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Me, Lew, session beer and ‘session day’

Apr 4, 2012

OK, this post is not a rant about session beer (at least not a FULL rant about session beer), but rather some reflections about Lew’s quest and the subsequent creation of ‘session day‘ on April 7th of this year.

I want to say the right off the top I am 100% AGAINST all of these ridiculous attempts to generate interest in beer such as IPA Day, Stout Day and now Session Day. To me, these are nothing more than trumped-up, marketing exercises that expose a true lack of fundamental, underlying beer culture, and I find them incredibly irritating. They seem to me to be the exact type of hype/advertising nonsense that the craft beer crowd usually criticize the big boys for, and are part of the colossal annoyance that I get from beer being tied to ‘events’ in the USA, rather than beer being a ubiquitous part of everyday culture and life. The fact that they exist at all (and seem to be very much embraced by the mainstream craft crowd) speaks volumes to me. Having said that, this post isn’t really about THAT particular annoyance, either!

About a month ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Lew Bryson for the first time, when he and I spent a couple of hours at the convivial Memphis Tap Room in Philadelphia. Lew is the man behind session day, a true American beer legend and a man whom I respect greatly.

Lew was kind enough to make time for me in his busy schedule, and I enjoyed our meeting immensely. I found Lew to be great company, a real ‘beer man’, and about the highest compliment I could pay him would be to say that I would be absolutely delighted to ‘meet him down the pub’ at any given time, on any given day or occasion. During our meeting we talked a little about session beer, but actually not much. We both knew where each other stood via our virtual sparring long before we met, so there seemed no point in going over a lot of that ground again. Lew pretty much knows that the traditional definition of session beer as being 4.0% or under is historically correct, but (I know) bases his limit of 4.5% at least partly pragmatism (if 4% was the limit he used, in the USA there would be virtually NOTHING to drink), and partly (I think) on a wish to distinguish American ‘session beer’ as being a different animal than English session beer.

Given that Lew is clearly the genuine article as a beer man, and that I feel that he accepts the (traditional) accuracy of my ‘4.0% position’, I am fully behind the concept of session day in principle, however there are unintended consequences of ignoring the traditional ABV limits which undermine the whole project for me.  On one hand I’ll reluctantly be happy, since at some point it MIGHT ultimately promote the production of some real session beer somewhere down the line in the USA, but underneath that there is a nagging feeling that even at only 4.5%, the concept of REAL session beer is actually being undermined and eroded by this ‘day’, and that in the long run it will do more harm than good.

Why do I say more harm? Well, the problem is that when an arbitrary, non-traditional line is drawn, nobody respects it or understands it, and things start getting very messy all over again. Even Lew has been reporting breweries and bars that are going to promote session day by using beers well OVER his limit of 4.5%. Without strict adherence to the traditional limit, things just spiral out of control, and pretty soon we get 5.0, 5.5, 6.0 etc. being included and the whole concept of session beer once again becomes meaningless and lost. Lew has not really raised a fuss about beers over even HIS limit, probably for a couple of reasons. Firstly as I said above, from a pragmatic point of view if he stuck rigidly to 4.5% there would be too little exposure, and secondly I feel that he’s really got a larger, softer objective here which as NOTHING to do with session beer as such, and that’s the promotion of GENERALLY lower ABV beer. I suspect that Lew doesn’t really care much about the specific concept of session beer per se, but would simply love to have access to better quality, lower ABV beer – I’m with him on that, BUT there is a BIG difference between a position on wanting greater access to generally lower ABV beer, and a position really caring about session beer and its ABV specifically. Now, I realize that by writing that I AM putting words in Lew’s mouth, so perhaps he will correct me, but when talking with him I felt he was more concerned with the former rather than the latter – again, another pragmatic position on his part and obviously a position he is absolutely entitled to take.

Let me close by making something perfectly clear if I haven’t done so already. I have found Lew to be nothing but a gentleman and a scholar, and engaging and delightful company, so this is most definitely not personal, rather it’s just a clash of cultures that will likely never be resolved. I believe his heart is in the right place, and that he truly wants to promote lower ABV beer in the US (which I applaud heartily), but on April 7th I will pick up a 10% beer in protest of his 4.5% limit – at least it will be easier to find that an true session beer!


  1. Stuart Arnold

    “but on April 7th I will pick up a 10% beer in protest of his 4.5% limit” Carrots all day for you then?

    • Ding

      LOL. Actually, I’m only going to drink 1 oz!

  2. Chad of Chad'z Beer Reviews

    I think your misunderstand the point of these “days.” They’re not meant to be holidays to invite outsiders into the craft beer scene, they’re meant to be insiders celebrating with other insiders on why they like an IPA or Stout or “session beer” so much.

    Although I do agree with you, up to a point at least, that “days” in general are silly. I don’t have to wait until IPA day to drink an IPA, I drink at least one a week. If people want to make beer “days” why not concentrate on styles that really difficult to find to make it more of a celebration like “Any Bottle You Paid More then $20 For Day”.

