For years, session beers -- loosely described as flavorful lower alcohol beers -- have been a hot topic among craft beer aficionados.
Malt Advocate magazine Managing Editor Lew Bryson even started a blog called the Session Beer Project.
But recently several companies, including 21st Amendment, Samuel Adams, Founders, Terrapin and Wild Heaven, have given a bigger boost to the cause with offerings that are rekindling the debate over the precise definition of a session beer.
According to the Brewer’s Association, a session beer is any style of beer that "can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style’s character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 5.1 percent alcohol by volume.”
Some British beer lovers think the definition should be something under 4 percent alcohol -- truly a beer that can be enjoyed over several pints during a leisurely drinking session at a pub.
Bryson’s definition is “4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less; flavorful enough to be interesting; balanced enough for multiple pints; conducive to conversation; reasonably priced.”
In February, Atlanta’s Wild Heaven Craft Beers introduced Let There Be Light, a 4.7 percent alcohol by volume “sessionable” beer brewed with barley, wheat and two rare hops, Nelson Sauvin and Sorachi Ace, along with a bit of orange peel.
“If you truly love craft beer, it becomes an all-occasion thing,” said Wild Heaven President Nick Purdy. “We wanted to create a lower-alcohol, sessionable beer that retains the bolder flavors we as craft beer lovers want. Let There Be Light is our first shot at that, and we love it. I'm sure it won't be our last.”
Over in Athens, Terrapin brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski has come up with Easy Rider, a new hopped up 4.5 percent session ale due to be released in late April.
Brewed with more than 60 percent Maris Otter English malt for a rich, nutty flavor, it’s hopped like a less aggressive IPA, with several varieties, including the Zythos hop blend. It’s also dry-hopped with Galaxy, an Australian variety that imparts bright citrus and passion fruit aromas.
“I’m really excited about it,” Buckowski said. “We’re going to release it first as a seasonal, but depending on the response, it could move to year-round.”
As for session beers in general, Buckowski thinks the time is right for styles that are lower in alcohol and more balanced between malts and hops.
“Things have been so over-hopped for so many years,” Buckowski said. “Even if a beer is to style, some hopheads on rating sites still slam it because ‘it doesn’t have enough hops.’ Finally, we’re saying, ‘I can make a low alcohol beer that’s flavorful but it doesn’t have to be tongue-scrapping hoppy.’”
A few more session beers to look for:
21st Amendment Bitter American -- a breakthrough canned 4.2 percent dry-hopped pale ale that went into year-round production in early 2012.
Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner -- a canned 4.7 percent contemporary rendition of a classic lager style with plenty of hop flavor.
Founders All Day IPA -- a 4.7 percent brew with the characteristics of an American IPA; it’s not available in Georgia yet, but you can find it in North Carolina.
Samuel Adams Belgian Session -- a crisp, bright 4.3 percent version of a traditional Belgian ale that will be available in April as part of a new seasonal mix-pack.
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