Though session beers are on the rise lately, with plenty of new low-alcohol IPAs and other all-day styles hitting shelves, they’re really nothing new. Beers in the 4%- to 5%-ABV range have always existed, even if they weren’t slapped with the ‘session’ sticker. But Hood River, Ore.’s Full Sail actually has been brewing—and branding—session beers since the mid-2000s, long before the word meant much to the general beer drinker. How does it feel to be one of the pioneers of a style that’s suddenly all the rage? Full Sail’s CEO Irene Firmat shares what really makes a session beer (it’s not just about the ABV) and whether there’s a cap on this style’s growth.
DRAFT: How long ago did Full Sail launch the Session line?
Firmat: In 2004, so it’s been 10 years. For us, it was about looking at where craft was going. We didn’t start a brewery to make extreme beers. Session was a line in the sand for us to say ‘Beer is about enjoying time with friends and family and with food.’ It’s hard to do that with a 9-10% beer with 100 IBUs and pomegranate and chili powder in it. We’re really into balance. There’s a wonderful German expression that says ‘The first beer should call for the third.’
Is the term “session” only about ABV, or are there other factors?
It’s absolutely about drinkability. A beer that’s very extreme in flavor, like it’s extremely roasty or has a lot of esoteric ingredients, that’s also challenging in terms of drinkability. A lot of the sour beers are also challenging on drinkability even if they’re low in alcohol.
Was it hard to resist the hop bitterness craze given that Full Sail is located in Oregon, the geographic center of a lot of hop growth?
We were never keen on the hops arms race. There was a time, which I think we’re thank God starting to walk away from, where people viewed more bitter as better and more sophisticated. Even in Oregon, which has the most saturated craft beer market in the country, the number one selling draft beer is PBR or Coors Light. There are a lot of people who I think craft beer can really push away if we don’t figure out how to be more inclusive and have a dialogue about beer that isn’t pretentious. Was it harder because we were doing it here in Oregon? I think in some ways we made more of a statement.
Is it validating or frustrating to see a lot of other breweries do session beers now?
It’s a combination of both. Session is our trademark; it’s really important to us. We don’t do fanciful beer names and never have. So what we do is ask breweries to respect that; they can use session as a descriptor but don’t try to trademark “session” as a name. Overall though, the fact that people are having a dialogue about these kind of beers instead of extreme or weird beers is really healthy.
Do you anticipate increased growth for session beers as a whole?
If session means balanced, elegant, drinkable beers, that is where this category will grow. If it means gimmicks of saying ‘How low [in ABV] can I go?’, that’s not going to last. There’s a reason that a large percentage of beers consumed around the world is between 5-6%. That’s where the sweet spot is terms of flavor, of balance, of interest. Start going lower and it becomes more and more challenging.
Is there such a thing as too low an ABV?
The alcohol in beer is fun; it’s why we drink it. We just came back from a trip to England. They do those 20-ounce imperial pints; you get a lot of beer, but it’s very low in alcohol. At a certain point, you just get full and don’t feel anything.
What’s exciting for you in Full Sail’s plans for 2015?
We’re really excited not just about Session IPA but about our Session Series. That gives us the opportunity to play with really retro styles like foreign export and cream ale. It’s not your grandfather’s beer, but a craft interpretation of those beers.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.