In Praise of Light Beer

No, silly, I don’t mean that kind of light beer, the “lite” sort of stuff. Rather, I come to sing the praises of simple 4% alcohol ale, what Lew Bryson has been championing as session beer and others have been alternately glorifying and vilifying.

Even more precisely, and at the same time more generally, I want to talk about the pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde I enjoyed at the Tennents Bar in Glasgow just a shade over a week ago.

Before I begin, however, I should mention a couple of things. First off, what I remember of that fine pint of cask-conditioned ale is precisely that, what I remember. I had just come from a rather large dinner at an Indian restaurant and as such my palate was in less than fine fettle, so no written notes were made. And secondly, although I believe that the Summer Blonde to indeed be a very lovely ale, in this instance I see it as more a composite of many such ales on cask in pubs across the United Kingdom.

Now, back to that pint. It was, as its name suggests, blonde of hue. It had a bracing and refreshing, even stomach-settling, twang of American hops in its aroma and flavour, hops I later discovered – thanks to Harviestoun’s annoyingly slow-moving website – to be Cascades, although I would have guessed as much. It had a lightness of character that suited it equally to the consumption of several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening and the slaking of a pepper-and-salt-induced after-dinner thirst.

It was, in summation, the ideal beer for the moment. And for me, it proved several pints points.

First and most obvious of these is that it is entirely possible to make great-tasting, characterful beer at 4% alcohol by volume. Hell, it’s possible to do so at even lower levels of strength, although it probably gets quite tricky below, say, 3.2% or so. This is not to say that such beers are the be-all and end-all, or that they are what I want to drink all the time, but I’m happier knowing that they do exist.

(I knew this before, of course, from many trips to the U.K. and more than a few pints and half-litres of lower strength ales and lagers, but it’s nice to have that moment of pure clarity from time to time.)

Point number two is that British brewers tend to use American hops in cask-conditioned ales more effectively than do American brewers. This only makes sense, as they have more experience with creating cask-conditioned beers of all stripes, but it also reinforces the relative novelty of such ales on North American shores and their – again, relative – newness to brewers on this side of the proverbial pond. Nothing wrong with keg beers, says I, or the fact that it serves many North American ales much better than does cask.

Finally, and on a very much related note, the Natural Blonde reminded me that Cascade and other C-hop varieties work so well over here in part because of the quenching nature of their citrusy character. A well-Cascade-hopped ale can be a most a refreshing animal, whether poured from the keg or cask, and when the temperature soars well above normal Scottish or Yorkshire summer levels, or the three-pepper-symbol curry was the choice for dinner, that quality is very much appreciated.

The Difficulty of Definitions

Some want to define “session beer” as 4.5% alcohol or less. Others say that’s too high and it should be 4% alcohol or less. Yet others suggest that 5.5% is okay.

Me, I say that everything is relative.

I’ve written before that a “session beer” is, or at least should be, a beer you can drink over the course of a “session,’ that being a specific amount of time enjoyed with friends or family or strangers at a bar or pub or cafe. I’ve written about drinking strong beers and never getting drunk in Belgium, because I’ve been sipping at leisure, often with food, and also about “sessions” with low alcohol best bitters in the United Kingdom. Both, I think, are relevant.

But this post at Boak & Bailey reminded me of another occasion when “session” had a very different meaning, which led me to subsequently recall a separate and also very different instance with a most dissimilar result. These are the stories.

I flew into New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. Yes, THAT September 11. Mine was one of the last planes to land at LaGuardia. I watched from the Long Island Expressway as the second tower fell. I eventually made my way to my hotel near Times Square, deposited my things and went out to drink. Heavily.

Although beer and whiskey were like water to me that night, my sobriety persisted no matter what I drank. It was the shock, you see, and like pretty much everyone I met that night, no matter how much we tried, drinking would not let us forget. A 12% Imperial stout would have been a “session beer” that night.

Forward to March, 2009, in Seattle. I was in town with my wife, Maggie, to judge at Brouwer’s Cafe’s 7th annual Hard Liver Barley Wine Festival. My wife who, a couple of month earlier, had nearly been killed (and was left injured) in an accident, and who subsequently had undergone unrelated surgery. I had filled many roles during the early weeks of that year – caregiver, provider, counsel – and I was stressed out to the max.

