Is the “Return to Session Ales” a mere figment of the beer-writer’s imagination?

Big versus Small?


A question.

Luke and myself are sitting here chatting, I caught up on a few blog posts over the weekend and it seems the beer blogging and writing world are obsessed with this theoretical trend reversal from big, bold-flavoured, hoppy or extreme beers to the ubiquitous session brew.

Ask yourself. For those that have tried hundreds of different beers, all sorts of flavours, aroma, brewing techniques and styles, is it not inevitable that the drinking circle rotate back to session?

How about the uninitiated. Those that have never tried an American-hopped IPA or Belgian Dubbel. Their first taste. The look on their face. The classic line… “I don’t like beer, but I really like this!”.

A lot of session beers are unable to deliver this. They may be too close in character to what the uninitiated craft beer lover is used to supping. I’m sure a lot of you out there tried something unique or bold in flavour and had that moment.

When we write of the about-turn to session beer, are we only writing for the intended beer-geek audience?


25 thoughts on “Is the “Return to Session Ales” a mere figment of the beer-writer’s imagination?

  1. Business as usual. Same as it ever was.

    Don’t you want to brew *that* session beer that makes the ‘unitiated’ want to drink more of it *and* the geeks want to drink more of it?

    The session beer that’s tasty enough for casuals to convert; for geeks to stop ticking and just drink the damn stuff?

    It’s not a return; it’s a realisation. That beer was already there…

    • Hmmm, I want most of my beers to appeal to both parties. The more I think about it, the more I wonder how many people have been completely converted by session beers. What defines a session beer? Do the classic session beers, the ones that are always hiding in the backgrounds, always have the oomph to stop people in their tracks? Do they have the appeal of bigger flavoured brews to those that aren’t really beer drinkers?

      I think back to a few tastings I’ve done with self-proclaimed non beer lovers. It was the big flavours that had them stating that they didn’t realise beer could taste like it does… The Goose Island IPAs and the Maredsous 10s and the Cantillon Gueuzes. Would a (delicious, if I do say so myself) Thornbridge Lord Marples have illicited the same response? Case dependent perhaps…

      • We’ve been hashing session beers in the Northwest for going on 16 years. I worked for Saxer in Lake Oswego, Oregon (a Portland suburb) and they paid me in beer. Saxer is renowned for their Jack Frost Dopplebock and their Pilsener but they briefly made a “small Pilsener” unfortunately named Saxer 99 because it had 99 calories. They were shooting for the light beer market when they should have been shooting for the Session Beer market about 10 years after they originally introduced 99. 99 was a fantastic session beer with many of the characteristics of their “World’s Best” Saxer Pilsener. Hands down, Saxer Pilsener it the best Pilsener I ever tasted just as the 99 was the best Session Beer. Coming in a close second is Full Sail’s beer called Session. Interesting that both of my favorite Session Beers are lagers. Maybe that’s one of the keys to making a great tasting Session.

      • Interesting comments. Have also tried Full Sail’s Session lager… a great drop. You’re probably quite lucky to be in an area where you can get a load of great tasting session lagers. I think the choice of beer type when it comes to a session is definitely a personal one. In New Zealand, for example, it is usually easier to find a good lager than a good ale, but the opposite can probably be said for the UK. Either way, definitely can’t knock a great session beer… whatever the defining characteristic of a session brew actually is!

  2. I think its a complex situation. Some first time craft beer drinkers have that wow moment with a big beer, but for many others a big beer is way to much for them and its something altogether more subtle that gives them the ‘Hallelujah moment’. My partner Sarah grew up in the shadow of King and Barnes in Sussex but steadfastly only drunk mainstream lager till discovering (with my help) Bookbinder. Sam and Stu from Yeastie Boys also can claim Booky as thier gateway.

    I hope session beers are in favour as I love them , when Im not drinking imperial stouts and barleywines ofcourse πŸ™‚

    • Bookbinder was one of my defining beers as well. The joys of being a student in Dunedin πŸ™‚

      I’m finding this backlash by bloggers etc. against big beers and on to session beers quite interesting. I just wonder if it is only a contrary topic by this clique or something that is happening with both the initiated and the new craft beer lovers. Interesting topic…

      I saw a lot of people have their WOW moment with Jaipur. At 5.9% and 52 BUs, not necessarily a session ale, but a gateway to flavour-filled beers? Could the same be said of beers like Three Boys Golden Ale, Tuatara APA, Epic Pale Ale etc.? Is a Session Beer only defined by alcohol content or is it a lighter flavour or maybe how many you can drink in a session? So many questions!

  3. The most recent convert I know to tasty/exciting/craft/whatever beer was first converted by Fuller’s Discovery, which as far as I’m concerned is a dull beer best avoided.

    • Interesting. Do you know what it was about the beer that converted said person? Do you think the conversion would have occurred if it was (for argument’s sake) a Sierra Nevada Torpedo?

