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?