – Taking the bronze medal in the session beer category at Great American Beer Festival in 2009, this beer has proven that not all session beers need to be hoppy. Aged in oak barrels, Jolly Pumpkin’s artisan farmhouse ale is funky and mild, refreshing enough to drink after working in the sun, but complex enough to enjoy any other time as well.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com

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