Article By: Lew Bryson
Harpoon's head brewer, Al Marzi, had a session recently. "I was just over in England for a wedding and had some great cask ales. My wife was drinking a 3.8% bitter, I had a 4.5% ale, and they tasted great. That's session. If you're going to sit down in a pub and watch a game, you want to have a few beers and not get blotto." "Session beers," an English brewer once explained to me, "are all about having eight or ten pints with your mates at the pub, and at the end of the night you still have it together enough to go out for a curry and navigate your way home." American drinkers have not yet shown enough interest in a 3.5% beer for brewers to make many, but there are plenty of sub-5% beers out there for those who want to sink a few.
That's one of the downsides of the current trend towards bigger, hoppier beers: you can't drink as many of them (or sell as many of them). Hugh Sisson's been in craft brewing in Baltimore for over fifteen years, first at his family's ground-breaking brewpub, Sisson's, and now at his production brewery, Clipper City, where he just celebrated ten years in business.
Like most of the folks in the business, he's definitely a consumer as well as a producer, and some of his favorites are Clipper City's big beer line, the Heavy Seas brand. But he recognizes the limits of big beers. "If I'm out and about, I want to drink beer. If I have a Winter Storm [the Heavy Seas double IPA] or Loose Cannon [barleywine], I have two . . . and then I have to go home - which is a pain in the ass. If we could get that kind of depth of flavor and complexity in a 3.5% beer, I'd be there tomorrow."
I remember thinking the exact same thing ten years ago when I was at a cask ale event in Philadelphia. A local importer had talked the folks at Young's in England to send over a live cask of their Old Nick barleywine. At about 7%, Old Nick's not a real bruiser, as barleywines go, but it's not something you'd want to pound. Yet after the first wonderful half-pint of bread-fresh estery-complex ale, all I could think was how great it would be if they could make something this good at 3.5%, because then I could drink it all day.
David Geary celebrated 2O years of brewing at D.L. Geary Brewing (Portland, Maine) in 2OO6, and he's done most of it with session beer. I asked him what session beer meant to him. "I guess it's a beer that tastes good," he said, "low enough in alcohol that you don't get faced, and doesn't give you taste fatigue - still tastes just as good on the fifth pint. But a session beer, not a lawnmower beer that just drinks like water. I think there has to be a certain amount of dryness, and not so much residual sugar. I think of Geary's Pale Ale."
He laughed. "Well, of course, I do. It's 4.7%, moderately hoppy, but very crisp and dry. Our Porter, at 4.2%, could be one, but people usually don't see beers that dark as session beers. It's very smooth on the palate, though."
That smoothness on the palate leads to pint after pint "poundability", of course, but it's got another allure for the craft brewer: crossover. Although the category has experienced tremendous growth, and it looks like 2OO6 was a double-digit year for craft beers, there are still many more mainstream lager drinkers than craft beer drinkers. If craft brewers are going to capture any of those consumers, it's almost sure that they'll cross over to a session beer, a smooth but flavorful beer that's maybe a bit darker than what they've tried before.
And when they decide to try something different, Ned LaFortune will be sitting there with a smile on his face and a glass of his Wachusett Brewing (Westminster, Massachusetts) beer, ready and waiting. Wachusett's best-selling Blueberry Ale is only 4.5%. "We've always striven to be the company that, if those 75% of Massachusetts beer drinkers decide they want to come over from mainstream, they'll choose us. There's a huge population that's drinking mainstream beer, and we're there for them. Drinkability is our mantra."
Extreme beers are getting all the attention right now, getting coverage on television and even the front page of the wall street journal with their wild ingredients, huge hopping rates and wine-like levels of alcohol. But LaFortune doesn't want them to be the beer that mainstreamers reach for when they decide to try out this "craft-brewed" thing. "If their first craft beer is an extreme double IPA, kiss them good-bye. We've lost them. Our primary market is in bringing more people over."
Marzi sees things pretty much the same way. "It depends on the crowd. If you're talking to a wine consumer, especially if they're a specialty varietal drinker, they're buying for flavor and they'll be interested in an extreme beer. Regular craft brew drinker? They're probably not frightened away. But a mainstream drinker? Probably not liking it."
Todd Ashman made a name for himself in the late 199Os at Flossmoor Station, a south Chicago brewpub. Ashman was one of the pioneers of barrel-aged beers, brews with huge flavor profiles derived from a varied program of wood-aging. I talked to him recently; he's getting ready to open 5O/5O Brewing in Truckee, California, where he'll be brewing mostly session-strength lagers. "I enjoyed doing that kind of stuff," he told me, "but when I left Flossmoor Station, I got a fair amount of it out of my system."
Some of the reason big beers are out of Ashman's system is that it's just not as much fun now. "It became more mainstream," he admitted. "People are buying them and drinking them, and if it's accepted, well, you're not really pushing the envelope so you've got to go on to something else. These [extreme brewers] are trying to find the next great thing, The doubling and 'imperializing,' the super-sizing of beers: something's going to catch on, but I've found that we're losing focus on what we're trying to do here."
