It was Session Beer Day on Saturday, a creation of session beer pioneer Lew Bryson of the Session Beer Project. It was a simple idea, celebrate craft beers of moderate alcohol. A fairly modest concept, we all thought. And it became a bit of shit show on Twitter, mostly around ABV and what constitutes a “session” beer. Why is this important? About two years ago I wrote a piece in Beer Advocate with a simple request – define session beer. Define it, and we will grow the entire craft beer category by offering something truly new and relevant to many new craft beer consumers. Based on Saturday, there’s much work to be done.
A quick look at some countries with long brewing traditions show a much different landscape than the US. Most other beer drinking nations have categories for lower alcohol beer, in Germany it’s Schankbier, in the Czech Republic it is Vycepni. These are not consumer or brewer categories, but the government’s classification. And for Germany, it’s a tax category.
In Britain, the Session term is not tied directly to the beer tax rate, but a cultural reference to beers at the lower end of the ABV spectrum. Most will contend this is 4.0% and lower, yet some Brits do concede it crawls into the lower 4’s. Again, there is no formal or government definition of Session and its corresponding ABV, just cultural acceptance that is below a certain strength.
In the US? Our beer culture was ripped apart by prohibition, and has only started to take form in the last 25 years. We have no culturally accepted term for low ABV. Most light beers have low ABV (4- 4.2%), and many drink it for its “poundability”, but few realize it is lower than these beer’s standard ABV of 5.0%. And the TTB (our government’s arm that oversees beer labeling) defines lower alcohol as 2.5% and lower. Let’s make a list of those beers.
So why has “session” taken root in the US as the term for lower alcohol flavorful beer? Because we speak English (joke here…) and we share more with the Brits than any other European community. So we stole their term, it’s what we do.
Why 4.5% and less? For Notch, our rationale has alway been this: In the US, 5% ABV has been the “standard” measure for a 12 oz serving of beer for longer than craft beer has been around, and is well defined by the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#standDrink). So, if 5% is “standard”, session is certainly lower than standard, and 4.5% is a good starting point. And no other country defines their low alcohol beers as above 4.5%. I am also pretty sure our livers have not evolved over the last 20 years to suddenly metabolize alcohol more efficiently in the wake of increased ABV by craft brewers.
As we found out on Saturday, many of you disagree. And those disagreeing the most seem to be the ones who do not offer session beer, or somehow take offense to the very concept of session beer. I thought this craft beer movement was about options, about providing consumer education, about providing flavorful alternatives?
And finally, a BIG shout out to Lew Bryson for organizing an amazing show of support for session beer! Among all the haters, we certainly saw a bunch of session beer love.