Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Sessionable Trend

I've always been a fan of big beers. I like high alcohol content and big rich flavor, but recently it seems like it's starting to be cool to be small. Brewers throughout the craft movement like Goose Island, Penrose, Founders and our very own Flat 12, Scarlet Lane and Mashcraft are taking time to create something tasty while keeping the alcohol content light.

Session beers are not a style in themselves, they are just any ol' type of beer with lower alcohol content. There are a lot of numbers that people will throw around when they're describing exactly what the ABV has to be for the beer to be sessionable, basically its a really low abv beer that you can have multiples in one drinking session, hence session beer. I personally look for a good session beer to be about 4.5% ABV give or take a few decimals.

For those of you that don't know much about the brewing process, I'll break it down for you really quickly. Alcohol comes from the sugars that you pull off the grain. The more sugar you pull, the more sugar the yeast can eat and turn into alcohol. Session beers use less grains, and therefore less sugar, so while most of the sugar is turned into alcohol there are a lot of non-fermentables which is where our beer flavors come from. Normally this means that the less sugar we are pulling for alcohol the less flavor we are pulling for our beer as well. With session beers the trick has become pulling the right flavors to make a complex beer even with less sugar.

Brie and I sat down to talk with the owner of Penrose Brewing up in Geneva IL, my wife's home town. Penrose is doing Belgian inspired beers just outside the city of Chicago in the west suburbs. They have a staple beer called Proto Gratis, which is a Belgian Single. Around here we constantly see Belgian Doubels and Trippels and even the occasional Quad, but not a lot of people do singles. (When you think of these Belgian styles a doubel has higher ABV than a single, and a trippel has higher ABV than a doubel etc). The Proto Gratis came in at about 4% ABV, so it is very sessionable. When we talked with Eric, one of the brewery owners, he told us that he likes to keep their beers light, because light beers are easier to drink in the summer. When we asked about the session beer trend he really just had one thing to say, and that's "you have to brew with intent." It's more important to consider every single ingredient that goes into a beer when you're dealing with a smaller malt bill. There is just a smaller number of flavors to hide behind when you make such a small beer.

So why are session beers becoming all the rage this season??? Here are a few ideas of what might be contributing to the beer's popularity:
  1. The challenge - a good session beer is hard to make because you have less to hide any flaws, like Eric at Penrose said you have to brew with intent. 
  2. It's summer - people like to drink lighter beers in the summer
  3. Hop shortage - session beers have a smaller malt bill so they need less hops to even them out and give them a big hoppy flavor
  4. Price gauging - brewers can make a session beer with significantly less ingredients then a standard beer and normally charge similar prices to their flag ships
  5. Session beers are approachable - as the industry matures we get more and more new beer drinkers and most session beers are a nice set of training wheels.
There are a lot of reasons your local brewery may be looking to make sessionable beers right now, let's just hope that all the brewers out there making beers are challenging themselves to brew with greater awareness of and consideration for what goes into the beer, using each ingredient deliberately. I understand that the brewing process stays the same and there is still a lot of hard work and care that goes into making a session beer, so there is definitely value there.

Although I still love big beers, I've found myself giving a lot of session beers a chance. Founder's All Day IPA has become one of my favorite beers for sitting outside and now that it comes in a 15 pack you can really drink it all day.

Cheers to enjoying a little summer fun without passing out in the front yard!

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