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"It would be difficult to ponder Founders growth without considering the success of All Day IPA." // photo by Joe Stange

“It would be difficult to ponder Founders growth without considering the success of All Day IPA.” // photo by Joe Stange

Below-average alcoholic strength but above-average drinkability—to enjoy a few more and still hold lucid conversation, still walk straight, still remember to pay your bar tab—that’s how we define session beers. They have always been around, but lately American craft brewers are taking them seriously.

They are making these beers because they like to drink them, but also because there is money in it.

Variety is king. Bars and bottle shops that emphasize craft beer are learning how to please the growing crowds—not just by offering a range of styles, from a range of breweries, at a range of price points, but also by stocking a wider range of alcoholic strengths.

“Session beers are definitely more popular,” says Brent Hernandez, who opened the Redlight Redlight bar in Orlando 10 years ago. Since then he has watched the evolution of his patrons’ tastes and what’s available to them.

“I think it has to do with people’s palate progression within craft beer,” he says. “And I’m including myself in this. When people first discover craft beer, I think they tend to go for the big, in-your-face beers… After a few years, you can’t keep drinking those every night, at least not multiple glasses. …That’s where session beers are coming in and saving the day.”

Much credit goes to the success of “session IPAs” and their ilk, packing more hops and aroma into a more elegant frame, attached to an acronym that craft drinkers already know and love. A few years ago, the concept was unusual. These days it’s difficult to name breweries that aren’t making something like it.

Some are better than others. Excessive bitterness and tongue-coating hop resin are anathema to a session, killing the desire to have another. Balance is needed, and the good ones have it in spades; and to say that they are selling well might be an understatement.

Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Mich., is one  of the country’s fastest-growing breweries. It would be disingenuous to ponder that growth without considering the success of Founders All Day IPA.

Co-founder Dave Engbers said he doesn’t like the word “flagship”—“We’ve never pigeonholed ourselves into one product,” he says, but “the beer has just kind of taken off.”

The 4.7%-ABV All Day IPA debuted only five years ago. By 2013, it represented 27 percent of the brewery’s volume; last year it was 40 percent. Meanwhile, the brewery’s output grew from 110,000 barrels in 2013 to more than 193,000 last year.

Founders’ current expansion will increase its capacity to 900,000 barrels, although it doesn’t expect to fill that for a few years at least. Small wonder that Spanish beer giant Mahou thought Founders a worthy investment, buying a 30 percent stake in the brewery late last year.

The word “session” is appearing more often in names and on labels; it is one way to sell beer. One of the first breweries to use it was Full Sail in Hood River, Ore. That brewery’s Session series, including its Session Premium Lager—pushing the upper limits at 5.1%—now accounts for about half of the brewery’s volume.

“When we came out with Session in 2004, it was a statement for us as a craft brewer,” says Irene Firmat, Full Sail’s founder and CEO. “We felt strongly, and still do, that beer should not be pretentious and that extreme does not equate with quality.”

Much of what's in these Founders tanks is All Day IPA. // photo by Joe Stange

Much of what’s in these Founders tanks is All Day IPA. // photo by Joe Stange

On one hand, the Brewers Association, the industry group of craft brewers, wags its finger at large breweries pumping imitation “crafty” beers into the marketplace. With the other hand, craft brewers are stealing a page from the big brewers’ books.

Low-strength beers are the most popular beers in the country. There is no argument there, no lack of clarity. Each of the 10 best-selling beers in the United States contain 5% ABV or less—in fact, six of them are 4.2% or below. All are light lagers produced by the largest commercial brewers. In that sense, low-strength beer is as mainstream as it gets. And it sells.
In 2013, retired beer marketing whiz Dan Fox noted the emergence of session IPAs on his blog. He said that successful marketing campaigns often look at what has worked in the past—for example, “There’s no slowin’ down the Silver Bullet,” or Schaefer as “the beer to have when you’re having more than one.”

“Once again, a craft brewer takes Big Beer learning to heart,” Fox wrote. “They study history, see what worked, and re-jigger the idea on their terms. …Will these new IPAs with their more drinkable—sessionable—recipes be successful? Bet on it.”

Low-alcohol, but not low-taste. That is the simplest explanation of session beer provided by longtime drinks writer Lew Bryson. He started the Session Beer Project in 2009; it’s a blog and a standing complaint: He was tired of walking into craft beer bars where nearly everything on tap punished repeat drinking.

The idea has always been to have the cake and eat it too, to drink beers with usefully low alcohol content that are nonetheless flavorful. There was never any trade secret to making that sort of beer. The only questions were whether specialty brewers wanted to make them, and whether we wanted to drink them.

Session IPAs answer both questions in the affirmative.

The Brewers Association keeps tabs on what sells well across the country. IPAs are the most popular beer style, but variety packs are hot. This suggests that we are “moving away from being enamored with the newest beer on the shelf and are more interested in having a fridge that contains different beers for different occasions. The growing list of breweries with at least one session beer in their lineup speaks to this shift.”

The association’s director Paul Gatza and economist Bart Watson wrote that for the May/June 2014 issue of its industry magazine, New Brewer. Six months later, Gatza added that while IPAs are still the most popular craft beer style, “I am hearing from more brewers that they are expecting their session IPAs to someday become their leading brands.”

That might be a hint at what drinkers can expect over the next couple of years. It’s hard to see another style supplanting IPA as the favorite anytime soon. But brewers now have plenty of evidence that we’re willing to drink beers below 5%, or even 4% strength.

If what’s true at Redlight Redlight is true elsewhere, the trend will continue. Incidentally, these three were among Redlight’s 28 taps the night I heard from Hernandez: a house-brewed, Topaz-hopped pale ale at 4%; a German schwarzbier at 4.9%; and an oak-smoked Berliner weisse from Leipzig, 3.3%.

So, maybe not so mainstream after all.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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