  4. As above, it’s a complex situation.

    The definition of a session beer is all over the place. Of the talk I’ve seen on US message boards, blogs etc they seem to consider anything sub 6.0% a session beer, even a few times sub 7.0% (they must like short sessions). Whereas in the UK (and for me personally) it’s 4.5% and below – which obviously makes for more of a ‘session’.

    As you touched on above with alcohol vs ‘volume’ of flavour as a definition. I think that it should mainly be catogorised by ABV – for me that’s what a session beer is, something I can drink all night and not spew in the car park. I think you’d have a hard time getting enough flavour into a good and balanced lower ABV beer to run into sessioning palette fatigue type problems.

    As far as the β€œI don’t like beer, but I really like this!” folk and even the average beer drinker, I’ve usually had more luck introducing them to moderate beers – browns, porters, real lagers, blondes, hefes, lower hopped pale ales etc. Most of the IPAs, Belgians, and the like seem a bit too extreme and catch them off-guard a bit.

    For the popularity of bold beers – I think a lot of this has to do with the new-to-craft-beer-ers able to pick up a beer and feel like a connoisseur drinking and talking about it. It’s a lot easier for the virgin beer palate to talk about the massive grapefruit and and pine in an IPA, or the clove and dark fruit of a dubbel than the more subtle or foreign stuff in the smaller beers.

    Is there an actual trend in the market for the sales of smaller beers increasing or just in the media? It would seem to me that maybe the beer writing/blogging and craft beer scenes boomed at about the same time, so is it likely that these writers are getting over the ‘big beer buzz’ and settling down at the same time also?

    I think the way of the future will be as much flavour with as little alcohol as possible. I’ve noticed a couple of brewers in the states have started to play with this – eg 21A and Russian River with lower ABV I/A PAs.

    Good topic for discussion, I love me some of both types of beer though!

    • I’m wondering more and more if the gateway to great beer actually tends to be session as opposed to intensely flavoured brews. I really like your comments about people loving to speak like a connoisseur and finding it easier to do this with assertively flavoured beer as opposed to something more delicate and subtle. I remember the first brewery I ever worked at back in 2001 and the fact that they started putting small blurbs on the back of the bottle talking about ingredients and flavours. Very simple, yet very powerful at the same time. What this instantly did was give the beer-drinker a point of reference. They could take a few bottles or a 6 pack of said beer somewhere and chat about it with confidence. I like that breweries have used the same model as winemakers do with regard to this. It’s a lot easier for a wine drinker to speak about the wine they are drinking… most wine bottles include simple tasting notes and food matches.

      Upskilling the drinker is an interesting area to look at. I know of some people who are dead against things such as tasting notes due to the fact that drinking should be a subjective experience and not led by a bit of text on a label. I wonder if this ever crossed wine-makers minds 20+ years ago when it became common to do this for wine. A bit off topic, but it got me thinking…

      Think you are right about the tapering off of the ‘big beer buzz’. I do think, however, that due to the limited nature of craft beer compared to mainstream brews in terms of availability, there will always be a new bunch of bloggers playing catch up. Discovering something that the older hands discovered a few years earlier. I’d like to think that the passion and creativity of craft brewers everywhere (as well as the varying states of the market dependent on which country you’re living in) will continue to fascinate beer lovers past, present and future whether the beer is session, strong or just completely whacky and extreme for many more years!

      As for 21A and Russian River… now you’re making me thirsty!!

    • This is funny because today I was having a Stone Old Guardian Barleywine with a friend that he provided and I pulled out a 6.5% Dale’s Pale Ale (which I really like) and he referred to it as a ‘session ale’ and I started laughing saying, maybe to you. Yes, I view a session beer/ale very near a small beer…well below 5%. I’m almost 200lbs but would be ready for the octagon with a session of Dale’s at 6.5%

      • Haha, fair enough! Dale’s was one of the first craft beers I ever tried out of a can and a great one it is! Imagine the cage-fighting prowess you’d have if Old Guardian was your session tipple of choice! Just make sure there are no blows to the liver region πŸ™‚

  5. Yes…
    I was in a pub at the weekend, Handpulls on the bar were:
    Thornbridge Kipling
    Adnams Broadside
    Harviestoun Schiehallion

    Bloke comes in and says “I’ll have a pint of John Smiths” stood right in front of the handpulls!
    Landlord says “I don’t sell John Smiths”
    The bloke then considers the pump clips Schiehallion – “Oh I don’t like Lager”

    I’m not sure what he went for, I stopped listening after that last line…

    People get what they have always got, they actually NEED helping past the Beer-Inhibitions, so even though you are going full circle from Úber-Beer-Nerd to Easy Session the cycle of ‘Same’ is going to be stubborn and a way of educating new customers needs to be found.

