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The evolution of session beers

Lower-alcohol beers are easier to drink and showcase a brewer’s skill

David Flaherty has more than 20 years' experience in the hospitality industry and is the marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

American craft brewers have been feverishly pushing the envelope for decades now, after roaring out of the gates in 1976, when the first craft brewery opened in this country. 

The energy of the movement has led to countless explorations of the four essential ingredients in beer — malted grain, hops, water and yeast — as well as countless adjuncts, from exotic fruits to rare spices. Use more grain and drive up the alcohol level to toe-curling levels? Let’s do it! Use more hops and drive up the bitterness to mouth-shredding heights? Done! Throw in a specific yeast strain, or even bacteria such as Brettanomyces (the dreaded scourge of any sanitized brewery), and let’s see what happens! Voila!

But the pendulum always swings back. While the beer world once craved bigger and bigger representations, the last few years have seen restraint come to the forefront, particularly with the rise of lower alcohol, session beers. 

The term “session” has itself morphed over time, but is generally accepted to embrace beer styles that are naturally lower on the alcohol barometer, as well as those that rework traditionally higher alcohol styles into lower ones — think “session IPA.” 

Whereas high alcohol levels used to be thought of as reflecting skill and technique, now brewers are showing their talents by delivering flavor, balance and character, and allowing drinkers to enjoy a well-made beer without being overtaken by the resulting effects.

“In the first dozen or so years of the 2000s, brewers were intent on differentiating their beers from mass-produced pilsners and light lagers,” said Molly Brooks, a certified cicerone and former wine and beer list manager for Bankers Hill restaurant in San Diego. “It was hops! Alcohol! Bourbon barrels! In your face flavor! But today’s brewers are now looking at the lower alcohol styles that have existed in Europe for centuries. I think the main change is that Americans are starting to see the value in less alcohol, rather than seeing it as the most important factor in quality and price.” 

As craft breweries tried to differentiate themselves from mass-production breweries, alcohol and hop levels were an easy way to do so. That drove the stratospheric rise of the hoppy India Pale Ale style, the undisputed darling of the craft beer movement. 

According to Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, the IPA category has grown almost tenfold since 2008, clocking in today at more than seven million barrels, and representing more than 25 percent of the share of total craft beer styles. 

“From my vantage point, the Denver craft beer scene is still, without question, dominated by high hopped IPAs,” said Timmy Martin, owner of Vino Vino Wine Shop and Baker Wine & Spirits in Denver. “That was really the first visible style to take over a large portion of the market. People associated quality with how powerful the ABV [alcohol by volume] and the hop aromatics were. And it's a forgiving style, so you can blast a high gravity with a ton of hops and you’ll sell out of it. But lately, people are searching the coolers for lower ABV beers, and [those are] also the ones that those of us in the industry most often gravitate to.” 

Many brewers, such as Kelly Taylor, owner and brewer of KelSo Beer Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., are stepping back from the amped up flavors that have been signature characteristics of American craft beer. But subtler beers also require skill. 

“I think it's about balancing the flavors so they're more even-handed,” Taylor said. “Many brewers today think they can simply drop the alcohol levels and run with it, but there's more to it than that. Yeast is an important choice, as is hop addition, malt profile, and maturation temperature and time. Like with any beer, these are all important, but there is nowhere to hide in a session ale if one of those is out of whack.” 

Most beers throughout history could be defined as session beers.

“The old harvest ales were low-alcohol table beers,” Taylor said. “England, Belgium and the [rest of the] Old World were awash in low-alcohol beers made for the common people. They were cheaper, since the original gravity was lower [less grain], and the taxes were lower [taxes were based on starting sugar content], and were a good way to get alcohol to the people in volume. Even here in the USA, after Prohibition, the session lagers won the day for the same reason: cheap, easy, quick.” 

Dylan Mosley, head brewer at Civil Life Brewing Company in St. Louis, simply gravitates to the lower end of the alcohol spectrum out of interest in the complexities of grain. Civil Life’s beers put a spotlight on malt, and therefore eschew the near-ubiquitous fascination with hops. 

Focusing on malt also gives him a hook when talking about his beers. 

“We tell the stories of small-malt houses around the world,” Mosley said. “We can pick and choose very unique malts to lend flavors we are looking for, and, in the process, we seem to have been identified as a 'session beer' producer. However, the coin has two sides. Patrons can be turned off by lower ABV, just as they can be turned on by higher. I have a feeling it’s much like someone asking at a restaurant if something is spicy or not. As long as there is a need for having a few, or even a few more, beers and keeping your head on straight, then session beers are here to stay. It’s mostly whether the marketing of such beers wears thin, or gains traction, that will keep the word in play.”

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains

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