23 September 2009

In Search of a Great Session Beer

It is hard for me to write this because I am part of the problem in craft brewing. I will admit that I love big beers (i.e., Dark Lord, Founders KBS, Kate the Great) and I get caught up in the hype train of those high gravity behemoths that beer geeks love to trade away their first born to just try an ounce of what beer websites deem holy water. Over this summer though I have been having a very difficult time finding a great session beer that I want to come back to over and over again. My progression is steadily moving away from "big" beer and all I want most of the time is a really nice comfort beer.

I read a great website from Lew Bryson called The Session Beer Project. He nicely sums up session beer as this: "4.5% ABV or less, flavorful and balanced, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced." There is no hard and fast rule to session beer, but I prefer the 4.5% ABV vs. 5.5% that seems to be the mark in American craft brew. It may not sound like much of a difference, but during a session I can personally feel a huge difference between these two ABV marks, and even going from 5.5% and 6.0% (FFF's Alpha King), there is a huge difference in how quickly you will be completely fuddled.

I remember my first great session beer. I was on vacation with my wife in England and I had a pint of Timothy Taylor's Ram Tam. It was a truly religious experience for me. I had never had a beer so low in ABV (4.3%) that packed in so much flavor. The explosion of caramel and chocolate malt and earth laden hops on the tongue with the beer's natural carbonation from the cask was brilliant. I had three that night, and I can still think back about that beer I had over two years ago and think about the complexity of that beer and how much I want another one.

So, this summer I've been trying to find a great lawnmower beer, BBQ beer, and soccer match beer, but I've come up short with most of my attempts. I can find plenty of 6 to 8% ABV IPA's that I love and drink often, but not a great deal under the 5% mark. I've had some truly great beer this summer, but nothing that was able to capture my attention like Ram Tam, and nothing that I could call my session beer that would hold me over during all seasons and most occassions. My current favorite session beer is Three Floyd's GumballHead. It comes in at 4.8% ABV, but since FFF's doesn't use any type of dating system, I only buy from my beer guy (Ben at Crown Liquors) when I know it is a fresh shipment from him, so I can't always get it when I want that beer. (I know it is over the 4.5% ABV we just talked about, but this is as close as I've gotten.) I am also a big fan of Sierra Nevada's Kellerweis. It also clocks in at 4.8% ABV.

This got me thinking about the American craft beer movement and what is happening (at least as I see it) in the beer industry. Bigger is better right now, and rarity breeds overly inflated demand for the beer. Some of the lower ABV beers I've had this summer have been from brewers that do tremendous business based on their "big beers," but many of their lower ABV beers have fallen flat on their face in my opinion (and we all know what opinions are like, right?). But I am really curious about something: Can some of these brewers even make a great session beer that falls below 5% abv and do it consistently? If a brewer makes a great session beer, I will continue to drink anything from them at least once and will put more of my beer dollars into them over the year vs. spending money buying a four pack or a bomber of their special release beer only one time a year.

Don't get me wrong here. I am not saying that I want big beer to go away or make this some competition of high gravity beer vs. session beer. There is plenty of room in the marketplace for both. I just want to see more of a focus from brewers on flavor-packed, low-ABV session beer. I would also like to see beer geeks get excited about a new session beer coming out from a brewer. The suggestions I get here from people I want to then review later with the Hoosier Beer Geeks.

So, after that long rambling message about nothing really, what are you thoughts? What is your favorite session beer? What would you like to see reviewed?


  1. Matt, I agree with you 100%. I always seem to be in search of a good session beer... I love a good Double IPA as much as the next guy, but I usually am underwhelmed when I pick up a 6 pack of a sessioable ale... not because I don't like low ABV beers, but because they aren't brewed with the same creativity and care that the monster beers get.

    I had a similar experience in London, having had Flowers Bitter on cask... I'd love it if an American craft brewer could consistently put out a solid English bitter, or other complex sessionable beer.

