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.