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06.2011

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Lew Bryson

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when you walk into most craft beer-focused bars these days, the taps run a little bit on the heavy side. 7% IPA, 8% double amber ale, 9% imperial IPA, 6% weissbier, 12% imperial stout . . . I’ve been in places where there were 24 taps pouring nothing lower than 6.5% ABV, and I find myself wondering if these guys sell many beers with lunch.

But every time I walk into Deep Ellum in Allston, I know I’m going to find something good on tap that isn’t going to bang me up too badly if I want to have a couple mid-day. The last time I was in, I grabbed The Notch Session Pils and enjoyed its great balance of malt, body and bitter Saaz hops. The time before that, it was a High and Mighty Beer of the Gods, which I found wickedly refreshing.

I’m talking about beers under 5% with plenty of flavor. I’m talking about beers that are interesting but not dominating. I’m talking about beers that are refreshing and suitable for long-haul drinking afternoons. I’m talking about session beers.

WHAT’S SESSION BEER?
Deep Ellum co-owner Max Toste wasn’t thinking “session beer” when he opened, though. “My first draft list when we opened in January of ’O7,” he recalled, “were my favorites: super-flavorful, dry, hoppy beers. The whole “session” word hadn’t entered my head. I just hated what was going on in extreme beer: oaky, boozy . . . Double IPAs you can get at every bar in town; syrupy-sweet, Belgo-American stuff – it’s covered. What needs to be promoted is these session beers, table beers, especially when they’re produced locally, like Notch and High and Mighty.”
“Session beer” is a term that’s caused a lot of debate in beer geek circles over the past few years, and I’m happy to say that unlike a “good” reporter, I’m right in the middle of it, stirring the pot. A traditional British definition of a session beer – and they were the originators of the term – is a beer that’s 4% ABV or less; anything over, they say, isn’t a session beer. The Alström brothers defined session beer at their beeradvocate.com as a balanced beer with “high drinkability” no higher than 5% ABV. The GABF’s “Session Beer” definition sets a limit of 5.1%.

I started a blog called The Session Beer Project four years ago that split the difference. The original point of my efforts was to get some attention for the non-extreme beers, lower in alcohol but full-flavored. Eventually I came up with a five point definition of my own that I’ve been gratified to see in a number of places since then, including national media stories on what’s starting to look like a serious trend: 1 4.5% alcohol by volume or less; 2 flavorful enough to be interesting; 3 balanced enough for multiple pints; 4 conducive to conversation; and 5 reasonably priced.

Or, as I then said, “If that seems vague . . . it is. Here’s another definition: low-alcohol, but not low-taste.” It’s pretty loose.

I’ve talked to English beer writer Martyn Cornell about this, and liked what he said: “What makes a good session beer is a combination of restraint, satisfaction and ‘moreishness’.”  “Like the ideal companions around a pub table, a great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying and pleasurable. Strength doesn’t have that much to do with it: that is, a weaker beer isn’t automatically a session beer.”

Inspired by that, I didn’t really want to get too hung up on the exact ABV percentage; the last thing I’d want is to point at a delicious 4.7% beer and say, “It’s good, but it’s not session beer. Away with you!” I decided on 4.5% in the spirit of a speed limit: if you want people to stay under 5O, make the limit 45. Another good, pragmatic reason for 4.5%: four years ago, there weren’t too many beers out there that were 4% or under.

You’ll get some argument on that; I know, because I did. But think about it. First, I’m really not talking about light lagers. They’re the reason I started drinking craft beer in the first place. Next, please don’t bother me with all the imported beers that only show up in one state, or at one brewpub, one month a year. Likewise, while some lambics are 4.5% or lower, $12 a bottle in a bar is going to make for a short – or crazy expensive – session. That doesn’t leave us with much, and it was only getting worse.

Don’t take my word for it; “anecdotal data” is an oxymoron. Ken Weaver, a blogger on the HopPress site, recently took a look at ten years of new beers from the ratebeer.com database to answer the question, “Are we really moving away from drinkable beers?” He first looked at the percentage of new American beers that were at or above 5.5%; high already, in my book, but it just makes what he found even more concerning. In 2OOO, those beers were under half of the new beers, but it started a steady steep climb that brought it to an astounding 7O% in 2OO9. While there was an increase in the rest of the world, it was much more moderate; from just under 3O% in 2OOO to just under 4O% in 2OO9.

Then he thought, well, maybe the average beer was just over 5.5%, and the graph looks steeper than reality suggests. So he looked at the average ABV of new American beers over that period . . . and they went from just over 5.5% to over 7% in 2OO9. That’s the average ABV of a new beer, and while it’s up in the air as to why – drinkers’ taste, the influence of ratings websites and critics, brewer competition – it’s definite, not a guess. We’re brewing and drinking stronger beers.

