Maybe you have the same issue I do. When I go into a beer store, I rarely leave with a “session” beer. So to this point I really haven’t tried a lot of session beers. I usually buy beer that contains a fairly substantial ABV, opting for beers other than session beers. But the number of session beers has grown so rapidly that these beers are becoming difficult to ignore. And now I facing another problem: How do I choose which session beer to buy from the many that currently stock the shelves?
I devised a way to address my lack of acquaintance with session beers: my plan is to pit them against each other in “bracket-style” pairs using a blind taste test. Session vs. session, mano y mano… literally. Either the beer in my right hand or the left hand will be deemed “better” and the winner will advance to the next round. Before we get to the first match-up, let’s first take a look at where the term “session beer” comes from.
One potential explanation on the origin of the phrase “session beer” can be found on Beeradvocate.com. This explanation reads:
The Drinking Session
A British expat and buddy of ours in California once suggested that a “session” referred to one of the two allowable drinking periods in England that were imposed on shell production workers during World War I. Typically the licensed sessions were 11am-3pm and 7pm-11pm, and apparently continued up until the Liquor Licensing Act 1988 was introduced. Workers would find a beer that they could adequately quaff within these restrictive 4-hour “sessions” that were laid down by the government without getting legless and return to work or not get arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Now he could be full of shite, but we’ve found some smatterings of info to back this up and it sounds like a fine origin of the term to us.
Beeradvocate goes on to provide their own definition of a session beer:
session beer n.
Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication. (Yes, you can drink and enjoy beer without getting drunk.)
The style has become so common that the marketing catch-phrase “session beer” has gone from obscurity to mainstream over a relatively short period of time. Session beers, however, have always been made, minus the moniker. So it was time for me to I walked into the local Consumer’s Beverages store and sought out session beers. Most of the session beers are labeled as such, so this really wasn’t a difficult task. I restricted my purchases to beers that were under 5% ABV, and preferably labeled as “session beer”, although certainly some exceptions were made.
- Beers were tasted in sets of four, hereby called a “region”.
- Beers were poured randomly by my wife into four different glasses.
- From each region, two beers were randomly chosen to square off against each other (two pairs of two).
- From each pair of two, a winner was chosen.
- The two winners were retasted and one regional winner was selected to advance.
Remember, even though I make reference to the beers directly, I had no knowledge of which beer was in which glass until after I had made my final decision. I was presented with four glasses of beer, and I randomly selected two beers to pair up against each other from the four. One point I will mention is that this was a more difficult task that I had anticipated. My palate was put to the test in an unbiased attempt to discern differences between beers in the same style. Having said that, there were certainly differences between the beers.
The first regional battle included the following four beers (Beeradvocate.com rating in parentheses).
- Firestone Easy Jack IPA: 4.5%, (88)
- Southern Tier Right-O-Way: 4.5%, (82)
- 21st Amendment Down To Earth: 4.4% (86)
- Sam Adams Rebel Rider: 4.5% (79)
The first pairing was between Firestone Easy Jack IPA and Southern Tier Right-O-Way. I found the Firestone Easy Jack IPA to be clean, slightly hoppy, with a pleasant aroma. I detected a slight citrus character in Firestone Easy Jack IPA. With the Southern Tier Right-O-Way, I did not detect very much complexity in flavor. I did pick up a slight Belgian yeast note in the flavor. Anyway, “easy” decision for me here and the winner of this battle was Firestone Easy Jack IPA.
The second pairing was between 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA and Sam Adams Rebel Rider. The Sam Adams Rebel Rider was certainly clean (I think I could use that descriptor for nearly all the session beers), but I found this beer to be “more clean” than the others. Sam Adams Rebel Rider did not really possess any complexity in taste at all, however. The 21st Amendment Down to Earth IPA was the clear winner here, as this beer had much more complexity and delicious hop flavor.
Firestone Easy Jack IPA then squared off against 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA for the Tonawanda regional championship. This was a very close call. I kept going back and forth between these two beers looking for some difference that would allow me to choose one over the other. I held up the two glasses. Firestone Easy Jack IPA was a clear color, 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA was a hazy color. In the end, I felt as though 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA possessed a more robust flavor profile largely based on standout hop flavors. 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA contains Cascade, Mosiac, and Warrior hops and these hops really came through quite nicely in this fine session offering.
Congratulations to 21st Amendment Down To Earth IPA, the winner of the Tonawanda Region. This beer will advance to meet the winner of the Hamburg bracket. Here is what the 2015 Session IPA bracket looks like following the Tonawanda regional battles. Next up will be the Amherst regional bracket. Check back next week for participants and results.