Tuesday’s ad is entitled Thanksgiving Dinner, and the illustration was done in 1947 by Douglass Crockwell. It’s #10 in a series entitled “Home Life in America,” also known as the Beer Belongs series of ads that the United States Brewers Foundation ran from 1945 to 1956. In this ad, a picture perfect Thanksgiving turkey is on the dinner table, but the it’s not complete. People wait in the wings to be seated until the most important job is done. The matriarch of the family is putting beer glasses down at each place setting, the final touch, before the holiday meal can begin. Just like at my house.
If you’re on the internet, Twitter or Facebook today, you’ll no doubt have noticed that people are saying it’s National Beer Day. And it is, but only in the sense that somebody decided to call it that, and lots of people agreed to it, as well. Which is exactly how every holiday got started. But the day should, I think, make sense. April 7 was chosen because it was the day that beer was first available after prohibition ended. Or at least that’s what a lot people believed, and continue to believe. Some even still call April 7 “Repeal Day.” But, of course, it wasn’t. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as our 32nd president on March 4, 1933, he quickly got to work on one of his campaign promises: to end prohibition.
He wrote to Congress on March 13, 1933:
I recommend to the Congress the passage of legislation for the immediate modification of the Volstead Act, in order to legalize the manufacture and sale of beer and other beverages of such alcoholic content as is permissible under the Constitution; and to provide through such manufacture and sale, by substantial taxes, a proper and much-needed revenue for the Government. I deem action at this time to be of the highest importance.
The very next day, Representative Thomas H. Cullen introduced the proposed legislation in the House of Representatives. Senator Pat Harrison did likewise in the Senate. It easily passed both houses, and was sent to committee on March 20. The re-worked combined document was approved by the Senate later the same day, while the House approved it the following day.
On March 22, FDR signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act and specifically “27 U.S.C.: Intoxicating Liquors,” creating § 64a et seq., allowing for the manufacture and sale of low-alcohol beer, which they defined as 3.2% alcohol by weight (which by the more common standard today, is beer that’s 4% by volume or abv – technically 4.05%). When he signed the legislation, FDR is reported to have quipped. “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
FDR signing the Cullen-Harrison Act.
According to the act, each state then was free to pass it’s own similar legislation and allow 3.2 beer to once again be available. Twenty-one of the states, including California, along with the District of Columbia, took the federal government up on the offer, and passed their own laws to allow low-alcohol beer. The new law took effect on April 7, 1933.
So people in those states were pretty thrilled about being able to legally drink beer again for the first time in thirteen years, longer in some states, even if it was only weaker beer. Celebrations were held around the country. Since most breweries knew once FDR took office that beer would likely be back, they started brewing at least by March 22, when the law was signed, so that beer could be ready for early April. This was also the beginning of one of the most well-known marketing strategies, when Anheuser-Busch president Gussie Busch sent a team of clydesdale horses pulling a beer wagon first to present beer to New York governor Al Smith and then down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. to deliver beer to present Roosevelt.
In the run-up to April 7, people in those twenty-one states started getting pretty excited and started calling the impending day names like “Beer is Back Day” and “Brew Year’s Day” or “New Beer’s Day.” What they didn’t call it was “National Beer Day.” That day would have to wait until December 5, 1933, when Utah ratified the 21st Amendment, the 36th state to do so, and making it the law of the land. The 21st Amendment repealed prohibition and made it possible for beer and wine of all strengths, along with spirits, to be legal again in all 48 states, whereas in April only 21 states legalized some beer, but only if they were low in alcohol. In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 that a man in Richmond, Virginia, who, at the urging of a friend, conceived of calling April 7 National Beer Day.
I’m certainly in favor of celebrating beer. I do so pretty much every day in my house. As regular readers know, I keep track of beer holidays, birthdays and historical dates, too. It’s a hobby of mine. You can follow along on the Brookston Almanac. But I think that if we’re going to celebrate a “National Beer Day” that December 5 makes a lot more sense since that’s when beer became legal again nationally in every state in America in 1933, or at least had the potential to do so. More recently, Lew Bryson, launched April 7th as “Session Beer Day” as a part of his Session Beer Project, which is designed to shine a light on and celebrate low-alcohol, but full-flavored beer. And that, to me, makes more sense because it was beer that was 4% abv or lower that became legal today, which is essentially our modern definition of a “session beer.”
Here’s what I wrote about session beers in 2010, and I think it still holds true today.
