So, it’s here again, #sessionbeerday, this time on Sunday, April 7th, 2013.
Mmmm, well it wouldn’t be right for me to let the 2013 ‘event’* pass without comment (here’s 2012’s session beer day post), so here we go with the 2013 rendition of my thoughts. Before you read on, you really should read my definitive post on session beer. That post will give you the basis and the foundation of my position on session beer, and you should always bear that in mind and refer to it, when reading anything that I write subsequently on the subject.
*The very fact that this is an ‘event’ is hugely problematic to me, and part of the problem, but like so many other things, that’s an entirely separate post altogether.
OK, back to 2013. The Session Beer campaign is basically led by Lew Bryson here in the USA, with support from people like Chris Lohring at Notch Brewing, and this year @untappd has joined the fray with a badge. Woo Hoo! I’ll save the rant on @untappd badges for another post, but suffice to say this will raise the profile of ‘beer of 4,5% and under‘ (BUT NOT @sessionbeer) in the USA for 10 seconds, as the @untappd tickers go mad for their virtual recognition (which presumably replaces real-life recognition for many of them).
Lew has, with some logical reasoning, decided to put the ABV limit at 4.5%.Of course, I fervently disagree (with the reasons documented in the definitive post), but I know that Lew has his reasons. The chief amongst them (if I could be as bold as to speak for Lew), appears to be an attempt to ‘average’ or somehow ‘consolidate’ some of the differing views about ABV and session beer prevalent in the USA. Secondly I believe that Lew is motivated by the fact that if he set the bar at the correct ABV (4%), that there would effectively be zero session beer to drink in the USA! Now, the latter is a very pragmatic stance, so I understand where Lew is coming from, but of course that does not detract from the fact that the real ABV of session beer is being ignored.
Lew and I have met, and have some social media/email exchanges, and I *think* that he has some respect for me. I certainly have a lot of respect for him, and his formal credentials certainly outweigh mine by some considerable distance, but on this he’s wrong. Lew’s position is not born out of ignorance, and as I say above he is being pragmatic, but it’s not something that I can let pass. Maybe that is a terrible failing in me, but of course I can only speak from the heart, and from a perspective of what I know session beer to really be.
Now, many would say to me, ‘why are you against the promotion of #sessionbeerday even if it slightly violates the real ABV limit, since surely it will promote awareness of lower ABV beer in the USA, and perhaps it will even lead to more of that type of beer becoming available?’ Well even if that were true (which for the record I don’t think is, since there is no will or culture of such a thing in the USA and it cannot be ‘manufactured’), that’s not my goal anyway. My goal is simpler. I simply want the term session beer to be used correctly, period. I don’t want pseudo session beer to be masquerading and acting as an imposter and a fraud. The volume of available session beer in the USA is irrelevant to me, since the real session beer that I love is never going to be replicated here (in cask OR in keg) anyway, so what’s the point? In any case, for me this is not ‘session beer at any cost’, and it has to be REAL. If it’s not real, why WOULD I want it? I find it odd that people would think I’d be OK with it, I guess that they underestimate my passion.
In short, I think it’s great that Americans will get a chance to drink some lower ABV beer this Sunday, and that the profile of that sector to be raised for a few minutes. After all, the constant and massive ABV’s of the American craft scene are so anti-drinking culture anyway, that any break from them is good, but please stop abusing the session beer moniker. What’s wrong with #lowerabvbeerday?
You are starting to sound like an obsessive lunatic about the 4.5% vs 4% ABV for session beer. Why not relax accept it is NOT a science and sit back and enjoy 4.1% beer and not care if it’s a session beer or not, and appreciate it for the enjoyable, thirst quenching and tasty beverage that it is!
Tradition and all of the evidence says that 4% is the maximum ABV for beer to be correctly labelled as Session Beer. That fact, and my promotion and defense of it, have ZERO bearing upon my enjoyment of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or even much higher ABV beer. The two are unrelated. Like most, you are missing the point.
