The ABV Thing

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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 Magazine 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.

2 Responses

  1. Beth Marcus says:

    Three Cheers for Lew and the Session Beer Project for shining a light on the whole concept of Session Beers. For some, this was a first “taste” of the concept of session, for others its another option in a cadre of options available to brewers when we ask ourselves the inevitable question – what should we brew next??

    While I can not speak for most..or even a few, I know I can speak for us, and say that we would have been happy to both participate and promote Session Beer day had we known about it in time to participate. But we did not and could not throw another beer into the rotation fast enough to play. And while some might argue that you have to draw a line in the sand..others might wonder if it was the “line” that caused the issues?

    Session Beer Day shared its day with another self proclaimed holiday “National Beer Day” and for some it was easier to promote that because everyone was invited to the party. Personally, we try to stay away from one day celebrations of things we should celebrate all year long. We are not fans of BUY LOCAL day or SMALL BUSINESS Day..as the success of our economy..or at the very least our brewery are dependent on every day being BUY LOCAL day…But I get that a “Day” is an easy place to start.

    I know that at the very heart of Session Beer Day was getting people to make and drink more “session” beers. I’m not sure if the nitpicking about ABV improved the overall result or not.. Some say that all press is good press..while others disagree. Yes, the craft beer movement is about options, and flavorful alternatives…and education. Maybe people got testy or disagreed because it seemed to include excluding people…and well that makes people disagreeable and testy…understandably!

    Please don’t assume that people with contrary opinions are haters..or people who brew easy drinking 4.9% beers are pretenders… Or that people who don’t drink session beers are binge drinkers. Because that’s how it looked to some of us….and that just fuels the discourse.

    Session beer has its place..but most people have no idea what it means or what it means to them, or that session beers aren’t just fizzy yellow beer (which of course they aren’t). So it’s going to take more than one Session Beer Day to move the needle. But it’s also going to take making friends along the way.

    PS We are about to brew our 1,000th batch of beer..and it appears that the brew crew is settling in on the idea of a session beer. style TBD. So there you have it.

    • Chris says:

      Beth,

      Thank you for taking the time to reply, you certainly have a thoughtful response. As Lew told me, Session Beer Day was conceived 17 days before it happened. Not a lot of time for anyone to prep, but to Lew the date made sense and a Session Beer Day was born. So if it excluded some brewers this year, they now have a whole year to prepare. It did exclude some consumers, because they couldn’t find any session beer. Who’s fault is that?

      For me session beer was not a concept, or a “what do we brew next” decision. It has always been what I like to drink. Yes, I have brewed IPAs and Barleywines that have won medals and best of’s, but I rarely drank them. I like to keep my wits about me, or take longer when losing them. Maybe it’s because I’m a bad sipper. Or maybe it was the fact I apprenticed under a Brit. Who knows? I do know session beers are a challenge to brew, and a joy to drink.

      Everyday I sell only session beer, and everyday I see haters and pretenders. Neither help educate consumers on session beer’s main attribute: lower alcohol. If I upset some people along the way in defending session beer and educating consumers, so be it. Being a professional brewer since 1993, I’ve seen it all, and I stopped kissing babies long ago. What’s more important is consistency. If a consumer orders a session beer at their pub, they should have some reasonable expectation it truly is lower alcohol, because it will impact everything they do next. ABV’s on the menu you say? Good luck, not even the Yardhouse puts ABV’s on the menu.

      All this being said, you clearly have passion and I appreciate the time you took to reply. And congrats on brewing a session beer for the 1,000th batch!