    My current session faves are Victory Prima Pils, 3F Pride and Joy, and Broad Ripple Brew Pub's Best Bitter... althogh with the exception of the Best Bitter, I think they are all over 5%.

  2. Off the top of my head--

    3F Pride & Joy, Rock Bottom's Brickway Brown Ale, and Sun King's Wee Mac Scottish Ale are three that are consistently flavorful beers. But then again, I'm not sure of the ABV% on any of these beers. I think they're all 5% plus.

  3. There's always Guinness. it's around 4% and, if I'm not mistaken, under 200 calories for a pint. Remember, Guinness is good for you!

  4. I completely agree with Bob on Victory Prima Pils. I'd also add Fuller's London Pride. Full Sail Brewing, if you can smuggle some back to Indiana, actually makes a session beer (may even be call Session Beer). Something else that fits well in this category, but we can't get now (maybe in the future), while I was at Dogfish Head this summer I had a light German sour beer called Goser.

  5. Ballantine Ale tops my list. Unfortunately I have to drive to Covington, KY to get it. I hear rumors it may be back in Indiana one day (it used to be brewed in Ft. Wayne years ago).

  6. Stone's Levitation Ale has really leaped to the top for me... pretty telling how quickly I ran through my 1/2bbl. I find it wonderfully dry (too much sweet malt takes away session-ability for me) and dry-hopped (? - I could be wrong about that, but there's sure a good dose of hops).

    BobM and I have very similar tastes - I'll 2nd prima pils and traveling john's best bitter. For a long time Pride & Joy was my favorite beer... but it has been usurped by levitation ale.

  7. Stone Levitation comes in at 4.4% ABV, and I remember when we first tried that as a group I remember thinking it sure felt much heavier than that. Good call on the Stone.

    Bob you bring up a good comment. The English want more beer like America has, and we would like more beer like the English have. I guess I can't have my cake and eat it too.

  8. It's a good thing I work for a brewery that specializes in sessionable beers. Most of Upland's everyday beers are 5.5% or below with the exception of Dragonfly IPA. This isn't an ad for our beers, though, just mentioning it.

    But Matt, you are right, it's nice to have some beers to go to that you won't get tanked on and can appreciate the beer for the flavor and it isn't killed by booziness or super hops or malt.

    I've been drinking a lot of our Pilsner and Rad Red Amber, but outside of Upland beers, I've enjoyed lately Sessions (the beer IndyIndie referred to, we have friends from WA State), Stone Levitation, and Kona Wailua Wheat Ale.

  9. Upland Preservation Pilsner--great beer in my opinion.

  10. Bell's just got label approval for Oarsman. Comes in around 4% and is delicious. Hopefully it will get a wide release.

  11. I'm not big fan of the word "Session beers", and how their defined. To me 6-7% IPA's ARE session beers. Now that we can get fresh, pry-capped Founders, I've been plowing through Centennial and Red's Rye. Also I always grab some Shorts Huma-Lupa-Licious and Soft Parade while up North.

    But, if I had to pick a favorite "session beer" it'd be...

    Schlitz Gusto!

    Too bad it's not available here in Indy. One of the best American Adjunct Lagers out there. And unlike with PBR, you don't feel like a douche while drinking it.

    Do pick some up in Illinois or Michigan if you have a chance. You'll be surprised how good it is.

  12. Although not one I'd go for, the Schlitz Gusto is in Indy, I've seen it several places.

    I'll agree with BobM on the Prima, and add Bell's 3rd Coast Beer, not the Old Ale. Right around 5%, very clean. The Schlafly Pale is nice too, as well as their Kolsch, especially on a hot day

  13. I would say FFF Gumballhead is atop
    my List. or a Stone Cold Pilsner Urquell.As Much as i love Founders.
    I consider them a treat. thus my
    Every one should have a great session beer on hand.
    Cheers Gumballhead.