We sipped a bunch of barley wines, not an intemperate amount, and declared winners, adjourning after to socialize over a couple of beers. And I got drunk. Not just because of the alcohol, which really wasn’t that much, but because I was wound up tight as the proverbial drum.

Those are extreme instances, I admit, but ones nonetheless that I see as representative of the extremes of daily life. Sometimes we will be free and easy and the 6.1% alcohol IPA will flow down our throats to little effect, and at other times two pints of 4% bitter will have us feeling uncomfortably buzzed thanks to the stress of the week.

Session Beer: It’s not so easily defined.

Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

Perhaps the Most Interesting Beer I’ve Had a Chance to Sample This Year…

…And getting to taste it has been a fiasco of comic proportions. Allow me to explain.

Earlier this year, the heritage park destination in northern Toronto, Black Creek Pioneer Village, announced plans to brew a literal “one-mile beer,” which is to say an ale brewed entirely from ingredients grown within a mile of the brewing site. This was to be a true estate beer, with the barley grown, harvested and threshed on-site – although malted elsewhere – and the hops grown and kilned also on-site. Adding to the allure of the ale, the brewing methods used are ones which emulate those used in the 19th century.

And they did it, too! In late September, I received word that the oh-so-very-cool project was going ahead, and in early November, a press release arrive announcing that the beer would be soon available, although in very limited quantities of about 35 two-litre growlers.

Being brutally busy at the time, I asked if there might be some way to try the beer without having to make the trek north, and was informed that they would generously set aside one of the growlers for me. Thereafter began the comedy.

First, there was some miscommunication regarding whether or not I would be able to pick up the beer, which I was not. Then, right after the brewery’s p.r. people offered to drop it off at my office, I left the country for first Amsterdam, then San Diego and New Orleans. When finally I had it delivered, I was in the midst of a rather brutal cold that was debilitating my taste buds. More delays.

So now, after much ado, I finally get to sample this fascinating ale today. While I’m concerned about the lengthy time it has spent in a growler, I take heart in the fact that it has been held in near-constant refrigerated conditions.

First, the basics. The beer is fashioned as a simple brown ale, according to brewer Ed Koren (pictured above), the kind of ale that “pioneers would have drank to quench their thirst.” The alcohol content is 3.5% by volume.

There is little sound when I open the growler and almost no apparent carbonation, which does give me some cause for concern. Checking the brewer’s tasting notes, however, I see that it never did have much in the way of carbonation, so perhaps all is well.

It’s a muddy brown colour with a strong yeastiness on the nose, sort of like a light rye bread or mild-mannered pumpernickel. Red apple notes are also present, along with hints of over-cooked toffee.

The body is as light as its strength would have one expect, which is to say mild but not at all watery. Without carbonation to fill the mouth, the maltiness of the beer comes to the fore with more breadiness, some light toasted walnut notes, a slight fruitiness – which interestingly fades as the beer grows warmer – and roasted and burnt grain flavours. The hops show themselves only in the second half and finish, primarily as drying rather than bittering entities, although with a slightly piney-grassy bitterness on the finish, along with a lingering yeasty tang.

Is this a great beer? No, I’m afraid it is not. Is it a great and laudable project? Absolutely, and one which yielded an altogether quaffable ale, to boot. Congratulations to both Ed Koren and those with the foresight to back him in this endeavor! I look forward to your next one-miler.

The Good and Bad of Good Beer

I just opened and tasted a couple of bottles of beer. This in itself is unremarkable – drinking beer is a big part of what I do and it’s not uncommon for me to have sampled several brews before most people have even considered whether or not to order a pint with their lunch. Neither is it important what the identities of these particular beers were, although they were both broadly of the same style descriptor.*

The first beer I opened to review for the autumn edition of a magazine I write for, while the second I opened to enjoy with my lunch, simply because I seldom drink the same beer twice in a row. The first was also tremendous, the kind of beer which, when you take that first sip, causes your eyebrows to rise and your senses to excite. After the first sip, I greedily went back for a second, and then a third, before I reminded myself that this was a time for evaluation rather than hedonistic indulgence.

Even parsed and analyzed, however, it remained a truly wonderful ale.