Will Shelton, one of the Shelton Brothers beer importing Sheltons (who’ve been known to import some luscious low alcohol beers), thinks that trend is making “session beer” a less-than-useful term. “I don’t like the term,” he said, “mainly because I feel it’s been co-opted. You’ll see discussions on BeerAdvocate asking people ‘What’s your favorite session beer,’ and you get answers like Dark Lord [imperial stout], Westvleteren 12. It means nothing to people.”

All you have to do is Google the term – as I do every day – and you’ll see he’s got a point. A week doesn’t go by that some otherwise well-meaning beer pundit describes a 6.5% pale ale or 5.8% wheat beer as a “session beer”. Just because you can drink two of them without falling over doesn’t make it session!

TAKING IT DOWN A NOTCH
But for every one of those types, there’s more people out there who are getting it, craving it. Session beer is just breaking as a trend, and the small but growing success of The Notch Session beers in Boston is an indicator of that success. The Notch is the idea of Chris Lohring, who some of you may remember as the man behind Tremont Ales, a line of traditional English ales that started up in 1993. Tremont was looking promising, but things went south, and Lohring sold the brand in 2OO4 and went back to product design engineering.

Beer hadn’t let him go, of course. It was when he found himself brewing lower-strength beers at home that he realized there was something going on. “I loathe brewing beer at home,” Lohring confided. “I really don’t enjoy it, but I was brewing session beers because there weren’t any local, fresh ones. Was I alone in this? Was I the only aging craft beer drinker looking for these beers?”

After some quick market research – talking to some retailers, and looking in their coolers – he sent me an email in October 2OO9, asking if I thought the “session movement” was a temporary backlash to extreme beers or something with legs, and if the folks out there on the Web – mostly from the west coast – who were blathering about “session beers” that were as high as 6.5% had polluted the term so much that even more education would be needed. “I would think, maybe bet, that there is a market for that beer,” he said.

That started a conversation, but he had already placed the bet. Lohring was talking to the people at Federal Jack’s brewpub in Kennebunkport, Maine, (where he’d apprenticed in the early 199Os) about brewing some test batches of the beers he was planning to call The Notch. (The name, by the way, is about counting, keeping track: of how many you’ve had, of how strong the beer is, whatever you want it to be.)

The test batches went well. “I talked to Brian Murphy at Burke and got good feedback,” Lohring said. “Two things came out of that. One: the retailer, especially on-premise, was very interested in the concept. They wanted a local low-alcohol option that wasn’t being provided. Second, this would have to be a beer people would be engaged by: British styles wouldn’t be enough. I had to look at low-alcohol styles people hadn’t seen before. That’s okay; I can go to any great beer making nation and pick out two or three low-alcohol beers that craft brewing has ignored.

“We got so excited about new releases,” he explained, “and high ABV, and novel brewing methods . . . it was easier to do that, bring out a high ABV beer that got high ratings, sold for $9 a bottle in a 22 ounce and had incredible margins: why wouldn’t you do that? This is a different business model. My model’s more a volume game, and I need to provide a competitive six-pack pricepoint.”

He made the decision to go all in with his bet. Notch launched regular draft last fall, and Lohring put out two beers in bottles in March – The Notch Session Pils and Session Ale. The Ale is a 4.5% pale ale with a stiff dose of American hop; the Pils is a solid Czech style that leaves me smacking my lips over the buzzy hop finish.

Meanwhile, Will Shelton was already headed in the same direction. “German beers are my favorite in the world,” he said, “but there are times when I wish they were a bit hoppier.” In classic American beer style, the Sheltons decided that if the beer didn’t exist, they’d have to make it. The result: High and Mighty Beer Company and Beer of the Gods. Really.
(Will said the name was inspired by a comment from someone on the BeerAdvocate website: “I’m sick and tired of all this high and mighty Shelton Brothers bullshit.” He noted that while he and his brother Dan disagree about which of them first said, ‘If we ever open a brewery, that’s what we’re calling it,’ they do agree that’s where it came from.)

Will describes Beer of the Gods – a name deliberately intended as another tweak of “certain elements of the beer cognoscenti” – as a hoppier version of a traditional, unfiltered German farmhouse lager. “It’s the beer I wanted that I can’t get anywhere else,” he said, and noted that the name and open defiance of the beer geekerie was a success. “There are whole groups of beer drinkers who won’t even try it, bars that will not carry it.” On the other hand, people who are not members of that thin layer of aficionados tend to love it.

Who loves these beers? Ask the folks who sell them. Noah Feldman is the beer manager at Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill, and he sees action on these beers, and the potential for more. “It’s not a saturated market with session beers right now, which is surprising, because it seems to appeal to a lot of customers,” he said. “A lot of guys are coming in looking for lower-alcohol beers; middle-aged men, particularly, don’t want big alcohol beers. There’s a certain group it really appeals to, and there’s another group that’s the exact opposite.”

