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The Mad Science of Session Drinking
Questions of definition dominate the “Session Beer” conversation… putting aside the debate over ABV, let’s talk about the session itself. In this discussion, we’ll avoid the term “session beer” entirely.
As diverse, full flavored beers increasingly become the norm, balancing those many powerful flavors over an extended pub session becomes a practice worth considering. There is certainly some strategy, and a bit of art to the whole thing. You don’t want to be pried off the floor by session’s end, or have your palate battered and fatigued. Rather, you want to be finding new and interesting things in each sip, while delighting in the nuances you may have missed at first. Today’s tap lists have so many options, from the bracingly bitter, to the richly roasty, to the tart and sour, and beyond… but what’s best for the long session? There’s no one simple answer, that’s for sure.
Some people focus on ABV, some focus on IBUs, or perceived bitterness, or residual sweetness. At Sixpoint, our team members definitely have different strategies. Brewing Manager Heather McReynolds (@apunkybrewster) has a few basic rules to work with:
“I certainly consider how sessionable a beer is before I drink it, but for me it’s mostly about ABV. I tend to stick to low ABV beers when I’m drinking a bunch, and there’s a lot of good ones out there!”
That’s definitely a general trend in a great direction throughout craft beer — beers that can offer tons of interesting flavors at a lower ABV. Wet-hopped SENSI HARVEST falls in that category, and that’s a big part of our concept for RAD.
Our Tech Guru Chris Sterbank (of Hob Nob lore) keeps it simple.
“Less hoppy, to me, often means more sessionable. Oh and I keep caffeinated beers at the end.”
Caffeinated beers clearly present another challenge… you get a bit excited, have a few quicker pints and thus a shorter session. I’ll still take a Gorilla Warfare as my first pint of the night, but I’m an absolute sucker for that beer.
Our latest addition to the Brew Team, Keir Hamilton (@theSixpointBrewer), has his own go-to strategy for the long session. “I stick mostly to pilsners and hefeweizens. Radeberger is solid, and I drink a ton of the Crisp.”
Pilsners and hefes have a cyclic nature to them which helps with the long session. An inviting aroma, (of bready, often honey-like malts in a pilsner, or the banana-vanilla-clove yeast character of a hefeweizen) and a flavor which shifts mid sip. The quintessential pilsner finishes snappy, bitter and dry, which lets you know its time for another pull. That sense of “morishness,” or a beer that finishes in a way that makes you want another sip, is essential for a pleasant session.
The CRISP, as an “American-style Pilsner,” has a more hop forward aroma from a blend of both American and German hops, and significant late stage and dry-hopping. A big juicy aroma without lasting bitterness fortifies the beer for a long session without becoming fatiguing.
Marcus Lutter, also on the brew team for Sixpoint, has a herky-jerky, unique approach to the long session.
“I’ll look at the menu, and start with what looks badass… like a big ol’ in-your-face IPA. I’m excited to get the session going! Then I’ll dial it back… middle ABV German beers, like kölsch, pilsner, that sort of thing. Then at the end of the night I’ll scan the list for another flavor bomb, like a strong stout. It’s the last drink of the night, why not? Or I’ll switch to whiskey, but that’s another story.”
Start and end strong, stay smooth in the middle. Commendable approach, bro.
Jack Liakas, our Graphic Designer, leans on lower ABV sour beers, and also has a favorite post-sports drink: “After soccer it’s all about cans of The Crisp. And if we end up at the bar after, a lot of times I look for some Gose, or Berliner Weiss, a lot of these simple-sour styles we’re seeing more and more of.”
The bracing acidity of these brews can also be good as a palate cleanser. They’ll scrub you clean, especially if you drink a couple bigger, sweeter, stickier brews.
I asked our other brewing manager, Danny Bruckert (no instagram, never will) if he had any thoughts on the issue and, after some (hopefully) mock outrage we got into some interesting ideas:
“Of course I have goddamn thoughts on this idea damn it!!!! For me, the perfect session beer is a beer that’s well balanced. It’s not just about low abv. It’s about having a beer that will fulfill the senses without giving palate fatigue over this prolonged session. There are a number of beers that could fill this category, but by far one of my favorites is German Altbier. A well executed Altbier should be a perfectly balanced sessionable beer. For me it has everything. Clean malty character, with a nice crisp bitter finish. When done right, this beer will keep revealing more and more about itself the more you drink it.
As your taste buds adjust to it over the course of the “session” more and more characters will take the stage. Next thing you know….you’re doing f***ing Shakespeare. So, to sum it up, when I think of session beer, I think of a beer that will not only be low abv, but also will be crafted in a way that you can drink it all day, and not get tired of it. Does that help?”
Yeah it helps — pretty enlightening actually. As you drink a balanced, complex beer over a session, you get slightly used to, lets say, its malt character. So then a little snappy herbal hop taste starts tapping your taste buds, sip after sip, and lingering in your mouth. But maybe by the end of that next pint, you’re noticing this persistent hint of malt-chocolate. The experience keeps shifting, and stays interesting glass after glass.
All this talk of altbiers also makes me think we should brew one for the fall season…
Me personally, I look to avoid hugely flavorful beers early in the session. I feel like Double IPAs and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts blast my palate, and I don’t enjoy the lighter brews as much after that. My favorite beer for the long session is probably a lower ABV stout, in the 4.5-6% range. Black beers that don’t sit too sweet or too bitter, don’t kill you with acrid patent malt… those are the beers that work for me. I can stick with them for a whole session, maybe with something bright and light mixed in, like The Crisp or Sensi. Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout comes to mind, and our Oyster Stout. Those are beers that should be served by the gallon.
Writer at Sixpoint