    So, yes, you are only writing for the beer geek audience.
    The more main-stream Media coverage the better… as if you didn’t know! πŸ™‚

    • Hear, hear to that! Any mainstream media coverage for beer is a great thing… Makes me wonder though (me on a tangent… never!), what do we define as mainstream media these days? Media seems to be getting so personalised, that it is getting more and more difficult to get a message out into the mainstream. Unless, that is, you have a mega-marketing budget… something the little guys don’t really have…

      Accessibility is such a tough thing. In my experience in the UK, education happens more often than not at a pub. The coal-face is that point of contact with a publican or with bar-staff. In your example above (where obviously the gent was keen for a bitter), would it not have been great for the landlord to chat about the cask lager on offer, explain that lager is defined by a yeast variety and a cooler definition. That the beer makes use of some great hops and will be more like a cask ale than a Carlsberg. Give the gent a taster…

      That’s where people’s minds are opened up and why you are so lucky in the UK with the pub industry. Just made myself homesick for The Coach and Horses!

      • Aww, do you need a little cry?

        Educating landlords maybe. Media is pretty wide ranging, and I know what you mean about it being personal I miss far more than I see.

      • Hehe, have dried the tears… For sure, it’s amazing now how easy it is to create a little media bubble that includes only the things you’re interested in… Something many a marketing analyst is seeing I’m imagining. I’ll stick to brewing I think…

  6. Just a quick comment on Session ABV. In the NW the Holy Grail is anything less than 3.5% abv with 3.3 pushing the limit. Alcohol brings out the flavor in beer and more alcohol brings out more flavor which is why it’s so dang hard to make a great Session Beer. Vinnie Cilurzo brewed a second runnings beer from his Pliney the Younger quadruple dry hopped it and called it Pliney the Unborn. I didn’t get to taste it and don’t know the ABV but would love to hear from those who have. This was almost a year ago so it probably wasn’t a commercial success??

    • Nice, am sure it would have been tasty no matter what! Brewdog in Scotland did something similar with Nanny State… All speciality malts and more hops than you would think are possible to put into a 0.5% brew! Astringent but they made a point about flavour…

      Played around quite a bit with beers between 2.7 and 3.3% when at Thornbridge. An interesting project and loads of fun. Agree about it being challenging though!

  7. I think the brew-a-good-session-beer challenge is one that many brewers either don’t want to take up or don’t have the skill to do so.

    Plus, with the UK geeks, I think there’s some fallout over an incessent amount of mediocre blonde, heavy-hopped beer (especially dry hopped). Average beer can be given a big nose but it still has no trousers.

    As the weather gets warmer, I start looking for that cask that I can drink several pints of and still remian cogent. Four pints of Jaipur is a great session, but ultimately a messy one. Four pints of Wild Swan sounds to me like an ideal Sunday afternoon.

    The skill to make a low-ish ABV, well balanced session beer is one that suprisingly few brewers seem to have. Any idiot can mask a crap beer with a ton of hops; when you get down to <4% there's no room to hide.

    PS – if you haven't already seen it, there's a cracking post over on Jack Curtain's blog about sessionability. Go crack open a DIPA and enjoy it πŸ˜‰

    • Good call on the skill of crafting a session beer! As I read your post, I made a quick list in my head of some brilliant UK brews that are full-flavoured and sub-6%… there are loads! Got me heading off on yet another tangent though… how much does the excise/duty/tax situation for beer in varying countries affect the session vs big/bold beers… Is there a causal relationship??


  8. It’s a curious one – at the moment (as a brewery) we seem to be heading towards pale, heavilly hopped brews, with 3 of our permanent range fitting this category. We actually had a few grumbles from punters when we dropped the abv of what had been a “seasonal” from 4 down to 3.8 to fit into our permanents… Admittedly not a massive change, but still raised a few comments.
    Personally, I’d like to see a few more brown/red/dark beers getting onto bars, but who decides this? Standard line is “its what sells” but if there’s no choice… Great if a pubs got a few handpulls, but if it’s only got one, then so often the same beer gets ordered time and again. With limited space in some cases to stock a wide range of bottles, is it only down to the larger pubs to educate folk’s palettes?
    Was at Brewdog’s latest pub venture on Saturday night with a coupla friends who weren’t necessarily the most adventurous of drinkers, but given the choice, they went for it! Stone Cali Belgique has a lot to answer for!!

    • The “what sells” debate is another that could bury itself under the perpetual weight it would create. Hey, I made that sentence rhyme! Choice definitely dictates what is sold over a bar, that is evident. When you are I go to a pub, we may end up drinking a 4% lager as that is all there is to drink. If, like you mentioned, we head to a Brewdog establishment, even if it is with folk who aren’t that into beer or beer flavour, then the possibility of them finding something they like that they have never tasted before increases.

      Publicans need to take pride in choice.

      With regard to bottles and limited space, I think it falls on not just pubs, but the brewer as well. The problem lies with the fact that both you and I work for breweries with limited marketing budgets… that’s why we need those other passionate folk to drive our beers forwards. Will admit though, getting a national listing in supermarkets or off-licences and increasing availability, if you are able, also works a treat!

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