Tuesday, July 10, 2012

[Beerie] Summer Sessions

Session beers: they don't suck.
A couple of weeks ago when it was so hot one's face was in danger of melting off, I came home from a 90-minute walk and slammed a Brewery Vivant Zaison. Some slam water. Whatever; not the point. This was immediately followed by an unintended three-hour nap. Why? Zaison is a "super saison," clocking in at a whopping 9% ABV for a style that is typically by definition low in alcohol. (Imagine my chagrin when, after my epic chugging feat, I happened to observe the empty can more closely and realized what I had just done to myself, finally becoming resigned to the fact that my afternoon was effectively murdered.)

Elsewhere, someone was wrong on the Internet. They commented that Founders' Devil Dancer is a "perfect summer beer." It is not. It is a 12% ABV, 112-IBU cock-punch of 10 different varieties of dried hops, a "triple" IPA bastard child of American craft brewing showoffery. This is not a light-drinking, refreshing summer beer. This is the very antithesis of that. This is not something you drink; this is something you inflict upon yourself.

In the grand old American tradition of making everything bigger better faster stronger, the American craft beer industry has fallen into the trap of more: MORE hops. MORE alcohol. MORE MORE MORE. People ask, "How many IBUs?" the way a 14-year-old girl might demand Justin Beiber's whereabouts from an unsuspecting hotel concierge (nevermind that once you top 100 IBUs you've pretty much cashed out your taste threshold) and barbarically beat their chests (metaphorically ... most of the time) over their self-proclaimed designation as "hop-head."

Consistently ranked in the top of all the "best beer" lists produced by American publications are the palate-killing hop-bombs, sadistically high-alcohol imperial stouts and bourbon barrel-aged monstrosities. Like this one here, which is sort of a greatest hits of the country's most over-the-top cult beers, and keep in mind this is supposed to be an inventory of the best beers in the world: Pliny the Younger, Dark Lord, Hopslam, KBS, Rare Bourbon County, all there. In fact, more than half the list is imperial stouts and there is only one beer with a relatively "low" ABV in the whole lot.

You guys. Not every beer you drink has to be an abomination of showmanship. Sure, these are great examples of their respective styles (when the respective styles in question is "MORE"), but to stack the deck in favor of these palate-killing, nasal-clearing mouth-bombs is doing a serious disservice to the subtle session beer. Lower ABV does not mean less taste. If the whole idea behind social drinking is to share a few pints with friends over a pleasant evening of conversation -- or to cool off in the middle of an unholy heat wave -- these are not the beers you seek.

You want the German weissbiers,  the English bitters, the Belgian farmhouse ales, the kolsch beers ... basically a pale ale by any other name ... and also pilsners and other lagers of the "yellow fizzy" variety (because we Americans do so love our extremes). Even Guinness, which is unequivocally good for you, is a fine session ale, and as the Craft Beer Curmudgeon points out is not heavy just because it's dark. You want something that you can keep drinking steadily over a full drinking session without getting wasted; hence the term session beer.

A session beer is light in body but not in flavor. It is thirst-quenching and refreshing. It is not a hoppy cock-punch with a double-digit ABV. This guy gets it, but probably because he's British and those folks exercise extraordinary politesse even in their drinking.

The bigger, bolder beers are fun for beer geekdom but these are not your everyday beers, and especially not in the sweltering heat of summer. Take heed when talking about THE BEST BEERS that MORE does not equal better, and that there are countless many truly exceptional beers in the world that have an ABV under 5% and fewer than 40 IBUs. All hail session ales!

Next up on Beerie: Good Morning Saison