Mtn Hoppin’

Though I’ve acquired the beer snob’s palette, my drinking habits will forever remain rooted in my Rust Belt past.

Where I grew up — a dying industrial town in Central New York that records more snowfall annually than Anchorage, Alaska — we don’t sip, swish, sniff or sample. We drink. The neighborhood bar, of which there are many, is as vital to the community as the confessional. It’s a second home, where all manner of Exleyian lunkheads spend several nights a week smothering tabletops full of empty pint glasses while talking, often loudly, about anything and everything under a sun that’s most definitely hidden behind an impenetrable blanket of clouds.

When I started dabbling in American microbrews in the ’90s there were numerous beers — usually British-style ales or pale lagers with alcohol-by-volume levels more or less on par with Budweiser’s five percent — appropriate for this grand tradition.

Over the last decade, however, that has changed. The industry, for a variety of reasons, fell in love with the “extreme beer,” and with that, ABV and flavor have been pushed to ungodly intensities. I love a good double IPA or Belgian style tripel on occasion. But what I’ve learned (the messy way, mind you) is that these roid-raging brews are way too powerful for the marathon barroom chats that form the cornerstone of my drinking heritage. I want to converse jovially, not mutter incoherently.

Nowadays, the problem is that domestic craft-beer choices for lower-ABV beers are well, meh. Even here, in Beer City U.S.A., where we pride ourselves on abundance and diversity, most of our breweries and beer bars tend to skew towards the extreme. There are exceptions, of course (some of which I’ve posted to the Xpress website). But ultimately, if you’re craving a quality local brew in the ABV range of four to five-percent, then your options are a tad limited.

Voices have begun to emerge on the national scene, calling attention to the industry’s current lack of low-ABV variety. One of the more strident is a Boston brewer, writer and blogger by the name of Chris Lohring, former co-owner of the Tremont Brewery, but more recently, founder of the upstart Notch American Session Ale. “Craft beer has moved in a direction that isn’t really relevant to me,” he explains via telephone. “I’m not interested in having higher-ABV ‘hop bombs.’ Yet there aren’t many lower-ABV options out there. The only ones I can find are imports for the most part. I want to support the local guy, but the local guy isn’t really giving me what I want.”

The more Lohring talks, the more I realize we’re cut from a similar cloth: a couple of brew geeks who just so happened to have spent more than a few wintry evenings hanging at the neighborhood bar with our pals. “I like to drink beer. I don’t like to sip it. And that’s why I now make session beer with Notch,” he says. “I don’t have to sip it out of a short pour. That’s fine for wine, but I’m not drinking my beer that way.”

“Session beer,” which Lohring stumped-for in an op-ed column that appeared in the April issue of BeerAdvocate, is a phrase you’re probably going to be hearing more of in the future. It is “a British Invention, referring to any style of beer meant to fuel the tongue for hours of chatting and general camaraderie,” according to Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune in The Naked Pint.

In an attempt to modernize the traditional definition of session beer, Lohring’s Notch brewery has adopted standards recently established by veteran beer scribe Lew Bryson, who helms, among other blogs, The Session Beer Project: “4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough for multiple pints, conducive to conversation, reasonably priced.”

In their respective writings, both Lohring and Bryson have consistently stressed that they do not stand in opposition to the extreme-beer trend; they simply want to see more American craft-breweries offer greater variety when it comes to session beers. It’s a vital point. Variety is, indeed, one of the values comprising the core of our country’s craft-beer revolution.
And yet, I can’t help but think this session/extreme split could turn into a larger cultural, as well as philosophical, debate within the movement, one pitting the drinkers against the sippers. In a town currently dominated by the “hop bomb,” it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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8 thoughts on “Mtn Hoppin’

  1. Lew Bryson

    Great thoughts, Justin, and it’s good to see someone from Asheville talking session beer. Here in Philly we’re actually rolling in session options: the town’s two production breweries, Yards and Philadelphia Brewing, both have multiple session brews available (including their flagship beers), Victory and Sly Fox offer excellent dry stouts that are popular pours, and we see beers like Dupont’s Avril, a delicious Belgian table beer that’s under 4%. It does work, session beers do sell. They’ve just got to be offered, and they’ve got to be good. Chris Lohring’s Notch beers fit the bill, I’ve been lucky enough to be in Boston a few times recently and sample them. The last time I got his new hoppy session on cask at Deep Ellum: excellent pint!
    But as you said, I’d stress: it’s just an option, it’s all about variety. Expand my choices, please!

  2. Brian

    I totally agree with your take on the current craft beer scene in America right now. Too many huge beers, too many IBU’s! Bring back the sessions!

  3. Chris Lohring

    Justin, Thanks a bunch for the article. Session Beer is gaining momentum, and you have certainly helped it along. NC folk can track Notch’s progress here: Hopefully we’ll be shipping South in the near future. Cheers, Chris

  4. Greg

    Well put, Justin.

    I love Double IPAs, but they’re often unsuitable for a Tuesday night with friends. What’s troubling to me is the growing disconnect between the hardcore beer nerds (like myself) who always want more flavor, and the masses of taverngoers who are happy to drink local craft beer but want something lighter and easy to drink. We hear more from one camp, but the sales numbers are often on the side of session beer.

    Look at the oft-maligned Ratebeer or BA rankings, and ask yourself if there are really no beers under 7 ABV in the top 60 in the world. It’s not just that beer is getting stronger, it’s that brewing flavorful session beer – probably a harder zymurgical achievement – is often ignored.

  5. Shamas

    Also, cost is a consideration for a session beer in my opinion. $7 pints just do not align with the other qualities of session beers.

  6. Lew Bryson

    $7 pints don’t align with much, Shamas! But realistically, if you’re expecting a discount on a session beer compared to the price of an IPA or pale ale or bock…the money’s just not there. The difference in material costs almost vanishes at the pint level, and you’re left with all the other costs — equipment, labor, energy, transport, promotion, etc. — which are exactly the same for both pints. That said, I recently paid the same for a sixpack of Stone Levitation as they were getting for Stone Oak-aged Bastard (don’t ask why; it was for personal reasons!), and that’s ridiculous!

  7. nick s

    I understand the lure of ABV to get your money’s worth, but that road leads all the way to Everclear.

    Great that Lew’s shown up in comments: the stigma of “Utah Beer” is finally starting to fade for people who are looking at 4% as , and he’s helping lead the way. The problem with the RateBeer/BA rankings is that they’ve become self-reinforcing. I can appreciate that they’re judging beers as (sober) tasters, but that’s marginalizing the social function of a wind-down pint after work or a a few to lubricate an evening chewing the fat, where you don’t want to be buzzed in three sips.

    I’m waiting for an Asheville brewer to experiment a dark mild that comes in under 4%. That’s a dare to any of them who read this thread.

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