Thinking Small: Sessionistas Fight To Redefine American Beer Culture…

It’s David versus Goliath, only in liquid form. Often framed as extreme versus session beer, two sides of the coin, mortal enemies fighting a cage match for consumer attention, the debate over beer alcohol levels is playing out in barrooms and liquor stores from San Diego to Boston. The narrative often involves a clash of drinking cultures, with brash upstarts promoting hop bombs and barrel aged beer mammoths while a few quiet warriors work to promote a new world order of beer, filled with three and four percent alcohol ales and lagers.

On its face, the comparison of big and small beers offers an attractive dichotomy, a true exercise in contrasts. And after pumping the extreme beer balloon to its swollen limit, the mainstream media now stands ready to burst the engorged alcohol behemoth in favor of the next big (or little) thing. With articles promoting the trend-worthiness of lower alcohol beers splashing across Advertising Age and the New York Times, it’s easy to get swept up in the rah-rah spirit behind the session beer movement. Experience, however, suggests that it’s going to be a while before Americans toss aside their regular IPA’s and stouts and openly embrace the idea of lower alcohol beer.

In choosing the ‘session’ banner, American promoters have knowingly wedded themselves to a beer culture that is entirely foreign to this country. The British concept of session drinking involves the consumption of many rounds of lower alcohol beer over an extended period, say five or six beers after work. In adopting the session moniker as opposed to simply calling their efforts a campaign for lower-alcohol beers, these brewers face target consumers who are not given to long stints in the pub or hours of uninterrupted drinking. Our drinking culture is goal oriented: have a beer to accompany a meal or fill a short window of time after work and before a commute. Most drinkers don’t sit around and have a half-dozen beers before heading home and with craft beer prices in many markets approaching $7, 8 or even $10 a pour, regular ‘sessions’ would be bankrupting.

Beyond incompatible consumption levels, transferring the concept of session beer to the United States has hit other hurdles. Born in the pubs of England, even hard core sessionistas have a difficult time actually defining what they mean by session drinking. Is 4.5 ABV session worthy or must it be 3.5 or lower? Often obsessed with the numbers, the side of session beer that promotes balance and flavor harmony is lost in the process. Belaboring such beer minutiae escapes or disinterests most drinkers. With a history punctuated with terms of government enforced moderation and prohibition, Americans have a difficult time relating to such beer confines. Most American drinkers don’t have experience in purposely selecting lower alcohol products in order to sustain a lengthier drinking session and have simply viewed alcohol as a means to a socially lubricating end.

The state of our beer culture is influenced by our purveyors and producers. Local drinking establishments don’t put a premium on courting the session drinker. Whether based in concerns related to promoting over-consumption or sheer laziness, most bars don’t list the alcohol levels in the beers they serve unless mandated by law. The consumer looking to undertake a true session is left asking the busy bartender about lower alcohol options or doing their own advanced legwork. For their part, American brewers have also not focused much attention on producing low enough alcohol beers to provide a sufficiently sizable point of differentiation from other brands.

Despite recent headlines, American beer culture has a long way to go before lower alcohol drinking gains a true foothold. We have adopted a totally different world view from that of the British session beer experience, which simply isn’t transferable to or in tune with our local beer and drinking culture. To be sure, promoting lower alcohol yet flavorful beer options is a worthy mission. But calling it session beer in the United States is a little like calling three tables in a restaurant back alley a German beer garden.

-Article appeared in Issue 53 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Few Words About That Little USA Today Article…

So a couple of times a month, I receive requests from media around the country to offer some thoughts on craft beer or to suggest some good places to go. After traveling around the American beer scene for more than a decade, I’m more than happy to assist. Some times the media are calling from a little newspaper in Oklahoma and some times it’s USA Today. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by USA Today for my book, Great American Craft Beer, when it was released and the paper recently called again for help with an article titled, 10 Great Places to Get A Craft Beer.

The criteria for the latest article were as follows: a geographically diverse selection of American brewpubs in medium to large urban settings. This doesn’t mean breweries or tap rooms or your favorite local small town brewpub. Despite this, I’m still catching some blow-back from beer geeks with hurt feelings over my having not selected their favorite pub or brewery (remember the criteria now…) or having skipped their state.

The list was capped at 10, not 100. If you want more detail on your local brewery or beer, try reading Great American Craft Beer and let me know how I did.

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The Good Old Days of Craft Beer…

A new era of craft beer is dawning before our very eyes. While craft brewers celebrated continuing good fortune at their annual conference in San Francisco, brewery owners, executives, and accountants in St. Louis, Chicago, and Belgium were putting the finishing touches on a deal that would send shock waves through the beer industry. Whether you think the headline should be “The Killing of the Golden Goose” or “A-B InBev Signal Defeat,” we can all be sure that things won’t ever be the same again for craft beer.

Passionate enthusiasts often have a difficult time accepting that, at its core, craft beer is a business. While the community aspect of craft beer is a wonderfully inviting quality, brewers ultimately run their operations, not as non-profit beer funhouses, but as companies with bills to be paid. Brewing remains an incredibly capital intensive business and one grows more expensive as the industry’s production numbers continue to explode.

Two years ago, I warned in these pages that the expanding reach of small craft brewers into far-flung regions of the United States was not sustainable. While beer lovers from Indiana to Rhode Island were understandably elated at the chance to sample beers from Dogfish Head, Great Divide, and the Shelton Brothers’ international portfolio, few appreciated what such an incredible selection actually signified for the industry.

Sending a few pallets of beer far from home to little known distributors in distant states was easy money. As local demand continued to soar and popular beers ran short in key markets, many craft brewers were left with the disheartening but necessary prospect of pissing off a lot of newfound fans in these remote states. And while Three Floyds and Dogfish Head may be the biggest names in the market withdrawal game, it’s time to brace yourself for the inevitability that many of your favorite brands will eventually have to pack up and move back home, leaving you with nothing but distant memories of hops and malt and a taste for the past.

I know it’s not a popular view, but the Great Beer Retreat is actually going to be good for the industry. We are entering a new era of craft beer, one in which selection around the country may shrink but where local beer will grow increasingly strong and entrenched roots. And that is exactly what craft brewers need to compete in the cutthroat world of beer.

This kind of strategic retreat is a sign of strength and not weakness for craft beer. Look no further than New Glarus Brewing of Wisconsin for reassurance of this point. Founded in 1993, the brewery grew steadily, expanded into neighboring Illinois and even sent some of its specialty releases to a few other states, including Massachusetts. By 2002, the brewery decided to exclusively focus on its home market. Nearly a decade later, New Glarus still only distributes beer in one state and it’s grown to become one of the nation’s biggest craft brewers.

While we’ve been blessed, perhaps even spoiled, with unbelievable selection, consumers should actually appreciate losing a few brands. Dedication to local markets will define the next generation of craft beer, which will result in lower shipping costs, fresher beer, more direct attention from the brewery and its staff, and deeper and stronger distributor relationships. So while disappointment is understandable, craft beer will be better for it.

One brewer recently told me that these are the good old days. And indeed that’s true. Unless you live in major cities on the Eastern Seaboard, change is coming for you. Craft beer will never be the same again so enjoy this golden era. Even with the inevitable advance of major change, one thing remains clear: great, local craft beer isn’t going anywhere.

-Article appeared in Issue 51 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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