    “Stout Day” is kind of like the equivalent of the culinary world having “steak day.” Umm yeah we can have steak or stout any day – what’s the point? (the difference being everyone eats steak, but not everyone drinks stout). I don’t think these “days” were intended to be marketing gimmicks, but rather tests to see if certain people within the beer community have enough clout to make up a beer holiday out of thin air and see if people actually will follow through (cough* beer wench* cough* IPA day* cough cough).

    However, I believe “Session beer day” is the genuine thing. Bryson doesn’t seem to be a publicity whore, so if he wants to shine some attention on “session beer” I think it’s the real deal. I do have a problem with many of the beers on the list, though. If their criteria for what makes a session beer alone is simply ABV that seems to be defeating the point. Even though Lindemans Framboise is only 2.5% ABV it’s HARDLY the kind of beer I’d want to drink for hours on end, or Dogfish Head Festina Peche or even Sam Adams Light.

    I do agree, however, with Lew that the definition of American “session” beer should be 4.5% ABV and under. Not just because there really isn’t anything widely available at 4% or less except Tetley’s (although that has a lot to do with it), it’s that American drinkers and brewers really aren’t all that interested in low ABV, pub-style real ale which is the traditional basis of session beer. Also because the average craft beer drinker doesn’t want to just sit and drink the same thing over and over again. What’s ironic is that BMC swillers do. Go to any bar, especially a sports bar on Sunday during football season and watch the same group of people drink 4 or 5 or 6 Bud Lights in a row. Someone like me would go through an IPA, stout, wheat, pale ale, and another IPA in the same time span.

    Will I be participating in “session day”? Probably not because I think, as do you, that beer days are silly. I don’t think they promote craft beer at all, they are masturbatory. That’s fine if that’s your thing but I’m not going to hate on the people that partake. I’m not going to drink an imperial stout just to spite the celebration, either.

    • Ding

      Re: Lindemans. Whilst I completely agree that it is hardly a beer that one wants to consume vast quantities of, that does NOT preclude the fact that the ONLY definitive criteria for session beer is an ABV at 4% or under. In that regard it WOULD definitely qualify. Of course traditionally, session beer is restricted to just a few styles and that’s not one of them, but ABV remains the guiding principle here, NOT style. In that respect, Framboise is ‘in’.

  3. Craig Hartinger

    Ding (and Chad) – thanks & please keep up the thoughtful dialog and interesting points of view.

    RE “Beer Days” I’ll respectfully suggest another point of view to Chad’s. I work marketing craft beer in the USA, attempting to generate interest in and sell more fine beer. Various “days” and “events” *are* marketing events – call them hype, sure – but IMO the goal is to attempt to build & support US beer culture. And to sell more craft beer.

    Take an American who had previously had only light lagers. If he tries a stout due to “Stout Day” maybe he’ll have another . . . and over the years, many more. “Days” “weeks” and “events” are tools that seem to work. Is that not promoting craft beer and helping build US beer culture?


    -Craig H.

    • Ding

      Beer Culture cannot be ‘built’ artificially.

      • robc

        Nothing “artificial” about marketing.

        That is how beer cultures are built everywhere, whether its the hanging of the zoigl in Germany or the white lion sign outside a pub in Britain or the bunch of red flowers outside the chicharia in Peru.

    • Chad of Chad'z Beer Reviews

      I disagree. A BMC drinker is going to drink BMC 365 days of the year. He’s unlikely to even KNOW about “stout day” or “IPA day” and certainly not “session day” since he’s out of the loop. I suppose the goal is to get these days to get enough publicity and buzz going that it gets covered by the MSM and therefore Joe Six Pack Bud Light swiller will at least HEAR about it. That being said I don’t see him drinking a stout because it’s stout day and if he does he’s only doing it to be a hipster or doing so with reservations because he’s not a stout drinker. And if he’s at a BMC bar or restaurant he’s very likely to choose Guinness – hardly an example of a craft stout.

      Although I think Ding thinks a lot of tends are about 1000 times more popular than they actually are. I find only bloggers and the like actually talk about them. Boots on the ground at the pubs the average patron could care less about them and even most craft beer drinkers probably haven’t heard of them.

      If you really wnat to create a “day” with substance then create “Craft Beer Day” and get enough buzz going about that. Turn it into a meaningless drinking holiday like Cinco de Mayo or St. patrick’s Day. Stout day, IPA day, session day are all futile attempts to bring in crossover demographics.

      • Lew Bryson

        Not that far off, but I’m not trying to get crossover from BMC drinkers, or educate them on lower alcohol beers with great taste. I’m trying to educate the people who ARE craft beer drinkers already, who are reading the blogs, and belong to Untappd, and get the Twitter feeds. Greg Koch at Stone tweeted about this; that gets out to a lot of craft beer drinkers. I’d be very happy if some of them picked up a session beer tomorrow to see what it’s about.

  4. Brewmaster B

    Speaking of session, when is our next one at the Brick Store?

  5. Justin

    Ding, have you checked out this place in Griffin, GA? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts before I make the drive. Based on description alone, it sounds like your kind of place. http://www.griffinbrewpub.com

    • Ding

      I have not yet been. Know all about it and have made a couple of ‘phonecalls, but I’m worried about going and being terribly disappointed. I’m not sure if I am going to go – it may just serve to deepen my misery.


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