Geary doesn't have a problem with extreme beers, even though he doesn't make any really big ones himself. "I think it's good overall, anything of that nature is good," he said, referring to the publicity such beers have garnered for the industry, "though I don't like the adoration, the hagiographic reviews of these brewers as if they're tuned into the cosmic all.
"What I don't agree with is the notion that beer has to be extreme to be good," Geary said. "Newcastle Brown Ale, for example, it gets everything right, it's all in balance. It's balanced, it's tasty, it has no flaws. Some of these extreme beers fall victim to the idea that if some is good, a lot is better. That's the philosophy that brought us the Hummer. In the end, beer has to be a beverage, something you want to drink."
"Do you need to get your palate blasted, to fall off your barstool?" asked LaFortune. "I make sure our Winter Ale doesn't go over 6.5%. We're in a market where people want to have dinner with three pints of beer. Three pints of 8% beer, 1O% beer, 12% beer? You can't do that! The Winter's busting with flavor and character, but it's about drinkability."
It's not just the flavor and the weight, either. Drinkable beers are more affordable. Extreme beers cost more to make, they cost more because of the risks involved in making and selling them, they cost more because they are uncommon. Every brewer would like to get more for their beer, wine-like prices, but the market's only slowly getting there.
"My old neighbors, Three Floyds Brewing, garnered quite a bit of attention with their Darklord [Imperial Stout]," said Ashman. "That's a syrupy motor-oil of a beer, but a good one. But how many people really want to pay $2O for a 22oz. bottle of beer?"
There actually are quite a few people, which is why Three Floyds sells out every bottle of Darklord, but how often do they want to pay it, and how many of them buy at your store? They're a thin layer across the country, much like the thin layer of high-end wine purchasers that keep small estate vineyards in business.
Brewers who make session beers do get a benefit from those big beers with big prices, of course. "When I think about prices in our market, I smile and thank people like Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head," said LaFortune. "There are still too many people in this business that are cutting prices too close. It's no good for any of us. So I love the margins big beers have helped punch through. We're big on getting paid for a hard day's work."
Jim Koch is often given credit for popularizing craft beer with the national success of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. But he's also the man who started the whole extreme beer idea. "I think the term started with Utopias," he said. "Someone asked me, 'What do you call it?' We call it an extreme beer."
It was really the Samuel Adams Triple Bock that started things. "Everything out there was a continuation of existing brewing practices: barleywines, doublebocks, Imperial stout," Koch said. "Everyone always assumed you couldn't ferment past 12 or 13% ABV. Triple Bock broke the sound barrier. I started working on that in 1993. TB sold for $12O a case in cobalt blue bottles with sherry corks. It got people's attention. A $12O case of beer created shock and awe. But there really wasn't much else for three or four years."
Koch sees the need for balance in portfolios as well as in beers. "Some of us drink beer every day," he said. "For people like me, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is the beer that's in my refrigerator. Utopias is in my liquor cabinet. I go to the refrigerator a lot more than my liquor cabinet. We do both extreme beers and session beers, and we need both."
But doesn't extreme beer dominate the news? Koch is honest about it. "Extreme beers make up a lot of the news, sure. It doesn't mean they're going to take over the world. When you think about what's news, brewing one more American IPA or porter or stout is not news any more; changing the hops in an IPA is no longer a great exercise in brewing creativity."
Making a session beer that's good every time and tastes great pint after pint isn't about creativity either; it's about skill, experience and a good palate. It's about making the beer that signs the checks for the extreme beer products. "Extreme beers are curiosities," said Geary. "Everything I've said about session beer applies to craft beer in general. You better be making a really good session beer if you want to survive in this business."
Al Marzi told me that the folks at Harpoon were kicking around the idea of a session beer to back up their big seller, the Harpoon IPA (which, at 5.9%, he said, "is definitely not a session beer"). "Something down around 4.2, 4.3%," he said, but wouldn't say much more. With legal pressures continuing to mount on impaired driving, such a move doesn't just sound smart, it sounds inevitable.
Geary thinks session beers, flagships, are getting more respect. "Back in the craze of the early 199Os, when everything was taking off, you just couldn't screw up. People got away from it, various things happened and market kind of hit a wall. Then the seeds that had been sown started to come to fruit, the younger drinkers who started on craft beer and will always be craft drinkers.
"That's what we're seeing now," he said," the people who wouldn't dream of having a Bud Light. They may not have brand loyalty, but they have a category loyalty that is very strong and will never go away. Having been around for 2O years, we're the beneficiary of that trend. Every now and then, a new pretty skirt will walk down the street, and everyone will try it and then come back to the Old Dependable."
It's not really a question of whether extreme beers or session beers are "better". Well-made examples of either category are both good. But when extreme beers are getting all the headlines and the limelight, it doesn't hurt to give some credit and a little love to Old Dependable. Anyone for some pinochle, pretzels and pitchers?