Low Blow


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I love a good argument. I particularly love a good argument about drinks. And I especially love a good drinks argument in which manifestos are published. This is why — whether we’re talking about wine, spirits or beer — it’s endlessly amusing to bring up the topic of alcohol content.


In wine, there are supporters of high-alcohol fruit bombs versus sommeliers who refuse to put any wine over 14 percent on their lists. In spirits, it’s the opposite: Many craft bartenders thumb their noses at whiskey that falls below 100 proof. And in beer, there’s the perennial issue of the session beer.

Session beers are low-alcohol, high-flavor, easy-drinking, reasonably priced beers that one might drink all night long and still be able to walk home without doing something stupid. Essentially, a session beer is the opposite of the 8 to 12 percent hop/sour/funk monsters that so many beer geeks love.

The idea of finding a really good session beer occurred to me when I was at my local bar, a place with two dozen craft beers on tap. I noticed that more than half the bar was drinking bottles of Miller Lite (4.17 percent alcohol by volume) or Bud Light (4.2 percent). This, while right at their disposal was everything from Maudite (8 percent) to Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA (9 percent) to Scaldis Bush de Noel (12 percent) to even my own current session beer, Victory Prima Pils (5.3 percent).

I asked one of the guys — a tough-looking dude with a chinstrap beard and lots of tattoos — why he wasn’t drinking any of the great beers on tap. He glared at me. “I’m gonna drink for, like, the next five hours. Do you want to see what happens when I drink more than one of those?”

There has to be a better way.

What exactly are we looking for in a session beer? A session beer “can’t be insanely hopped, syrupy with residual sugar, or funkier than hell,” according to Lew Bryson, a respected beer and whiskey critic and managing editor of Malt Advocate. “You want a beer with a decent amount of flavor, and one that you can drink steadily, but not crazily, for several hours. And still be able to play cards without losing the house.”

But the most important thing is the alcohol level. Some put session beers at under 5.5 percent. Others say 5 percent. Bryson has a stricter cutoff number: 4.5 percent.

Several years ago, Bryson said he complained to brewers that they were putting too much emphasis on their big, extreme beers, and session beers were being forgotten. The brewers’ response to Bryson: “We blame you, the critics. It’s all you ever talk about.”

So Bryson created a blog called the Session Beer Project, as well as a manifesto that called out sites like Beer Advocate and RealBeer, hubs for extreme beer fans. “You can’t help thinking that if these guys had their way, they’d be lying around in a swollen-tongued stupor every weekend,” he says.

Some of Bryson’s go-to session beers are the dark old standby Guinness (4.2 percent), dry stouts like Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Irish Stout (3.6 percent), pale ales like Stone Levitation (4.4 percent), and English bitters like 21st Amendment’s the Bitter American (4.6 percent).

“It’s about choice,” Bryson says. “I thought the whole craft beer movement was about choice. Well, where’s my choice? I’d like a session beer.”

As you might imagine, the editors of Beer Advocate, Todd and Jason Alstrom — who run the annual Extreme Beer Fest in Boston — take the opposing view. In December, Todd Alstrom announced the launch of an Extreme Session Beer Project.

“For too many years the mainstream press and haters have attempted to pigeonhole extreme beer as being just about high-alcohol and unbalanced beers,” Todd Alstrom says. “Let’s be honest, they’re f- clueless.”

Todd Alstrom’s project co-creator is Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head in Milton, Delaware, a renowned extreme beer producer. Calagione sought a more evenhanded tone.

“I totally agree and find it really destructive when beer folk say session beer needs to supersede extreme beer. Or vice versa. Like they’re mutually exclusive.”

The Extreme Session Beer Project sets 5 percent as its limit, but exhorts brewers to “Be extreme! As in using creative brewing methods and/or ingredients.” Alstrom and Calagione suggested ideas such as brewing with orange pekoe, lemon zest and “the same yeast and bacteria found in kombucha.”

Alstrom writes, like a beer-soaked Che Guevara: “Extreme beer is about pushing the boundaries of brewing and expanding the minds and palates of consumers through creativity and innovation. … It’s our collective duty to reinforce this.”

Bryson remains perplexed by the defensiveness. “It’s like session beer is a threat of some kind to the extreme beer guys,” he says. “Well, bite me. I want my choice, too.”

I’m not taking sides, but I did poke around looking for excellent session beers. It wasn’t easy. By one estimate, more than 70 percent of newly released U.S. craft beers have an alcohol content of 5.5 percent or higher — more than double the amount a decade ago. Meanwhile, imported beers have remained pretty much steady, with only 30 to 40 percent above 5.5. So it’s no surprise that I ended up looking to, say, Germany — where people traditionally drink beer out of liter mugs — for more sessionable beers.

In the end, it was so difficult to find a true 4.5 percent session beer that I adopted Beer Advocate’s 5 percent as my cutoff. But I took Bryson’s definition: nothing too hoppy, too sweet, too sour or too funky.

Let the arguing begin. • 18 February 2011



A session beer 6-pack
Stone Brewing San Diego County Session Ale

$5/12 oz.

I cannot believe this has the same alcohol as Bud Light. Great golden-orange color. Flowery nose with overripe apricot, but still a nice amount of crisp bitterness in the mouth. 4.2 percent alcohol.

Yards Brewery Philadelphia Pale Ale


Floral and lightly sweet maltiness on the nose. It expands beautifully in the mouth, with warm citrus and the hops are here but so balanced. Such bold flavor for such a light, low-alcohol pale ale. 4.6 percent alcohol.

Brauerei Heinrich Reisdorff Reisdorff Kölsch

$4/500 ml

Crisp, clean, slightly hoppy beer style of Cologne, Germany, with fresh-cut hay on the nose, tart fruit in the mouth, and just a bit of sweet graininess on the finish. 4.8 percent alcohol.

Köstritzer Schwarzbier

$3/500 ml

Germany’s famed “black beer” is full of carob, caramel and pumpernickel bread on the nose. With low carbonation, it’s wine-like in the mouth with a creamy finish. Answers the question, “Can dark beer be light?” Yes, and complex, too. 4.8 percent alcohol.

Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest White Ale

$6/11.2 oz.

An old Japanese standby, though often forgotten in discussions of white ales. So much going on – ginger, orange zest, coriander – and yet so creamy for such a light-bodied ale. At the upper limit of session beer, but I could drink it all night. 5 percent alcohol.

North Coast Brewing Acme California Pale Ale


Mellow yet flavorful. Easy drinking yet malty. It is, as they say, “of contrasts.” None of which would keep you from drinking several of these. 5 percent alcohol.



Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).