All of which proved rather problematic for beer number two. Because, you see, while my second choice was in and of itself a decent enough brew, relative to its predecessor it was extraordinarily ordinary, dull in its hopping and muddy in its maltiness. Where the first beer shone bright, with aroma and flavour accents both asserting themselves independently and harmonizing beautifully, the second was just…there.

Had I sampled beer number two first, I likely would have enjoyed it well enough to finish what was in my glass. Given the contrast provided by beer one, however, beer two never stood a chance. After a couple of sips I poured the remainder down the drain.

*It’s worth noting, too, that beer one was significantly weaker than number two, falling right within the so-called session beer range.

An Open Letter to Steve Body, the “Pour Fool”

Dear Mr. Body;

Your blog has recently been twice brought to my attention, first by Rose Ann Finkel after you justly praised the beers of the Pike Brewing Company, and then by my friend Lew Bryson, who penned the defense of session beers you mistakenly attributed to some unnamed shop owner in Bellevue. I see that you have been writing about wine for some time, perhaps less so about beer, and I assume that you are eminently qualified to do so.

I would, however, like to correct a couple of what I see as erroneous positions you have chosen to take.

First, your “stated aversion” to “sessioning.” (I agree that “sessioning” is, at least, a flawed word, but until something better comes along it is, unfortunately, all we have. I deplore the use of nouns as verbs.) A session is, as Martyn Cornell observed in your comments section, a social rather than a drinking occasion, in which more than one beer might be consumed, perhaps as many as five over the course of an elongated session. It is not binge or over-drinking.

I assume that, as a wine writer, you have from time to time enjoyed a bottle of wine with another person over a meal. Perhaps you have partaken of two or three or more bottles with a group. This is the wine equivalent of a session and something I have enjoyed on numerous occasions with my wife, family and friends, even Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine (and one guy I know who is both). Occasionally this leads to overconsumption and great joviality, and a taxi or subway ride home.

I see nothing wrong with that, just as I see nothing wrong with a session infrequently lasting a bit too long. Alcohol is made for celebration, and as one of my writing heroes. M.F.K. Fisher, once suggested, it is important to approach such occasions “with the right mix of abandon and restraint.”

Next, I must comment on your approach to your work, “the same kind of repetitive labor as the guy who looks at the potato chips coming along on a conveyor belt and snatches out the burnt ones.” I am also a professional taster, have been for more than twenty years, except I come to the trade via beer and have thus, I suspect – and apologies if I’m mistaken on this front – sampled far more beers than you. Yet I still view my work with wonder and amazement, and get a thrill each time I find myself in front of something new awaiting discovery.

I have never seen a potato chip QC line, but I’m assuming it is as tiresome and repetitive to oversee as you suggest. My work is anything but that. Rather, tasting for me is akin to wandering through the finest and largest art gallery in the world. Sure, some works are flawed, others are badly hung and fatigue does sometimes set in, but the excitement of coming across a Monet or a Warhol or a Rembrandt makes every step prior well worthwhile, and its prospect keeps the frisson alive.

Finally, on a purely technical note, I would like to encourage you to cease your practice of spitting when you taste beer. Unlike wine, aftertaste is a vital component of beer and one which may only be appreciated by swallowing. It will mean limiting the number of beers you can assess at any given time – I suggest a maximum of ten – but I believe you will find your assessments to be far more accurate.

You may even find yourself moved to try some of the beers you rate again, and again. Perhaps even over the course of a session.


Stephen Beaumont

“And They Were Lined Up For Blocks Waiting to Buy a Bottle…”

“…of Allsopp’s Strong Christmas Ale, a potent, limited edition beer described as ‘mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak.’ The latest in the ‘extreme beer’ craze that has swept the nation.”

Well, no, they weren’t. The time was the mid-1800’s and it’s doubtful that anyone was talking about so-called “extreme” beers, even if they were drinking what today might well fit the bill.

Zythophile Martyn Cornell has the skinny on this tale of strong ale, and it’s a good one. Go read it, now.

The reason I mention this, aside from its obvious value as beer history, is in response to the manufactured “feud” between the beer extremists and session beer advocates, as if a fondness for one type of beer precludes an affinity for the other. For the purpose of this illustration, however, let’s imagine that such a feud does exist.

