A brief session on session beers

Posted: April 05, 2012

"I will make it felony to drink small beer."

- Henry IV, Part 2.

If he had his way, Shakespeare - or at least his memorable character, Jack Cade, who declared his contempt for weak beer (and lawyers) - would be filing criminal charges on the first-ever Session Beer Day this Saturday.

The day is intended as a nationwide effort to encourage bars to serve flavorful yet easy-drinking, low-alcohol ales and lagers that can be enjoyed for extended hours, or a session. Think British-style mild, Czech pilsner, German hefeweizen or Irish stout.

(You can follow it on Twitter, with the hashtag #sessionday.)

The date of the event, April 7 (this Saturday), was selected to coincide with the anniversary of a 1933 amendment to the Volstead Act that paved the way for the repeal of Prohibition. Its passage legalized the sale of so-called 3.2 beer, containing 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or about 4 percent by volume).

Alcohol content is a keystone in a burgeoning backlash against the hype surrounding strong beer.

For the past 10 years or so, small American brewers have sought attention by producing increasingly stronger specialties, like double India pale ale and imperial stout. In one recent analysis, beer blogger Ken Weaver ( HopPress.com) determined the average alcohol by volume of new American releases is now above 7 percent. By comparison, new foreign beer releases average about 5.5 percent ABV.

The surge of strength is understandable because that's what gets the attention from the industry's most avid enthusiasts. Bloggers rave about "big" beers and Facebook users brag about their collection of potent bottles. At the BeerAdvocate.com rating site, for example, brands with more than 10 percent alcohol account for about half of the world's 100 top-scoring beers.

The problem is, you can enjoy only a couple glasses of these gems before falling off the bar stool. Yes, there are plenty of low-alcohol beers available in America, but they tend to be factory-made light beers with little or no distinctive character.

That's what prompted beer writer Lew Bryson to launch his Session Beer Project in 2007. "I wanted to encourage brewers to make more low-alcohol beers because there are people out here who will drink them," said Bryson, who stresses he is not opposed to high-alcohol beer. He defines session beer as:

under 4.5 percent alcohol by volume;

flavorful enough to be interesting - no light beers, please;

balanced enough for multiple pints;

conducive to conversation, and

reasonably priced.

That 4.5 percent alcohol limit might seem fascistic to some because it summarily excludes brands that many regard as perfectly "sessionable," including the likes of Allagash White (5.2 percent abv), Stoudt's Pils (5.5) and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6). It even rules out Founders Brewing's new All Day IPA, whose label describes it as a "session ale," though its alcohol content is 4.7 percent by volume. (Ironically, some session beer proponents denounce 4.5 percent abv as too high, insisting it should be 4.0 percent)

Bryson acknowledged the weakness of dictating an alcohol limit but said he proposed it because Americans are fixated by numbers. He said he preferred a more subjective definition: "Session beer is beer you can drink while you're playing cards without worrying about gambling away your house."

It's an admirable goal, even if it ignores the obvious (if distasteful) alternative: Drink fewer beers.

Which points to session beer's more troublesome challenge.

Craft beer's success is at least partly due to its potency. Small brewers differentiated themselves from macro-brew conglomerates by offering full-flavored ales and lagers whose higher prices were justified because you didn't have to drink as much to feel the buzz.

Consumers may rightly feel they're not getting their money's worth if the alcohol content is lower, especially since the new wave of session beers are not substantially cheaper than higher-alcohol varieties.

And that, friends, is why Jack Cade declared small beer a felony

A session sixpack

Care to risk the wrath of Shakespearean characters? Here are six great pints to enjoy on Session Beer Day on Saturday:

Philadelphia Brewing Kenzinger: Possibly Philly's go-to session beer. (4.5 percent abv)

Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale: Plenty of aromatic hops. (4.3)

Sly Fox O'Reilly's Stout: An Irish-style stout that gives Guinness a run for its money. (3.7)

Dupont Avril: A Belgian table beer. (3.5)

Stone Levitation Ale: An all-night hop monster. (4.4)

Stillwater Bri-Witter Weisse: A tart Berliner Weisse infused with hibiscus. Look for it on tap Saturday at Alla Spina (1410 Mount Vernon St., just off North Broad). (3.3)

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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