Session #49: A Regular Beer

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Our 49th Session is hosted by Stan Hieronymus from Appellation Beer, bringing things full circle back to the very beginning of the Sessions, when Stan first proposed them four years ago. Stan was also the very first host and as we begin the fifth year on monthly Sessions, he again assumes the mantle, taking on the topic A “Regular” Beer. What is a “regular” beer, you may be wondering? Take it away, Stan:

In March of 2007 I couldn’t have guessed the topic March 4, 2011 might be “regular beer.” How vague is that? But when in December I was motivated to post my defense of “regular beer” the course was set.

Please write about a regular beer (time to lose the quotation marks). You get to define what that means, but a few possibilities:

  • It might be your “go to” beer, brewed commercially or at home. The one you drink regularly.
  • I could be a beer your enjoy on a regular special occasion. When in San Francisco I always like to start with draft Anchor Liberty Ale. But it might be your poker night beer.
  • It doesn’t have to be a “session beer,” but it can be.
  • It probably shouldn’t have an SPE of more than $25 (that’s a very soft number; prices may vary by region and on premise further confuses the matter). Ask yourself, is it what somebody in a Miller High Life TV commercial in the 1970s could afford? Because affordability matters. I’m all for paying a fair price (which can mean higher than we’d like) to assure quality and even more for special beers, but I’m not ready to part with the notion that beer should be an everyman’s drink.
  • Brewery size, ownership, nationality do not matter. Brew length doesn’t matter. Ingredients don’t matter. It feels a little strange typing that last sentence, since the Mission Statement here says ingredients matter. But I hope you get the point. I prefer beer that costs a little more because its ingredients cost more, because there’s more labor involved. You don’t have to. Beer should be inclusive.

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To me, the idea, concept, notion, whatever of “a regular beer” is most closely aligned with the European idea of “table wines” and the mostly Belgian “table beer,” or at least that’s what I’d like to see here. The closest thing in the States to table beer is, sadly, probably macro lagers, who’ve essentially hijacked the low-calorie beer for everyday drinking. And it’s the absurd low-calorie light beers that are the most popular of those. It’s not that they’re not well made — they are — but they have so little flavor and what flavors they do have I find personally unpleasant for the most part. But they’re the beers that a grand majority of the populace drinks for everyday occasions, whether on the table or other ordinary circumstances. And their popularity I have to think is partly the reason why we don’t think of more full-flavored, but light-bodied, beers as “table beers.”

The closest analogue in craft beer is probably the “flagship” beer, the best-selling beer that each microbrewery sells. Flagship beers tend to outsell every other beer that the brewery makes exponentially. For most, the flagship accounts for week over half of total sales. In a sense that makes them regular beers. And while that’s no doubt desirable for any business, for craft breweries it can also be a problem because it can make the brewery appear stale since so much of craft beer sales is centered on the “new.” But without those flagship sales, most couldn’t afford to make the specialties, seasonals and one-offs that make their reputations. Both are equally important, and in fact striking that balance is perhaps the most important strategy a brewery needs to work out to maintain success.

A few years ago I was walking the hall at the Great American Beer Festival, trying to get somewhere in a hurry, when I got caught behind a group of young men and couldn’t get around them. So as I patiently waited for an opening, I started listening to their conversation. We were passing the Sierra Nevada booth when one of the young men elbowed his friend, and pointing to the Sierra Nevada stand, said “my Dad really likes that beer.” “Oh, that’s going to be a problem,” I though to myself and indeed it was. I’ve since had conversations with people from the brewery who’ve acknowledged that the perception of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as “your Dad’s beer” was a problem. That’s at least part of the reason that Sierra Nevada has launched so many new projects, collaborations, new series, the anniversary beers, beer camp, etc. And it’s worked. They’ve struck a nice balance between the near ubiquitous pale ale and some pretty exciting new stuff.

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But back to the table. Throughout many countries in Europe, wine is not the snobfest it often is over here. Ordinary table wine sits in every home for every meal. But it’s not the low quality box wines we think of, but very flavorful, though slightly lower in strength, wine. It tastes great, but is also ideal for drinking every day, no special occasion necessary. Table beer used to be very common in Belgium, too, until recently when it’s been replaced on the table by bottled water or — ugh — soda pop. In fact, until the 1970s, table beer was served in school to children, but now has also been replaced by soda. Although there is a movement to get rid of soda and replace it once more with low-alcohol table beer, with advocates arguing that beer is more healthy than soda, something I’ve said for years. I’d like to see that tried here, but oh the hue and cry would be swift and noisy to be sure.

But the reality is table beer would be more healthy for kids than all the chemical-laden soda pop, and those are still sold in many schools, despite their role in juvenile obesity and other health problems for kids. The fact that in this country, alcohol is the bogeyman but soda companies are not only allowed but celebrated strikes me as hypocrisy run amuck. Serving table beer at home wold also educate children about alcohol and quite possibly would lead to less abuse and binge drinking as young adults and/or in college.

Here’s how Table Beer was described in the World Beer Cup guidelines for 2010.

50. Other Belgian-Style Ale
A. Subcategory: Belgian-Style Table Beer
These ales and lagers are very low in alcohol and traditionally enjoyed with meals by both adults and children. Pale to very dark brown in color. Additions of caramel coloring are sometimes employed to adjust color. They are light bodied with relatively low carbonation with limited aftertaste. The mouth feel is light to moderate, though higher than one might anticipate, usually because of unfermented sugars/malt sugars. Malted barley, wheat and rye may be used as well as unmalted wheat, rye, oats and corn. A mild malt character could be evident. Aroma/flavor hops are most commonly used to employ a flavor balance that is only low in bitterness. Traditional versions do not use artificial sweeteners nor are they excessively sweet. More modern versions of this beer incorporate sweeteners such as sugar and saccharine added post fermentation to sweeten the palate and add to a perception of smoothness. Spices (such as orange and lemon peel, as well as coriander) may be added in barely perceptible amounts, but this is not common. Diacetyl should not be perceived.Original Gravity (ºPlato): 1.008-1.038 (2-9.5 ºPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): 1.004-1.034 (1-8.5 ºPlato) ● Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 0.4-2.8% (0.5-3.5%) ● Bitterness (IBU): 5-15 ● Color SRM (EBC): 5-50 (10-100 EBC)

The abv actually puts table beer below where most people define even session beers, making it closer to small beer. And in that sense, it barely even exists in America. There’s non-alcoholic beer — an abomination in my mind — at 0.05% or less and then there’s a very few beers that are between 3.5% and 5% but virtually nothing in between. That’s a niche waiting to be filled, as far as I’m concerned. C’mon people, let’s get this party started. Bring back “Table Beer.”

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