Lew Bryson is as fine a bar companion as you could ask for, a man who rewards a well-told yarn with a laugh that can be heard in the next room. Standing 6-foot-and-a-lot, the Philadelphia-based beer writer looks like a man who can hold his liquor. The trouble is, sometimes he'd rather not have to.
Bryson, a passionate and longtime supporter of craft brewing, noticed a couple of years ago that some of the most sought-after specialty beers didn't accompany an evening, they dominated it: Their huge "look at me!" flavor profiles and high alcohol levels put a time limit on a drinker's sociability.
So Bryson started to talk about, write about and advocate for "session beers"—beers with lower alcohol content, brewed to be enjoyed over a longer period of time. Thus was born The Session Beer Project: "a nonprofit, unorganized, unofficial effort to popularize and support the brewing and enjoyment of session beers."
Any campaign, even an unorganized one, needs to define its terms. The Project defines a session beer as 1) 4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less; 2) flavorful and interesting; 3) balanced enough for multiple pints; 4) conducive to conversation; and 5) reasonably priced.
Naturally some squabbling broke out in beer chat rooms. Why 4.5 percent? Why not higher, argued some beer geeks who maintained that beers of 5 or 5.5 percent alcohol are perfectly "sessionable"—a term Bryson dismisses online as "pure geek-speak, the snarly rebellion that 'If I can drink four of them, that's sessionable!'"
There were other grumblings when the influential competition at the Great American Beer Festival added session beer as a new style category to be judged. Commenters pointed out that it's not a beer style, but more of a beer function, encompassing beers of many styles and traditions that are low enough in alcohol that several can be consumed safely over many lazy hours.
And why promote a new term that has to be defined, and not just call these beers "low alcohol"? One reason is that the beers that are marketed as low in alcohol are light versions of already innocuous mainstream lagers, beers that are in direct contravention of the project's Definition 2: "flavorful enough to be interesting."
What's more, the term "session beer" isn't new. It's probably been around a lot longer than Miller Lite, with origins across the Atlantic. The masters of session beer brewing are undoubtedly the English, who are also the masters of the session itself. English pub culture promotes the kind of relaxed, convivial give-and-take in which low-strength beer plays an essential part.
Some of my English friends have expressed alarm at the high alcohol content of American beers, precisely because more than one or two would cut short an evening in the pub. The style known as bitter, a pub staple, satisfies the palate without overwhelming, and should come in less than 4 percent.
Other countries have their own full-flavored, lower alcohol brews. On a trip to Ireland, I discovered the secret to the long evenings at the local pub: Irish dry stout only looks weighty, when, in fact, it is weaker than Budweiser. I found I could nurse pint after pint of Murphy's (my favorite) or Guinness all night long.
And in Germany, the wheat beers in particular stand out: a good hefeweizen fills the mouth with notes of clove, banana or bubblegum and a near-creamy texture, but it is mild enough that it's traditionally drunk at a midmorning work break!
Thirsty yet? The Session Beer Project's supporters have designated April 7 as Session Beer Day, an occasion to "flaunt your love for big glasses of small beer." Triangle establishments are stepping up. Tasty Beverage has announced it will feature a couple of session beers on tap, and Bottle Revolution will be pouring Uinta Baba and Roth Conscription IPA (IPA flavor at 3.8 percent!). More will no doubt join their ranks; check sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com for new participants. The site also links to lists of American craft beer of session-strength culled from RateBeer.com—useful, because alcohol content is often hard to find.
At brewpubs, Bull City Burger and Brewery offers a classic bitter, Dr. Bartlett's Ordinary Bitter; Natty Greene's in Raleigh is pouring Spring Rye; and Top of the Hill's Big Bertha is a satisfying, nutty brown ale.
Appropriately, April 7 is the 79th anniversary of when the U.S. took its first legislative step to repeal National Prohibition by legalizing beers less than 4 percent alcohol. Maybe lawmakers knew that what this country really needed in tough times was an amiable beer and a good conversation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Enjoy a pint or three."