If you pay attention to matters alcohol-related, then you’ve probably read about the law in Colorado that effectively makes it illegal to sell any beer under 4% alcohol at a bar. Bars in Colorado are only allowed to sell “malt beverages,” while grocery stores may only sell “beer,” which is a malt beverage under 4% under the law. The law wasn’t seriously enforced up to now but grocery stores seem intent on protecting their right to be the exclusive retailers of high-volume, light beers. They want to capitalize on a monopoly over the beers that sell the most. The law has received further coverage from the Denver Post and Jay Brooks. No more boring details from me for now.
What this law has done on a smaller level is bring the notion of session beer to the fore in the minds of the beer-drinking public, and especially in the mind of this writer. In countries like England, where brewers are taxed roughly on the strength of their beer, session beers (beers whose ABV hovers around 4% or less) are the norm. Up until recently, craft beer in America has taken the opposite approach. Determined to differentiate themselves from the large brewers of light lagers, American craft brewers started out brewing higher-ABV beers with huge hop flavor (with Arrogant Bastard as the exemplar).
Drinkers of craft beer tend to take a similar tack. When they start out, they seek out the biggest, most brash beers they can find. Exotic ingredients and huge hop bills are prized. Barrel-aging causes a rush of excitement and anything with a double-digit ABV must be tried. However, the palate gets weary after a time. The drinker grows tired of being beaten about the head with monstrous amounts of expressive flavor. A more nuanced, integrated beer is in order. Enter session beer.
Session beer is a many-splendored thing. Firstly, it is a medium in which the brewer can truly show off his/her talent. It is a lot easier to cram a lot of flavor into a high-ABV highly-hopped beer than it is to make a 4% beer equally interesting. There is something particularly pleasurable about finding a mountain of flavor in a molehill of a beer. The drinker can tell that the brewer took particular care in the production of the beer.
Further, session beer is a means to interest the “unconverted” in craft beer. While ardent craft beer drinkers gravitate to meaty, high-ABV brews, not everyone is ready for those titanic beers right away. However, a well-made session beer is the perfect opportunity for a brewer to dispel the “dark beer is heavy and thick” myth. A sub-5% Nut Brown or Dark Mild with wonderful bready, toasty flavors, a light mouthfeel and crisp, dry finish can instantly put any fear of “dark” beer to bed.
Session beer can also be more food friendly. If you’ve read Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, then you know that matching intensity of flavor is generally the way to go when it comes to food and beer pairing. It takes a lot of robust flavor to stand up to the biting bitterness of a Double IPA or the huge chocolate and roast flavors of an Imperial Stout. Most food is not up to the task. Food, like beer, can lose a lot of nuance when it is made simply to have more flavor, rather than good flavor. Delicate food demands beer that is equally subtle. Further, if one is holding a multi-course pairing dinner, lower-ABV beer is often the way to go. Palate fatigue can be staved off and your guests won’t get as inebriated as quickly. No pairing will suffer because of its predecessor.
Also of particular interest to me, session beer is an excellent choice for those who need to drive, ride a bike, or just do something that requires use of your brain after drinking. Those who cannot get drunk should not be relegated to drinking the likes of carbonated alcohol water. Well-made session beer is a boon to those who wish to enjoy a beer with lunch, at dinner with children, before a bike ride and to those who must drive somewhere after imbibing. This particular point brings to light one of the more ridiculous unintended consequences of CO’s legislation: taking sub-4% beer out of the hands of those who must drive after leaving the bar.
If you’re not convinced yet, here’s a small list of some awesome beers to try that fall into the loosely-defined session beer category:
AleSmith Nautical Nut Brown (5.0% ABV): Probably the best brown ale I’ve ever had. Toasty bread with wonderful caramel notes and a creamy, rich mouthfeel.
Eagle Rock Solidarity Black Mild (3.8% ABV): A delightful litter number. Black in hue with garnet highlights. Light on the palate, with a crisp finish, this beer has notes of cocoa and pretzel bread.
The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse (3.1% ABV): Perfect summer beer. Brewed with wheat composing a large proportion of the grist, the beer is highly carbonated, lemony and delightfully tart. Loads of flavor for the ABV and incredibly quenching. Can also be served with raspberry or woodruff syrup
Brasserie Dupont Avril (3.5% ABV): Take the earth, light funk and crisp pale fruit flavor that you love in Saison Dupont and miniaturize it. You’ll have Avril. This is a great table beer and will pair will with nearly anything that isn’t huge.