I’ve got the impression from reading your blog that the 4% criterion DOES have an influence on how much you enjoy a beer. For example, from your review of Jailhouse Brewing Co. Misdemeaor:
“I am hoping against hope that the ABV is 4% or under, since this beer drinks like a really nice session beer, but obviously can’t be if the ABV exceeds that. I am almost always disappointed when I ask questions like that, so I’m not holding my breath.”
To me that sounds very much like your enjoyment of this beer would greatly depend on what the ABV is, which, in this case, you will only know post-hoc.
It’s a fair point that you make, and although I enjoyed Misdemeanor, to me it’s such a missed opportunity that it makes me sad. I didn’t actually enjoy the beer any less, per se, but I certainly lament the chance that passed for me to enjoy it even more.
I just found this blog thanks to an article in the local paper. I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with the term “session beer” but you’ve got my attention. I’m a big fan of good beer, but I don’t particularly want to get staggering drunk on a regular basis. Thanks for sending me searching for good beer with lower alcohol content!
Hi Susan – Great to hear from you, thanks for commenting and enjoy your beer!
I’ll start in non-confrontational format here: I like the views here and the challenging of the orthodoxy of craft-beer faddishness or style slavery. There are some intelligent replies and discussions. I even see the 4% cut off as having *some* merit though it is perhaps somewhat arbitrary and also VERY narrow.
Here however is where I see the challenge:
“The essence of the 4% argument is based in the traditional output of British breweries and the habit of drinking large volumes of beer in single sittings in pubs. The phrase ‘session beer’ grew out of these habits.”
This is to me a narrowly nationalistic and limited view of “session beer” from an English-specific view.
So here’s to a couple of themes of the issues with such a view/definition:
Narrow specific historical origin
Exclusion of, rather than working with, other classification systems.
The problem of hard rather than fuzzy definitions
I’ll go through these in turn:
1) Narrow specific historical origin
This is a very modern view, to choose 4% as the limit point of a “session beer” is a product of a lot of historical factors that don’t really agree with that as a definition of “session beer”. Prior to the “great gravity drop” when taxation was changed in the late 19th century a ‘session beer’ in England would have been FAR stronger than 4%. So this is essentially a post-WWI definition. Nothing wrong with that per se but it should surely be clearly acknowledged as such. The great-gravity drop is to British brewing with the tax changes from malt used to abv as prohibition is to American brewing. After that and WWI beer is VERY different in the UK just as post-prohibition beer is very different in the USA.
Why’s that important? Well the logical extensions of such an arbitrary unacknowledged historically specific modern view as a position for making definitions is that the rug is pulled out from arguments about something being branded an IPA as there’s then little room for considering IPAs as anything other than 20th century version or even Greene King’s “session beer” if beers ‘styles’ or ‘categories’ or ‘groupings’ are to be defined based on a post-gravity drop, post WWI understanding. One solution then is to acknowledge the historically specific definition.
2) Narrow nationalism
The definition there is based on British beer brewing only. Now Britain may be a highly respected brewing nation in much of the world but the USA seems to have a romantic view of anything European a fanciful notion of the “oppressed colonies my forefathers came from cos of those English b*stards” (i.e. Scottish and in particular Irish beers) and a relatively poor view of former colonial masters English beer. Poor Wales doesn’t even merit a mention! (This is a very simplified and somewhat ironic view – to be taken with a HUGE pinch of salt, I’d add needless to say but it seems much needs to be said when dealing with our former colonies ;-)
So taking a British standard as a definition in a different context seems to be off to a bad start in the US of A.
This prefigures and segues into the next segment of this argument:
3) Exclusion of, rather than working with, other classification systems
Some of the other posts on your blog and responses to session beer brews show a real clash with beers-expressed-as-styles. Now that’s a BIG subject (the subject of my PhD in fact – so hiopefully around 50k words of discussion) but here are some thoughts.
