Big Beers vs. Session Beers

There is a terrific little article about Session Beers in the March 2009 issue of All About Beer magazine by our patron saint Lew Bryson regarding the recent spate of session beers being intentionally produced by some breweries such as East End Brewing & Grand River Brewing. And though I am having some difficulty finding these types of brews in my neck of the woods — a recently purchased growler of Middle Ages Mahar’s Mild excepted — it is something of which I am very much in favor … but with some reservations.

For the uninitiated, a “session beer” is loosely defined as a beer that you can drink all day or all night, without getting too tipsy. These beers are generally below 5.5% alcohol by volume (see Beer Advocate’s list of top session beers), but brewers are purposely brewing some of them in the 3-4% range.

This may be a reaction to the “Big Beer” movement of the last decade, in which the mantra has been “Bigger! Stronger! Extreeeeme!” To be sure, sometimes it’s great to knock back brew after brew all day, without having to worry about that walk home or about waking up with your head feeling like it’s been in a vise. It’s really an argument between drinking multiple good, drinkable beers, or a few heavy, analysis-inspiring beers.

Now that the ABV market is starting to correct itself from the unfettered excess of the last decade, what does that mean for us? Are we going to see a rush of 3-4% mild ales and session beers in bars anytime soon?

Bars would be smart to carry a couple of these flavorful but not blackout-inducing beers and market them as such. Places that sell food during the day would be extra smart to market these as “lunchtime beers,” for those of us who are not prohibited from responsibly imbibing during our work lunch hour.

I would be curious, however, to see how these beers are priced. For them to get any traction, they would have to be priced below — I would say well below — the non-session fare, probably in the $3.00 range. This might be prohibitive for brewers and pubs, not only because of the cost of making them, but the fact that lower alcohol content will likely mean shorter shelf-life.

But there is also a philosophical element at work. When I go to a bar and order a “big beer” (let’s say 7% ABV and up), I don’t mind paying a little extra. And it has nothing to do with the buzz, because to me that’s a pleasant side-effect. But these beers are not meant to be guzzled at a rate of four-to-five an hour. Usually two — maybe three — of these big beers per visit is going to be the max. But that’s okay, because these are beers to drink slowly, examine, analyze and watch evolve.

It isn’t that session beers are not worthy of the same scrutiny as their larger brethren, but if the intent is to make a beer that is less the focus of the beer drinker’s attention than it is an accessory to socialization, it is likely to be consumed faster and more absently — and more abundantly! Ergo, ipso facto, you gotta knock the price down.

I am optimistic that we will see more of these low alcohol beers around — and more importantly, that they will be made with the same care and flavor as the heavier stuff. It will be good for the publican, and good for the patron.

~ by William H on March 1, 2009.

2 Responses to “Big Beers vs. Session Beers”

  1. What do you think of Lake Placid’s Ubu? I had it at Dinosaur BBQ on draft and I thought it was amazing!

  2. I’m a big fan. I just finished off a sixer of it myself, but haven’t had the good fortune to have it on tap. I am noticing more Lake Placid beers in Syracuse lately (probably due to Saranac’s contract brewing) so that can only be a good thing.

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