May 9, 2011

Making the case for session beers

Most homebrewers (myself included) seem to go through an evolutionary process. We start making some sort of session beer (usually a kit) and once we get a good grasp on the brewing process, we want to launch into making more extreme beers. High alcohol, high hops, bold flavors, adding fruit/vegetables/etc., making sours, etc. I know once I started making my own recipes I quickly went from making session beers to making big beers like tripels, larger saisons, etc. I think for most of us it's the attitude that we can make these impressive beers on the cheap and if you're going to spend the time and money to make a 5% beer you might as well make it 8%. That attitude is easily legitimized by the current focus on big Belgian beers and Imperial beers.

There comes a time when most homebrewers realize they are missing out on a lot of good beers they used to drink. Then they start making more session beers and less of the crazy but still delicious big beers and exotic beers. Looking at my recent brewing schedule, I can tell I've hit that session beer place. Personally I'm glad I did. I've been trying to lose a little weight and it's much more rewarding to get to drink multiple low alcohol beers on the weekend than one big beer. Fewer calories in a session beer means I can drink more for the same calories as one tripel.

Most beers do fall into the session range -- 3-5% alcohol. That covers lots of wheat beers (hefeweizen, dunkweizen, gose, witbiers, berliner weisse, American wheat, gratzer), most UK beer styles (most non-Imperial stouts, pale ales, bitters, ESBs, milds, scottish ales, red ale, some porters), several American styles (classic American pilsner, steam beer, American brown, American blond, ambers), Continental styles (pilsner, alt, saison, kolsch, bocks, Belgian blond, Belgian brown), several sours (lambic, oud bruin, some Flanders reds) and many other styles. That's actually most of the beer produced.

Traditionally session beers have been by far the most consumed and most produced. It has only been in recent times that the standard of living in industrialized countries has risen enough that we can afford to toss in the extra grains to make so many high alcohol beers. Beer traditionally was the drink of the working class, which meant they wanted something affordable and thirst-quenching. That often meant something low alcohol and light, rather than heavily malty or high in alcohol. That is not to say there is anything wrong with brewing or enjoying a bigger beer. I like them. I still brew them.

Given that there are so many session styles out there, there is no shame in being a homebrewer that makes a lighter beer. It does not have to be a Coors knock-off. A spicy kolsch or a hoppy American blond can be a great "lawnmower beer" without being boring. I would challenge people to say a solid gratzer or gueuze is not as interesting as an imperial stout. A nicely balanced bitter can go well with dinner or a Saturday night party. You are more likely to lure the uninitiated to expand their beer horizons with a session beer than your latest 80 IBU Imperial Pilsner with oak and brett and cherries and dry hopped with five types of hops.

Brewing session beers requires a lot more skills than you would think. While an 8% tripel can cover defects with the alcohol flavor or an IPA can cover up a little fusel alcohol with all the hops, in a session beer it's you, the ingredients, your processes and all the defects. A hefeweizen fermented too warm can go from a delicious beer to an undrinkable glass of bubblegum in a few degrees. A tasty brown ale can be thin and watery when mashed too low. Brew a session beer with low hops and a simple grain bill and all the defects in your brewing process will be apparent. Session beers give you an opportunity to brew good beer quickly and at low cost, but they also give you an opportunity to dial in your processes and expand them.

It's summer, it's a great time to get out there and brew something light to enjoy on those warm summer nights.

In addition to the two hefeweizens I have planned for the summer and the test run of a black ale recipe I have crafted -- all session beers -- my next big project is going to be crafting a light but interesting mild recipe that hopefully will work itself into a house beer.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, great post -- I totally agree with you about the evolution of recipes one goes through. I also started with a kit and then expanded to those big IPA's because they are fun to make and fun to drink. But you don't always want an Imperial IPA, especially with dinner or on a hot summer night. So my question is do you have any examples or recipes that you've really enjoyed? I would like to try my hand at them soon. I can't lager with my current setup, otherwise I'd love to make a pilsner.