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.