While “extreme beers” are the current darlings of the craft beer scene, another kind of beer is waiting in the wings for its shot at the spotlight: Session Beers. They’ve been here all along, but they often don’t get the attention they deserve. If extreme beers are the big bullies of the beer world, loud and brash with huge flavors, showing great depth and complexity, and usually high alcohol, session beers are their polar opposite.
Session beers are, by contrast, light-bodied, with delicate flavors and are often very refreshing. What’s not to like? They’re actually harder to make than extreme beers, because it’s also easier to hide flaws in a big beer. A session beer is a beer that’s naked by comparison. Any defect is immediately obvious.
One of my favorite quotes about making these kinds of beers is by Gordon Biersch brewer Tom Dargen, who once said. “Making [a session] beer is like going to the beach in a thong. You better have all your parts in place or it’s going to be ugly.”
Defining a session beer
So what exactly is a “session beer?” Defining them is actually trickier than is sounds. They’re not exactly a beer style or even a collection of styles, more like an idea. The basic notion is that a “session beer” is one that you can drink during an entire “session” of drinking and still be relatively lucid and hold up your end of the conversation.
Their most obvious characteristic is that they’re lower in alcohol than many mainstream beers, which are usually around 5.5% a.b.v. — alcohol by volume. While there’s no official definition, most people tend to believe that beers under 5% can be considered session beers, and at least a few set the bar even lower.
Bryson defines them as being 4.5% or below and also includes in his definition that they must be flavorful, balanced and reasonably priced. His simplest way of describing them is “low-alcohol, but not low-taste.”
They’re the ideal for beer for an evening at the pub, spending the night with friends, having a few drinks and talking about the day’s events. That’s one of the reasons most British beers that you’ll find at an average pub in England can be considered session beers, at least the cask or real ales. English ales are usually around 4.5% or less but remain surprisingly full-flavored.
Session beers are also similar to so-called “lawnmower beers,” except that they tend to be more flavorful. Lawnmower beers are most often mass-produced light lagers with very little actual flavor or hop character. The kind of beer you want to quench your thirst after mowing the lawn in the hot sun. Session beers are similarly light-bodied, but should stand apart by having delicate, but very obvious hop, malt, and/or other flavor characteristics.
My friend Martyn Cornell, who’s a British beer writer and historian, gave one of the best statements I’ve ever seen about how session beers are not just about being low-alcohol, but are “a combination of restraint, satisfaction, and ‘moreishness.’ Just like the ideal companions on a good evening down the pub, a good session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying, and pleasurable.”
There are plenty of beers that fit that definition being made by craft brewers in America and by small and large breweries abroad, too. Many area breweries and brewpubs have one or two that can be considered a session beer. Check the alcohol level and then give them a taste to make sure they’re as flavorful as you like.
While many are also light in color, golden to amber, they don’t have to be. One of the most surprising session beers is Guinness, because many people believe that dark beers are heavier beers. But that’s just not the case, as Guinness Draught is only 4% a.b.v.
A beery backlash
I should point out that I love many extreme beers and in no way think session beers should replace them, or otherwise diminish their popularity. Extreme beers include some of the best, most experimental, most forward-looking beers ever conceived and brewed. They’ve helped redefine what beer is and what it can be. It’s helped bring foodies into the fold by its ability to be paired with an endless variety of foods, standing up to many dishes that wine cannot. I certainly won’t stop being excited by all the wonderful big beers being made.
But more is not always, well … more. Sometimes less is. Sometimes you just want something that has subtlety, delicate flavors and lets you enjoy your time with friends and family. And that’s why session beers are such a great choice.
Session beers are simply a great concept, and one that promotes both responsible drinking and conviviality, while at the same time not sacrificing taste. I can certainly drink to that.
Essentially every day is National Beer Day, but today should really be Session Beer Day.
UPDATE 4.8: To underscore my point that many people still incorrectly believe that prohibition was repealed on April 7, witness Summit Brewing’s new poster for 2016, whose title reads “April 7 Celebrate Prohibition Repeal Day.” C’mon guys, I know your heart is in the right place, but this isn’t helping.
Today, of course, is Easter for many Christians, and surprisingly there are some who still think that drinking beer is antithetical to following their religion. In 1962, the Roman Catholics published the Rituale Romanum or Roman Ritual, in Latin. Under Chapter VIII, subtitled “Blessings of Things Designated for Ordinary Use,” there is also a blessing specifically for beer, entitled “Blessing of Beer.”
