Our 40th Session is, ironically, about Sessions themselves. Not drinking sessions per se, but Session beers, perhaps the best choice for drinking during a drinking session. Our host, Erik Lars Myers from Top Fermented has chosen a topic near and dear to Lew Bryson’s heart — as well as many other beer lovers — session beers, which he describes as follows.
There are a thousand ways to approach this.
What is your definition of a session beer? Is it, as Dr. Lewis suggested at the Craft Brewers Conference this year, “a pint of British wallop” or is your idea of a session beer a crisp Eastern European lager, a light smoky porter, a dry witbier, or even a dry Flemish sour?
Is it merely enough for a beer to be low alcohol to be considered a session beer, or is there some other ineffable quality that a beer must hold in order to merit the term? And if so, what is that quality? Is it “drinkability”? Or something else?
What about the place of session beer in the craft beer industry? Does session beer risk being washed away in the deluge of extreme beers, special releases, and country-wide collaborations? Or is it the future of the industry, the inevitable palate-saving backlash against a shelf full of Imperial Imperials?
What are some of your favorite session beers? When and where do you drink them? If you’d like, drink one and review it.
I tend to think of Session beers loosely as any beer under 5% a.b.v. and which can withstand an evening of leisurely paced drinking without reducing one to belligerence, sloppiness or incoherence. In other words, it’s a beer that allows you to stay lucid and keep up your end of the conversation throughout a drinking session, however long (within reason, of course) as the evening waxes and wanes or the discussion meanders. That’s it for my definition.
Lew Bryson at his wonderful Session Beer Project adds that it must also be flavorful, balanced and priced reasonably. And while I agree that to be a “good” session beer those qualities are desirable, I must respectfully disagree with my learned colleague that it ought to be a requirement. Just as there are bad Imperial Stouts and good Imperial Stouts, I believe there can be bad session beers, too, but either can still be considered a session beer. An expensive low-alcohol beer that’s unbalanced and not too flavorful, to my mind, is still a session beer. It’s just not one I’d drink.
But perhaps that’s just me. What I’m actually more interested in thinking about is the sessions themselves. There just aren’t enough of them. I’m in the middle of reading Kingsley Amis’ book Everyday Drinking. Actually it’s a collection of three short books by Amis that he wrote throughout his career: On Drink (1973), Every Day Drinking (1983), and How’s Your Glass? (1984). In the first, written in the early 1970s, Amis complains mightily about the demise of pub atmosphere brought upon by loud music, among other things. I can’t say why the switch began then in the UK, but for our purposes I’ll take his word for it. What struck about this is that the main reason he disliked this so intensely was not because of the music itself, but its volume. It killed conversation. It killed drinking sessions because people had to shout to be heard and often just gave up trying. He speculates that this may be because when people couldn’t talk, they drank more, which if your livelihood depends on people drinking more then that indeed might provide sufficient incentive for publicans to crank up the music.
Throughout this and the second book, it’s clear to me that Amis valued entertaining and the sharing of ideas, conversation, friendship, etc. that went along with an evening of drinking and eating above all else. His entire philosophy seemed aimed at creating the perfect party atmosphere in which all those things might flourish. In essence, he wanted to dissect and identify the elements to do just that.
And while I have had my share of uplifting drinking sessions in a pub or bar, the noise factor can make them less enjoyable or impossible altogether. Sometimes that’s okay, other times it feels like a missed opportunity. I love music wholeheartedly. I’m a former musician. One of my favorite quotes, by Friedrich Nietzsche, is “without music, life would be a mistake.” But there are times when a little quiet can go a long way, too. Whether turning it down or eliminating it completely, sometimes it’s just more enjoyable to hear your own voice and those of your friends without straining to hear them over the din.
Not all the time, of course. Sometimes listening to a great band is also the stuff of a wonderful evening. But whether there are quiet conversation rooms — the aural equivalent of smoking or non-smoking; “would you like the high-decibel section or would you prefer to be seated in the low-decibel area?” — or even certain designated quiet evenings at a bar, it might go a long way to bring back the fading art of conversation. I’d certainly be more inclined to go to a more quiet bar if my aim was to meet friends and enjoy one another’s company, not just drink in the same vicinity, as sometimes happens when a room is too loud.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s because I just prefer talking too much, but I’d certainly like to see more opportunities to drink and talk, which to me is what a session is all about. If we don’t have the session to go with the session beers, than for me the session beer loses some of its purpose, its raison d’être.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and my modest plan to change this situation, at least for myself, started two months ago when I finally launched my own regular drinking sessions. I founded what I’m calling the Philopotes Society, and we’re having “meetings” the last Tuesday of every month. A “meeting” consists of an evening of friends getting together at my house, drinking some beer (usually about 30 bottles), eating some food (usually bread, cheese, chocolate and charcuterie) and talking about life, the universe and everything, but especially the beer. We’ve met twice so far and I think it’s been a resounding success. It also helps me clean out my refrigerators and try new samples that are sent to me during the prior month.
Tasting in a group has always been preferable to me than sampling alone for work. I have about 40-odd people — I’m fortunate to have friends who are brewers, chefs, writers, suppliers, retailers, homebrewers and curmudgeons like myself — and if 8-10 show up each month, we have the makings of a pretty cool evening. So far that’s the way it’s working.
The word philopotes is a great word I learned reading Iain Gaitley’s fabulous book, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. Essentially it means “lover of drinking sessions.” And I chose the holy grail as our symbol (actually it’s the grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but never mind) because, like the grail, it’s not about actually finding the cup. What’s most important is the search for it. It’s the journey that really matters. The quest for the perfect beer. To me, that’s high adventure. That’s a session. For that, we need more session beers.
Who knows, perhaps one day they’ll be Philopotes Society chapters all over the world. For now, I’m content to have a drinking session I can count on where I know I can enjoy my own session beers. And Lew, you’re welcome anytime.