OK, this post is not a rant about session beer (at least not a FULL rant about session beer), but rather some reflections about Lew’s quest and the subsequent creation of ‘session day‘ on April 7th of this year.
I want to say the right off the top I am 100% AGAINST all of these ridiculous attempts to generate interest in beer such as IPA Day, Stout Day and now Session Day. To me, these are nothing more than trumped-up, marketing exercises that expose a true lack of fundamental, underlying beer culture, and I find them incredibly irritating. They seem to me to be the exact type of hype/advertising nonsense that the craft beer crowd usually criticize the big boys for, and are part of the colossal annoyance that I get from beer being tied to ‘events’ in the USA, rather than beer being a ubiquitous part of everyday culture and life. The fact that they exist at all (and seem to be very much embraced by the mainstream craft crowd) speaks volumes to me. Having said that, this post isn’t really about THAT particular annoyance, either!
About a month ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Lew Bryson for the first time, when he and I spent a couple of hours at the convivial Memphis Tap Room in Philadelphia. Lew is the man behind session day, a true American beer legend and a man whom I respect greatly.
Lew was kind enough to make time for me in his busy schedule, and I enjoyed our meeting immensely. I found Lew to be great company, a real ‘beer man’, and about the highest compliment I could pay him would be to say that I would be absolutely delighted to ‘meet him down the pub’ at any given time, on any given day or occasion. During our meeting we talked a little about session beer, but actually not much. We both knew where each other stood via our virtual sparring long before we met, so there seemed no point in going over a lot of that ground again. Lew pretty much knows that the traditional definition of session beer as being 4.0% or under is historically correct, but (I know) bases his limit of 4.5% at least partly pragmatism (if 4% was the limit he used, in the USA there would be virtually NOTHING to drink), and partly (I think) on a wish to distinguish American ‘session beer’ as being a different animal than English session beer.
Given that Lew is clearly the genuine article as a beer man, and that I feel that he accepts the (traditional) accuracy of my ‘4.0% position’, I am fully behind the concept of session day in principle, however there are unintended consequences of ignoring the traditional ABV limits which undermine the whole project for me. On one hand I’ll reluctantly be happy, since at some point it MIGHT ultimately promote the production of some real session beer somewhere down the line in the USA, but underneath that there is a nagging feeling that even at only 4.5%, the concept of REAL session beer is actually being undermined and eroded by this ‘day’, and that in the long run it will do more harm than good.
Why do I say more harm? Well, the problem is that when an arbitrary, non-traditional line is drawn, nobody respects it or understands it, and things start getting very messy all over again. Even Lew has been reporting breweries and bars that are going to promote session day by using beers well OVER his limit of 4.5%. Without strict adherence to the traditional limit, things just spiral out of control, and pretty soon we get 5.0, 5.5, 6.0 etc. being included and the whole concept of session beer once again becomes meaningless and lost. Lew has not really raised a fuss about beers over even HIS limit, probably for a couple of reasons. Firstly as I said above, from a pragmatic point of view if he stuck rigidly to 4.5% there would be too little exposure, and secondly I feel that he’s really got a larger, softer objective here which as NOTHING to do with session beer as such, and that’s the promotion of GENERALLY lower ABV beer. I suspect that Lew doesn’t really care much about the specific concept of session beer per se, but would simply love to have access to better quality, lower ABV beer – I’m with him on that, BUT there is a BIG difference between a position on wanting greater access to generally lower ABV beer, and a position really caring about session beer and its ABV specifically. Now, I realize that by writing that I AM putting words in Lew’s mouth, so perhaps he will correct me, but when talking with him I felt he was more concerned with the former rather than the latter – again, another pragmatic position on his part and obviously a position he is absolutely entitled to take.
Let me close by making something perfectly clear if I haven’t done so already. I have found Lew to be nothing but a gentleman and a scholar, and engaging and delightful company, so this is most definitely not personal, rather it’s just a clash of cultures that will likely never be resolved. I believe his heart is in the right place, and that he truly wants to promote lower ABV beer in the US (which I applaud heartily), but on April 7th I will pick up a 10% beer in protest of his 4.5% limit – at least it will be easier to find that an true session beer!