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Selling the session

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Brewer's Union Local 180

There’s buzz about low-strength beer. But is there any money in it?

by Joe Stange

Commercial Suicide. That’s the name of the first beer that left  Jester King Craft Brewery in Drip-ping Springs, Texas, last October. It’s a dark ale made from roasted malts and partially aged on oak before blending and packaging. Sounds like one any geek could love. So why such a damning moniker?

Maybe because it’s a mild of only 3.5% ABV—not a beer many American craft breweries would hang their hats on. What’s more, Jester King is among a scattered handful of independent brewers and pubs across the U.S. and Canada emphasizing lower-strength beers meant for drinking in quantity.

What are they thinking? Have we not been clear?

Through informal polls, beer-rating Web sites, year-end lists, and—most important—the dollars we spend, we have made our preferences known. We like strong beers. We drink them. We hoard them. We pay extra. Scan the draft list at your local taphouse, and more often than not you’ll find it top-heavy with higher alcohol beers and very little, if anything, below 5%.

So what on Earth would lead a few brewers and pubs to turn their backs on us and dedicate themselves to weak beer? Have we not proven that we can session anything?

“First off, I don’t buy that,” says Lew Bryson, a Philadelphia-based drinks writer who in 2009 launched a blog-based campaign called the Session Beer Project. Bryson said he’s often heard the argument that you can session any beer, as long as you drink slowly enough, and still walk home straight afterward.

Imperial stout, anyone?

“I’ve never been able to stretch out three of those over six hours,” he said. “I call bullshit on that. … People in craft beer joke that people who drink light beer really don’t like beer. But I like to drink beer. I don’t just like to sip beer. I like to drink beer.”

Bryson launched the project after a chat with Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing, which had been offering a few lower-strength beers without much acclaim. When Bryson asked why those beers weren’t better known, the brewery’s founder said, “It’s your fault.”

Covaleski’s point: The media and geeks would rather talk about the latest double-hop-bombs or barrel-aged sour ales, while proper drinking beers fly under the radar. So Bryson launched his Session Beer Project to pay them more attention.

Which brings us to an interesting question: Is the name Commercial Suicide accurate?
“There are definitely those who don’t really get these beers,” said Ron Extract, co-owner of Jester King. “We’ve had some people tell us that the name ‘Commercial Suicide’ was apt, others who called it ‘watery’ or said it didn’t ‘pack enough punch,’ and even one customer who asked us if/when we might be making a full-strength version.

“At the same time, though, we’ve also got a few places that are pouring it consistently and going through it at a good clip,” he said. “All in all, this beer definitely has its audience.”

Are low-strength beers the next big thing? Maybe not. The Web site Ratebeer.com surely has the most complete database of available craft options over the past several years, and its numbers tell a boozy story. In 2000, the average alcohol by volume of new U.S. beers was about 5.7%. That number increased steadily over the past decade, reaching about 7.2% in 2009.

Meanwhile, the percentage of new U.S. beers stronger than 5.5% had risen to about 75%. That’s up from 45% a decade earlier.

Despite the trends—or perhaps as a reaction to them—“session beer” has become a regular part of insider chatter. It was apparently on the mind of Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione during a recent interview with Atlantic Monthly. The magazine asked him, “What’s a beer trend that you wish would go away?” His two answers were “ice-cold beer” and the idea “that session beers and extreme beers cannot co-exist peacefully on the same shelf or within a brewer’s portfolio.” (Although it’s not clear who, if anyone, has ever advocated such an idea.)

It’s worth noting that low-strength beer is not exactly rare in North America. Three of the top U.S. sellers—Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite—each contain 4.2% alcohol. Yet the craft movement began as a reaction to products like those, which might explain the reluctance of some brewers to stray below the 5% line.

Aside from light corporate lagers, is there any money in session beer?

“Yeah, of course,” said Steven Pauwels, brewmaster of Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s volume and price. That’s how it works.” Basically, per-beer profits might be slimmer but you sell a lot more beer. “You get the same revenue you get with lower volume and higher margin,” Pauwels said.

Boulevard has gained national recognition for its Smokestack Series in 75cl bottles, but the Midwestern brewery remains the house that Unfiltered Wheat built. The Wheat—low on bitterness but big on bready, lemony flavor at 4.4% strength—accounts for more than 60 percent of Boulevard’s sales.

“We sell a lot of it, and that beer is paying the bills for us,” Pauwels said. So session beer is not necessarily Commercial Suicide after all. •

MORE: 10 session spots: Bars and breweries dedicated to low-ABV brews

 


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