5. BLESSING OF BEER
Priest: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
Priest: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Let us pray.
Lord, bless this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.
And here’s another translation, along with the original Latin.
|V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.
|V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit cælum et terram.
V. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.
|Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord, this creature beer, which thou hast deigned to produce from the fat of grain: that it may be a salutary remedy to the human race, and grant through the invocation of thy holy name; that, whoever shall drink it, may gain health in body and peace in soul.
Through Christ our Lord.
Benedic, + Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiæ, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et præsta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animæ tutelam percipiant.
Per Christum Dominum nostrum.
|R. Amen.||R. Amen.|
Merchant du Vin, which was started by Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, is an importer of beer. But not just another importer, but one of the earliest in America to begin bringing in some of the world’s best beers. Like many people, one my first introductions to Belgian beer was Orval, which they started importing in 1978, along with others like Lindemans, Rochefort, Westmalle and others. This year, they’ve decided to promote Orval by creating “Orval Day” to celebrate the beer. It’s certainly one of my favorites. So it may be a marketing ploy, but so are many other holidays, and I think the beer is so good that it deserves its own day.
Here’s the info about Orval Day from Merchant du Vin’s website:
On March 26th, devotees of Orval Trappist Ale – and even some folks who haven’t tried it yet – will convene upon their favorite bar to celebrate one of the world’s most unique beers. Orval was the first Brett beer to land on US shores, and has become the favorite beer for many star American brewers. Orval sells one beer, brewed to exquisite perfection within the walls of Notre Dame d’Orval Monastery in Belgium. It’s delicious when it leaves the brewery, but also evolves in the bottle for five years or more. A portion of the proceeds from Orval Day will be donated to MAP International.
2016 will be the first year of Orval Day: visit our events page to find a great beer.
I last visited Orval in early 2014, so I thought I’d share a few of the photos I took of the brewery and abbey during that trip. Enjoy. And happy Orval Day.
Over in Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Phil the Groundhog — a.k.a. the Brewhog — raised up his head this morning and looked around, and this year did not see his shadow. You know what that means? It means an early spring, and earlier spring bock for us. You can see a video of Punxsutawney Phil here. And there’s more information about Groundhog Day from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.
And surprisingly enough, Phil wasn’t the only one. There’s also Shubenacadie Sam in Canada, who likewise did not see his shadow. And in New York there’s Staten Island Chuck along with General Beau Lee in Georgia, both of whom also predicted an early spring. Fingers crossed. And if you don’t have time to watch all of the deliciously wonderful Groundhog Day film today, here it is in a slightly shorter version just over three minutes.
Thursday’s New Year’s Eve ad is for Schaefer, from 1962. The ad features bandleader Guy Lombardo, who for years played live on television New Year’s Eve, so much so that he was nicknamed “Mr. New Year’s Eve.” What I didn’t know, which it says is the ad, is that he was also a “speedboat champion.” Who knew? A tuba player I played with in the 26th Army Band played with his band, The Royal Canadiens, after his discharge. Happy New Year.
Wednesday’s holiday ad is for Budweiser, from 1962. The slogan “A Tradition in Hospitality” was used by Anheuser-Busch in holiday ads over a number of years, from at least the 1940s. It’s quite a spread they’ve put out; large turkey, grapes and a Jell-O mold in the background. Who the hell is serving Jello-O with dinner?
Monday’s holiday ad is for Michelob, from 1980. This holiday ad for Michelob featured actor John Forsythe, who’s best know for being the voice of Charlie in Charlie’s Angels and on the 1980s TV show Dynasty. And right before joining the cast of Dynasty, he did this ad for Michelob, where he’s putting out some bottles of beer into a bowl of ice for a party. Notice the six-pack in the corner that’s been decorated with a wreath. I can’t say I recall them doing special holiday carriers, but then I didn’t really drink the beer in 1980, either.
Saturday’s holiday ad is for Mac’s, from New Zealand. The ad is a fairly recent one, from 2014. Originally known as McCashins Brewery, for founder Terry McCashin, it was New Zealand’s first craft brewery when it opened in 1981. But almost everybody called it Mac’s, and that’s the name it goes by today, and for most of its existence. But the ad is pure genius, taking Mac’s distinctive bottle and having look like a dead beer ringer for the man in red. It almost makes me wish I had some in the cooler.