Occasionally a cliché bears passing resemblance to reality. Recalling the eagerness of every politician to stump by heaping effusive praise on the genius of good, old-fashioned American workplace creativity, permit me to note that this characterization is spot-on when it comes to American craft brewing.
A quarter-century into the American brewing renaissance, there now are 1,525 working breweries in the United States, producing thousands of different beers and stoking demand in an otherwise flat beer market.
In craft-brewing circles, creativity and extremism have come to carry both good and bad implications. On the positive side, “extreme” beers twist and expand style definitions, combining unexpected characteristics and conjuring innovative specialties: barrel-aged Imperial Stout; Old Ales infused with secret spices; and double, triple and quadruple strength Belgians, India Pale Ales and even Oktoberfests. Conversely, the alcohol contents of such creations can be as extreme as the recipes. That’s why you see extreme beers served in small glasses at reputable establishments.
Revolution inevitably begets reaction, and many craft aficionados are turning back to what is commonly referred to as “session” beer. A prime mover in session advocacy is beer writer Lew Bryson, who defines his terms at Session Beer Project (sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com):
• 4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less
• flavorful enough to be interesting
• balanced enough for multiple pints
• conducive to conversation
• reasonably priced
In fact, there is a “Back to the Future” aspect to the revival of session beers. The European brewing cultures from which craft brewing has drawn inspiration always featured “smaller” beers for daily consumption. Because virtually all American mass-market lagers eventually devolved to smallness, with flavor an afterthought, craft brewing found its greatest success in going big. So can a beer be low in alcohol without sacrificing flavor?
I asked around area brewhouses to learn which beers brewed locally fit within the session guidelines.
“Our Kentucky Light is an underrated Kolsch (it took silver at the Great American Beer Festival in 2004). I would qualify it as a session beer at 4.1 percent ABV, and it is brewed year-round. Kentucky Light originally was a collaboration between Alltech and faculty members at the Siebel Institute in Chicago, which obviously has some expertise pertaining to German styles. In fact, most of our brewers at the time were once faculty members at Siebel.” —Jeremy Markle, brand manager, Kentucky Ale/Alltech, Lexington
“My favorite session beer we make is English Mild, which is our lowest alcohol beer at 3.8 percent ABV. Summer Wheat, Kolsch and Alt all fit the criteria and are good beers that interest a lot of people.” —Jerry Gnagy, brewer, Bluegrass Brewing Company, St. Matthews & Fourth Street locations
“In the past, I have collected second-wort runnings from She Devil and Bourbon Barrel Stout, which made fine bitter and mild, respectively, and both sold really well. However, we don’t brew a true session beer at Browning’s on a regular basis. We call our Helles, Porter, ESB and Wit session beer, but by this definition, they are slightly higher in alcohol content. I plan on brewing a mild later in September.” —Brian Reymmiller, brewer, Browning’s Restaurant & Brewery, Louisville Slugger Field
“Our Amber, Hefe, Sheltowee 502 and Bluegrass Gold fit the session category. Summertime is when we go for sessionables. I’d like to do more with the second runnings of our larger beers, at the very least to use a couple barrels of the fine wort still running out of the mash tun, because the second runnings of Barley Wine and IPA would make excellent session beer.” —Joel Halbleib, brewer, Bluegrass Brewing Company, Main Street location
With my deadline looming, a response hadn’t come from the crew at Cumberland Brews, although surely their wonderfully authentic, American-style Cream Ale fits within session-beer parameters, as do three of my own New Albanian Brewing Company standards: Community Dark (English Mild), Abzug (German Lager) and Tafel (Belgian Ale). Don’t forget to drink session beer locally and think globally.
Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.