Were there actually to be two such camps, the Arctic Ale/Strong Christmas Ale story demonstrates that the populace of the former group are advocating for something that simply does not exist. There have always been beers of strength, high hopping rates – at least, since hops were welcomed into the brewhouse – unusual ingredients, barrel-aging and so forth, hence there is nothing “extreme” about such beers or techniques in brewing today. They are as old as beer itself.

Session beers, on the other hand, are defined as being of a strength conducive to drinking over the course of an elongated session. You and I (and Lew) may differ as to what constitutes such a strength, but I think we can all agree that lower alcohol beers are session beers and so session beers do exist.

Thus, if the “extreme” vs. session feud did exist, victory must go to the sessioners, since the extremists are arguing in favour of a figment of their imaginations.


My Fascination With Beer

The discussion that has ensued in the comments section of my last post serves to remind me yet again that beer is a fascinating beverage and one deserving of much respect. This might seem obvious, I know, but it’s something I think people often forget.

For instance, in the glass in front of me right now is a light golden liquid with a faint sweetness and moderate hop taste. Many people would dismiss it out of hand as overly simple and undeserving of attention, and on certain occasions in certain circumstances I might agree with them. But at the end of a long and arduous day, it’s a nice quaff, and yes, so much more besides.

It is, as most readers here will know, created from malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Yet it tastes like none of these things. I have sampled the grain which is used as its base and it tastes a little sweet, a little cereally, and absolutely nothing like what the beer tastes like. I have held a handful of the hops used to season it and inhaled deeply, yet the aroma I detected then is only faintly similar to the wafts of floral perfumes emanating from the glass in my hand. Water I have consumed in copious quantities over my 46 years, from tap, filter, spring, well and bottle, yet never have I tasted water that tastes like this beer. And as for yeast, well, being not at all a fan of Marmite, I think the stuff tastes rather disgusting, whereas this beer is tasting quite fine right now.

In short, I marvel at the incredible alchemy that produces from these four ingredients the glass of goodness in my hand. And even if some might dismiss it as mere lager or pilsner or “session beer” or “fizzy yellow stuff,” I view it as a remarkable creation, one I am honoured to be consuming right now.

You, Sir, Are an Ass

My buddy Lew Bryson pointed me towards this story, but while he had the good sense to dismiss it in two short sentences, I find myself unable to let it pass without greater comment. So here goes…

Mr. Fool…may I call you Pour?…you have completely misunderstood the entire concept of a session beer and, in fact, beer in general. It is a multi-faceted drink, no doubt, but at its very heart is sociability. Meeting with friends and enjoying a beer or three is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures, and while you may enjoy drinking one or two beers and calling it quits, my friends and I, including the aforementioned Mr. Bryson, sometimes wish to stay up and enjoy each other’s company until the wee hours. And we embrace so doing without winding up stumbling drunk.

Which, Pour, is why the session beer exists. It is the social elixir, the pint in our hands as we review the past days or weeks or months, pass judgement on the recent performances of our sports teams or politicians or colleagues and generally shoot the shit, sometimes for but an hour or two and sometimes for considerably longer. It fuels our conversations while sparing us severe intoxication.

And contrary to your belief, Pour, it is only occasionally a pilsner. Sure, if said conversation is occurring in Prague, it might likely be a pilsner or related Czech lager, or in Bavaria it could be a helles or dunkel, or in Downington, Pennsylvania, up the road from where Lew lives, it might be a Victory Prima Pils, but in my local pub it’s just as likely to be a pale ale or weizen or mild ale or other lower strength, non-lager brew. In Pete Brown‘s local, when I’m visiting him in London, it will most certainly be a pint of best bitter, at least for the first one, which it might well also be when I’m catching up with friends at Spinnakers in Victoria, BC. Next month in Antwerp, where I plan to be based for the Alvinne and Zythos festivals, I might start with a bolleke or two of De Konninck. Non-pilsner session beers, one and all.

In short, Pour, in case you’ve missed my drift, session beers are anything but crass imitations of Bud or Coors Light or MGD. They are, in fact, bold and flavourful beers that happen to be lower in alcohol than your standard American IPA or Imperial stout, spiritual if not literal descendants of the British pub bitter or mild from which they appropriated their name. They’re as tasty as the 21st Amendment beer you review, if not even tastier, and millions of us out here in the great, big world of beer diversity enjoy them tremendously.

You should join us sometime.