A narrow, historically specific British definition of “session” will make a bad fit with beers as styles which are defined loosely by a variable combination history, geographic origin, brewing methods, ingredients and method of packaging and dispensing. So an american pale ale originates from america with american ingredients (specifically US hop varieties) and relatively clean ale yeast. This contrasts with a traditional ENglish bitter which uses English ingredients and hops and english ale yeasts. Style guides were more transportable than the beers so Michael Jackson’s books could get the the USA more easily than fresh cask ale and what is written about the exotic and far away, especially when written well, becomes gospel easily. And when t comes to taste that’s tough as it doesn’t translate into words easily – subtle nuances like the difference between cask ale in condition and well kept and force carbed pasteurised bottles of the “same” beer are VERY hard to explain they need to be tried. (As an example Tim Taylor’s Landlord is probably my favourite beer to session, along with Adnams Explorer – but I won’t touch either in bottle they are awful IMHO. I could try to explain but until you’ve tasted them it will be just words.)
Now style guides like the BJCPs formalisation and extension of Michael Jackson’s definition of “types” and “styles” organised by families have been locked down into categorisations such as the BJCP and with variations on sites like rate beer or beer advocate and then find their way in to untappd etc.
But there are some real anomalies: extending the anti-English slant started above we see that “English” beer ‘styles’ are horribly under-represented in categorisations such as the BJCP style guide. Whilst Dusseldorf alt is differentiated from other northern german alt beers all British bitters are lumped together based on London-centric (more specifically Fullers-centric) divisions of bitter/best/extra special. Huge regional variations between say Yorkshire stone square beers and burton ales are lost. These regional variations are FAR larger and there are far more examples, historic and modern, than some ‘styles’ that get in e.g. roggenbier or unblended lambic.
Meanwhile session beers in other countries that have a beer culture (e.g. Belgium, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic) are often absent. Faro is not mentioned – that is session lambic with lots of commercial examples but not there whilst only-cantillon-make-it unblended lambic IS…? (Go figure)
So what’s he point of this discussion:
in sum: SESSION BEER ISN’T BRITISH! So a definition and a historically arbitrary abv from that tradition is problematic.
It also doesn’t work well with these ideas of style and if you;re in a culture (or subculture) where style definitons rule then trying to play with them not against them could perhaps be more productive. You could go through the style guides and find all the styles defined as under or up to or including 4% abv and say “these could be session beers” but that to me takes a problematic defintion and makes it more problematic not less. Why?
4) The problem of hard not fuzzy definitions
Picking 4% as a hard-and-fast cut-off opens up to attacks such as the “look here’s a british paper calling a 4.2% beer a session beer QED you’re wrong”
Maybe the problem here is hard definitions themselves “typically below 4% with one or too exceptions” or defining other properties of session beer. To only take abv ignores other criteria such as drinkability, moreishness, wanting another, not getting legless, and cultural ideas of what a “session” is – drinking socially not narrowly to get pissed.
Maybe a fuzzier definition could be helpful against the strict and problematic hard definitions of style guides or search for endless rigid specificity in what is and always will be a fluid thing. Maybe laying with style guides and identifying beers that were intended for “sessionablility” would be productive and seeking an intersection of style and the notion of session: Belgian Pale Ale shares much with British Bitter, worker’s Saisons and Abbey table beers (e.g. Achel Kluis, Petit Orval) are currently “specialist belgian” and under-represented in the absurd chase for ever-higher ABVs, mistaken idea Belgian = strong and invention of anachronisms such as the “quadrupel”. Faro is THE session lambic, with no style in BJCP guides, showing sour and session can and do and have gone together. Czech lagers and german lagers can be session strength.
What is the intention of defining “session” though? Promotion of lower abv beers as good? Resisting the chase for bigger and bigger and instead respecting balance? Getting someone in the USA to brew beers DING likes? I wonder if all those aims could be better served by working with not against style definitions to draw more interesting connections across styles and show there is room for balance, lower abv and more.
But a hard 4% cut off without any other attached notions seems to me to be a difficult way of achieving this and one open to too many lines of attack to be defensible whilst not working very well with estanblished, accepted (if flawed and problematic) ways of categorising and thinking about beer, establishing preferences and creating brands in marketplace.
Thanks for taking the time, Steve.
