It’s Time for Session Beer

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I wrote the following article for the Beer Advocate Magazine, which appeared in last month’s issue (#39). I have posted it on the Notch Blog to participate in Beer Blogging Friday, as this month’s topic is, of course, Session Beer. Be sure to check out all of the unique perspectives that will be posted on Session Beer today, here’s mine:

It’s time for session beer.

I’ve been on a hiatus from the craft beer industry for six years, and much has changed, mostly for the better, but with some collateral damage along the way. In the frenzy for higher ABV offerings, craft session beer has been wounded, badly. Craft session beer is often hard to find or identify, and I repeatedly find myself drinking session beer imports, not by choice but by necessity. But the climate is changing, and session beer is gaining awareness. The craft beer consumer is intelligent and diverse, and can embrace higher ABV beer at the same time they embrace session beer. So let’s bring session beer back into the conversation, and let’s start by taking back the session beer definition.

What is the definition of session beer? From the British perspective, it’s always been a lower ABV offering, typically sub – 4% ABV. In the US, beer writer Lew Bryson has set a standard in his Session Beer Project blog, which is a must read for any craft beer fan. I believe Lew’s definition should be fully endorsed by the craft beer industry: “4.5% alcohol by volume or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough for multiple pints, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced.” I can already hear the anti-style guideline zealots seething, but consumers need context and reference points when making decisions. Without consistent reference points, we neither educate consumers, nor grow the craft beer category.

With the emergence and focus on higher ABV beers, alcohol crept higher with each new product introduction, to the point where flagship beers at 6% ABV are now being deemed session beers by some. Unless our livers’ ability to metabolize alcohol has increased, how reasonable is it to increase the ABV definition of our session beer? It’s simply not. From a consumer education perspective, session beer ABV cannot be subjective. And isn’t that a critical role of craft brewers, consumer education? If we debase session beer’s culture, history, and most important attribute, lower alcohol, it will only confuse the consumer. And in the end, what will we have achieved? Absolutely nothing.

It’s hard for some to fathom that many would rather trade down the alcohol scale, not trade up. But with age, family, children, work… sometimes life gets in the way of our love for craft beer. If we spend some time educating the craft consumer on session beer, surprising things will happen. I’ve been doing this recently, and most craft consumers are unfamiliar with lower ABV options. A smile comes to a consumer’s face when you let them know them they can have 3 beers at 4% instead of 2 beers at 6%, without compromising flavor, or trading down to a macro light beer. Consumers love options, love alternatives, and love craft beer, so why not provide more options for the times when they thought soda water was the only alternative? Let’s educate consumers, be consistent in our message, and grow the craft beer category with session beer. Craft beer enhances our time together; session beer extends it. Who doesn’t want to extend the good times?

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6 Responses

  1. Greg Potter says:

    Great artical Chris…..I now have a published, gifted beer-crafting neighbor! Looking forward to trying the new Notch brews that you are currenlty in the process of brewing…sounds like your visionary outlook on establishing an American Session Beer market is a winning formula. The lower ABV content for a great tasting craft beer is something I am definitely interested in. As an advid beer drinker, sometimes a craft beer such as Dogfish has just too much of an ABV for my liking, especially when multiple bottles are on the nights agenda. Having this option in the marketplace is a great idea as I don’t want to give up the fine brew taste when in mid-session, which typically last all night long during hours & hours of ladderball! Also have to say on a marketing front, love the name Notch Brewing….believe this theme not only relates to the New England region but also properly hones in on the correct craft beer drinking cosumer-base demographic that will be purchasing this type of product.

  2. Paul Goyette says:

    I agree with all that is said here, especially Potter’s take, and I know he likes to session drink (he married my cousin Leslie and we session drink together sometimes). I find with various craft brews that sometimes I get a particular “hangover” feeling after only 2 or 3 pints max. Not sure why, but it’s disheartening when it happens because I love craft brews. Looking forward to trying Notch.

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