When More Is Less

The author, cutting fescue and onion grass.
The author, cutting fescue and onion grass.

The thrifty call it budget beer. The calorie-conscious call it light beer. And Hank Hill tractor jockeys like me still call it lawnmower beer. But if you toss in an extra handful of hops or ferment the batch with an aggressive Belgian yeast strain, beer geeks will call it session beer.

According to Lew Bryson, founder of the Session Beer Project, a proper session beer should be: 1) flavorful and interesting; 2) balanced enough for multiple pints; 3) conducive to conversation; 4) reasonably priced; and 5) no stronger than 4.5% ABV.

But Bryson is being generous. British drinkers, who invented the term, would never session with anything stronger than 4.0% ABV. How else can they down five to six 20-oz imperial pints in a night and be hangover-free the following day? A fairly average 170-lb guy like myself could drink nearly seven 12-oz bottles, fiver American pints, four English pints or just under 2½ Maßkrüge (liters) of 4.0% beer over a four-hour session before reaching the legal limit of .08 BAC.

By fortuitous circumstance, America’s first annual Session Beer Day, organized by Bryson, coincided with opening day of my own lawnmowing season. By April 7, clumps of thick-bladed fescue and wispy onion grass dotted my 2½-acre rural lawn like random hair plugs on a balding scalp. What might be a tedious and time-consuming chore, though, can be a relaxing commune with nature, given the right attitude, a good cup holder, and an appropriately sessionable beer.

Bull’s Head Pub, in Lititz, Pa., dedicated all 16 of its taps to beers of 4.5% or less on the premiere Session Beer Day. The Diamond in Brooklyn offered eight session taps, and the legendary Toronado in San Francisco featured a “half-the-taps takeover” by session beer.

For the rest of us, though, finding such low-gravity beers can be a challenge. Ratebeer.com compiled a list of its 50 highest-rated American craft beers with an alcohol content of 4.5% or less. I have only encountered four of them in the DC/Baltimore area: Stone Levitation Ale (4.4%), Blanche de Brooklyn (4.5%), Southampton Belgian White (4.0%), and Brewer’s Alley Trinity Stout (4.5%). And I could not locate any of them in time for Session Beer Day, 2013. I settled for the somewhat pricey import Pilsner Urquell (4.4%), whose delicate floral hoppiness pairs nicely with the smell of freshly cut onion grass.

Despite the efforts of Bryson and others, 5% remains the de facto standard for session beer in the U.S., especially on the Left Coast. In 2005, Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing Co. launched a line of “session lagers” that weighs in at 5.1% for the pale version, 5.4% for the dark session lager, and 6.2% for the seasonal “fest brew. It’s common to hear craft-beer enthusiasts boasting of how “sessionable” a well-made 6% or even 7% beer can be.

American tax policy has not helped the popularity of low-gravity brews. Unlike most brewing nations, which tax beer according to its alcohol content or the quantity of fermentable grain used, the U.S. taxes beer by volume, regardless of its strength. There is little financial incentive for American drinkers to choose a low-alcohol beer when a stronger, more flavorful version costs roughly the same price. But as more of the first, pioneering generation of craft-beer enthusiasts wends its way through middle age, the virtues of a tasty low-alcohol brew are becoming more apparent.

During the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference in DC, I attended what Dave Alexander of RFD billed as the “Lupulin ReunuLAST,” a somewhat diluted version of the face-off between East Coast and West Coast hop monsters that Alexander has been hosting since his Brickskeller days. The 2013 competition, though, included a couple of 5% and 6% lagers and more single IPAs than the imperial-strength head-knockers that previously characterized the event. Among the brewing pioneers in attendance, the four I spoke with—Mark Carpenter (Anchor), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Rob Tod (Allagash), and Nick Funnell (Sweetwater)— were all nursing the closest thing to session beer available on RFD’s backroom menu: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%).

Another craft-brewing pioneer, Pete Slosberg, has also embraced session beer recently. After lamenting that he can no longer pedal his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge after drinking one or two 9% beers at the Marin Brewing Co., he partnered with Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., in February, 2013, to brew a line of session beers under the “Mavericks” name—all weighing in at a modest 3.75% ABV. Another Bay-area group, FreeWheel Brewing Co., is pursuing a similar low-gravity strategy. And here on the East Coast, Chris Lohring, formerly of Boston’s Tremont Brewery, has been brewing nothing but session beers, under the Notch Brand, since 2010.

When it comes to session beer, less (alcohol) really is more (beer).