Normally I would go through this line by line, meticulously address each point that you make and come back with a bunch of very specific points, but for the sake of brevity, and the fact that I feel I can address a number of points in a broad sense and still have them be precise, I will attempt to keep this relatively short.
I think that the idea that a ‘narrow history’ and ‘narrow nationalism’ are problems here, is basically false and at best no more than a red herring. As Martyn Cornell has already pointed out, the use of the term ‘session beer’ is a relatively recent one, perhaps only being around in the latter third of the 20th century, so a reference to beer in that period seems absolutely sensible. Also, like it or not, the term ‘session beer’ is UNIQUELY English, so therefore it SHOULD be viewed in a relatively narrow nationalistic manner. This doesn’t mean the other nations don’t sit around in establishments drinking relatively low ABV over extended periods of time, rather it just means the verbiage of ‘sessions’ and ‘session beer’ are just not part of their culture. As for the BJCP, THAT organization does more harm than good IMO as it has filled a knowledge vacuum which has the ignorant frantically pointing at it saying, ‘look, look’! I suspect that you would somewhat agree, Steve.
In addition, I did not ‘pick’ 4% arbitrarily, rather I stated very clearly why that particular ABV makes perfect sense in my original post on the matter. I also see no relevance at all to style considerations here. Whilst it is absolutely true that traditional session beer in the UK would have/does fallen into a very small number of generic styles (Bitter, Pale Ale, Mild and perhaps a few others), that’s an accident of history. The point is that the ABV is/was the crucial factor, not the particular style. As such, ALL beers below 4% are session beers, even if they aren’t used as such in the real world.
Finally you completely misinterpret my motivation here. I couldn’t give a toss about a greater number of lower ABV beers being available to me in the US, nor do I care about ‘winning friends and influencing people’, I just want people to get it right. I truly believe that a lack of discipline over a hard and fast number is a DIRECT contributor to the fact that people in the USA routinely call 5, 6, 7, 8 and even higher ABV beer, ‘session beer’. It’s ignorance that I have disdain for.
Incredibly well said Steve! A topic I feel we may end up discussing on Saturday. While having a session on some 5% abv beers! :-)
Drinking lots of 5% beers in a session, does NOT make them session beers – that’s the point!
It’s weird because as an English drinker, I’d never heard the term session beer until very recently and generally on the brewing network. Given that session beer day is pretty much a us thing (in the uk, we’d call it ‘beer day’) I would say that any event that gets a sub 7% beer on the bar can only be a good thing.
The other thing to keep in mind is that a ‘session’ is not just a trip to the pub but a serious drinker – I would say a session amounts to at least 8 pints. And that’s not those dinky things you guys call pints as well. So that’s about two growlers of a 4% beer right? So if you’re the sort of person that can drink that quantity then good luck to you.
And let’s face it the bottom line is that if Pliny were a ‘proper’ IPA then frankly it would taste like crap.
thanks for replying, interesting points and well reasoned responses. in a moment of Internet shock I have no plans to say you’re wrong or engage in the sort of meaningless mud slinging that usually passes for discussion online because well I think you’re position is reasonable and well argued and answers my queries and points.
I still think that when a term or idea moves from one place to another it will always change so asserting something is “true” in England necessarily means it will or should be the same “true” in the USA is debatable. A pint is a pint in the UK a pint is a pint in the USA but the measurement on a different scale such as ml dhows a difference. Does that mean the USA shouldn’t call their measure a pint? I think the same could apply with a less concrete or comparable concept as what a session beer is. However this line of argument heads into complex philosophical debate over the merits of relativism vs absolutism.
I’ll settle on saying I don’t think you or your position are wrong but equally I think they are only right within a certain way of saying what is right. I think other positions are equally justifiable but deserve the critique you bring and need to construct as strong a set of arguments as you present here to merit consideration. So in short you’re the most right thus far. However terms like this come to be accepted through being constantly negotiated and therefore can change and probably will and I think that’s good but any ground shouldn’t be given without considering what a term means elsewhere, its history and development. You are challenging giving such ground readily or allowing a term like session beer to become the vacuous classification untappd seems to be allowing it to become and I for one am glad.