Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come for American brewers to embrace the session beer. I don’t claim this as an original thought, as plenty of craft beer pundits have made this plea in recent years. But it is something that matters to me, so I’m going to state my case here.
There is no official definition of “session beer.” It’s subjective, referring to any beer suitable for drinking several pints in a row—a session of drinking. It has to be low in alcohol. Many folks would say anything under 5 percent ABV qualifies, but my ideal would be under 4 percent.
Right about now someone may be thinking it’s ironic that the guy who founded the group that worked to raise Alabama’s ABV limit from 6 percent to 13.9 percent would be asking for more beers under 4 percent. But at its core, Free the Hops has never been about alcohol content it is about gaining access to all the world’s best beers. Sometimes you want to drink a single 13 percent beer. Sometimes you want to drink four 4 percent beers over a few hours of good conversation. The high alcohol stuff is good for enjoying in small quantities and contemplating the complexity. Lower alcohol stuff is better for enjoying in larger quantities.
Drinkers of Bud, Miller and Coors might find it strange that I would feel compelled to write an entire column asking brewers to make more session beers. After all, light beer is a session beer, as hundreds of millions of people worldwide can attest.
But a session beer for someone who loves craft beer cannot be something with only a faint hint of flavor, suitable for drinking with little or no thought. Craft beer drinkers want real flavor and variety. We want hoppy session beers and malty ones, and roasty ones, and nutty ones, and sour ones, and spiced ones. And right now, no brewer with distribution in Alabama is regularly producing any beer under 4 percent that truly fits any of these descriptions. Many craft brewers’ flagship beers are 6 percent.
The quintessential session beer has to be the English mild, a beer that sometimes has as little as 3 percent ABV. Having never visited England, I’ve never had the pleasure of drinking an English mild in an English pub. That’s something I hope to do before I die. Milds aren’t suitable for exporting across the Atlantic because their low ABV results in a very short shelf life. They must be consumed extremely fresh or not at all. And that’s not only an issue for Americans wanting to try milds brewed in England, it’s an issue for American-brewed versions as well. A 3 percent beer isn’t well-suited to sitting in a brewery for a few weeks before being loaded on a truck and driven for several days across the country to then sit in a distributor’s warehouse for a few more weeks before hitting retailers—a process that’s not uncommon for many craft beers.
So your best hope is for local brewers to produce milds. I was heartened to learn that Huntsville’s Straight to Ale recently released a mild with 3.5 percent ABV. I don’t know if they intend to make it a regular offering (a decision that will no doubt be affected by how well it’s received by consumers) but it’s encouraging that at least one brewer in Alabama is thinking along these lines. I hope more will in the future.
One of the advantages of low-alcohol beers is that they require smaller amounts of malt and hops to produce, so they are cheaper to make and should be less expensive than higher alcohol brews. There are fixed costs in brewing that apply to all beers regardless of alcohol content, such as the fermentation tank space required, and federal, state and local taxes. So a 3 percent beer couldn’t be priced at half a 6 percent beer. But if your local bar sells a pint of standard American pale ale for $4, it should be possible to price a mild at $2.50. Likewise, many six-packs of craft beer retail for $9, so perhaps a six-pack of mild beer could be priced $5.
This issue has some unfortunate baggage here in Alabama, since many people mistakenly got the impression from the Free the Hops movement that “high gravity” beer is the really good stuff, while the 5 percent - 6 percent beer we'd suffered with for so long was sub-par. No one ever claimed that higher alcohol beer was superior, only that Alabamians needed access to the full range of beer styles. But the myth nevertheless took root, and now it will be especially difficult to convince some people that not only is 5% beer not inferior to 8% beer, sometimes 3% beer is the best.
I may be tilting at windmills by advocating for session beers in the midst of a craft beer culture obsessed with double IPAs and imperial stouts. But I think having more of these beers is important. Who’s with me?
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org