Lohring told me to give Suzanne Schalow at Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont a call; “She’s got a knowledgeable clientele,” he said. Suzanne laughed when I told her that. “Chris got his butt kicked at the tasting we did!” she crowed. “People were looking for it before we had it. We were getting calls, ‘I heard the Notch is coming out.’ We sold 8 cases of Notch in two hours. Chris has done his job, he’s awesome, and he’s passionate about beer. P.S., he’s also putting out a good product, and people know they can have a few of them.”

And then there was the launch party Lohring had at the Lower Depths in Boston. Jenna Figueiredo, the general manager, remembers that night in early March. “When he came to me about the launch party for Notch, I was excited to be a part of it,” she said. “The event turned out to be bigger than I thought. We had a line down the block for the entire time, and we kicked both of the kegs.” People lining up . . . for a 4% pilsner. Kinda gives you pause, doesn’t it?

DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE
But how important is it that Notch Session Pils is 4.O%, and High & Mighty Beer of the Gods is 4.5%? I just saw an online review of the Pils: “The Session Pils has tons of flavor for 4.O% ABV.” I think it’s got tons of flavor. Period. It’s a great Czech-type pils. That’s the reason for the lines and why  people drank up both kegs of Notch (Pils and Ale, by the way): like Schalow said, it’s a good product. Low alcohol is just something it is; people don’t drink imperial IPA because it’s high alcohol, they drink it because it tastes good. Right?

Do people choose session because it’s low alcohol first, and for taste second? That drives Will Shelton crazy. “People have this idea that you can drink it all day long, and you’re sacrificing,” he said. “You have to drink this ‘lesser beer’. That’s crap. I drink Beer of the Gods because it’s my favorite beer. It’s not about volume, it’s about flavor and complexity. Drink whatever you want, but not so much you make a fool of yourself.”

Lohring reinforced that, pointing out that session beer’s not water. “Craft beer enhances our times together,” he said. “Session beer extends it. People get this idea that ‘session beer’ is about drinking a lot. It’s not!

“I’ve done a lot of tastings recently,” he said. “The one thing that really engages people is that session beer isn’t marketing bullshit. It’s a real thing, from a real place, and it’s been around for years: they make them in England, the Czech Republic, northern Germany, the original saisons in northern France and Belgium. And people want to know, why didn’t they know about that? It’s this myth that flavor and high ABV have to go hand in hand.”

BANG FOR THE BUCK
That kind of talk treads close to something that Lohring and Shelton have both noticed: an angry resentment towards session beer from people who like big beers. I’ve certainly seen it, and heard it, right up in my face at all-session beer events I’ve been involved with. But it seems to be coming from a very thin slice of the market, just as the demand for the big beers is. There’s nothing about session beers that undercuts that; it’s about choice and variety, the very heart of the craft beer ideal.

There’s also the idea that somehow session beers should cost less; it’s less alcohol, right? That may work in the UK, where taxes are based on alcohol content, but not here. You’re talking about a tiny difference in price of materials between a 4% beer and a 7% beer.

“The truth is, the alcohol comes from the amount of malt you put in,” said Shelton, “that’s a pretty small part of the cost of making beer. I spend way more on bottles than I do on malt. I’m also tiny; I get no economies of scale. Dogfish can make 9O Minute IPA for way less than I make Beer of the Gods.”
“It’s about 5 cents less a pint to make than 6% beer,” said Lohring, adding, “that’s not getting passed on. The choice of your ingredients can make more of a difference than the amount of alcohol in the beer. Notch is matching the price of a sixpack for a brewer that brews 2 million barrels a year; I’m brewing 3O barrels a week. Who’s really more expensive?

“The consumer doesn’t really want to think about pricing, or a 1 or 2% ABV difference,” he said. “They want to know, does it taste good, is it a good value? The consumer understands that there’s value in flavor in a lower ABV beer. I’m seeing that, it’s not a guess.”

He is seeing it, too. I was at NERAX this year, the New England Real Ale Exposition, and spoke to the brewers there about session beer. There was a heated discussion about pricing that Lohring was there for. He texted me later that evening, amused that while folks were saying people wouldn’t pay regular prices for session beer, he was out selling sixpacks of Notch hand-over-fist for $1O each.

Session beer may not be the big thing . . . but it does appear to have some legs, and should be able to establish a niche. “I absolutely think it’s going to be a trend,” said Feldman. “People are looking for beers they can enjoy that don’t fill them up. It’s getting back to what beer was 1OO years ago; maintaining quality, good ingredients, good flavor, and keeping the alcohol low.”

I’ll drink to that; in fact, I’ll buy the next round.

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