Judging Beers by Tim Prendergast Vol. 8 – Session Beer

Tim Prendergast is a Certified Cicerone® and the Assistant Beer Director and Cellarman at Meridian Pint.

In April 2010, I spent a few weeks in Belgium, a pilgrimage for any committed fan of beer. I slept in fanciful barges on beautiful canals, ate wonderful food, and of course drank a wide variety of the most amazing beer you could ask for. All of it flavorful, and appetizing, and strong. I quickly had to adjust to the fact that drinking a beer that wasn’t the Belgian equivalent of Budweiser meant that you were usually drinking a beer over 7% abv. I’m a little guy, I got drunk fast. When the time came to leave Belgium, I made my way across the English Channel only to find out that an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name had halted air traffic over virtually all of Europe. I was stuck in Europe for an entire week longer than I anticipated. Poor me. I was afforded a few days in London. What to do?

I headed to the pub, of course. I ordered a beer named Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. The beer arrived in glass that seemed gigantic. I was used to the Belgian serving sizes that were 9-12 oz., this beer was a massive 20 oz. To this day I remember the smell, it was earthy, and grassy, and tantalizing. It tasted somewhat sweet, somewhat bitter, subtle and still complex. I remember having an overwhelming urge to drink A LOT of it. And I did, because even though the brewery calls it a strong pale ale, it was only 4.1% alcohol. To put things in perspective, Miller Lite has more alcohol in it than this beer does.

Thus began my love affair with so-called “session beer”. What is session beer? Think of famous beer slogans, like Miller’s “tastes great, less filling” or Schaefer’s “The one beer to have when your having more than one.” That’s the basic idea behind session beer, now apply it to beer that tastes great and doesn’t spend millions of dollars telling you how unmanly you are (or, if you’re a woman ignore you altogether). In all seriousness, there is great debate over what session beer is, with most of the debate revolving around how much alcohol a beer can have in it and still be called a session beer. British folks tend to put the number around 4%. I’ve seen British beer bloggers call beers at 5% “loopy juice” because it’ll get you so drunk. Americans tend to put that number at 5% or above. I tend to subscribe to the definition of session beer put forth by influential beer blogger Lew Bryson:

► 4.5% alcohol by volume or less

► flavorful enough to be interesting

► balanced enough for multiple pints

► conducive to conversation

At the end of the day, in a very basic sense session beer is a beer that you can and want to drink a few of. Isn’t that what we all want in a beer when we go out with friends? A beer that you can have a few of without getting too drunk or tired to continue your night doing something else. A beer that is drinkable AND flavorful. A beer that engenders conversation by teasing out the gift of blarney rather than making us blubbering fools. It’s certainly what I want.

Continues after the jump.

I worry that this category of beer is being neglected by the craft beer community. Right now most hype in the craft beer world seems fixated on the “bigger is always better” attitude. A look on the popular beer rating website Beeradvocate.com shows that the average alcohol by volume of their Top 100 Beers In The World is 9.2%. This is alarming to me, hat’s almost as strong as wine. I don’t want to see the craft beer community fall prey to the same attitude that caused Nigel in Spinal Tap to buy amplifiers that go all-the-way to 11, man. We’ll end up being parodies of ourselves. I enjoy big, high-alcohol beers just as much as the next beer geek but I’m tired of 10% Imperial Oatmeal Stouts brewed with coffee beans passed through the bowels of a Civet, a Southeast Asian feline (this beer actually exists). I’d rather drink a few pints of a beer that is flavorful-as-hell than have 4 ounces of a huge beer while trying to pick out subtle notes of Civet feces.

This is why, when given the opportunity to develop MP4, the fourth collaboration beer between Meridian Pint and Oliver Ales in Baltimore, Sam Fitz and I decided to brew a beer that would blend the best of British and American brewing traditions. The beer is right at 4.5% and blends the restrained bitterness, malt complexity, and subtle yeast character of an English Pale Ale with the in-your-face hop flavor and bitterness of the best American Pale Ales. It’s subtle yet complex, drinkable yet flavorful enough to keep you wanting more. Maris Otter, an heirloom variety of English malt, gives it a classic rounded English malt profile. It’s hopped with both English Fuggle hops that lend an earthy and fruity character while American Centennial hops lend their classic grapefruit aroma and flavor. All of the major flavors at work here, malt flavor, hop flavor, and hop bitterness meld together seamlessly making you wonder where exactly one ends and the next begins. To me, this is the hallmark of a great, well crafted session beer. MP4 will debut at a session beer event this Thursday and will be pouring alongside 23 other session beers all at-or-below 5% abv.

27 Comment

  • Next time you are in Philadelphia, look for Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Kenzinger. My favorite session beer out there, right at 4.5% ABV.

    What will all the beers be priced like at this session event? Any specials running? Hints at the draft lineup?

    • The draft list can be found here on our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=276745615682934

      We’re going to have some awesome beers on including MP4 on cask and draft, the ONLY keg of Meridian Mild brewed just for this event by DC Brau, Brewer’s Art Proletary, and beers from two different brewpubs who don’t send beer to the district: Mad Fox’s Kolsch the unfiltered version of their GABF Gold Medal winning Keller Kolsch and Stonehenge Dark Mild from Franklin’s Brewery is Hyattsville.

    • The draft list can be found here on our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=276745615682934

      We’re going to have some awesome beers on including MP4 on cask and draft, the ONLY keg of Meridian Mild brewed just for this event by DC Brau, Brewer’s Art Proletary, and beers from two different brewpubs who don’t send beer to the district: Mad Fox’s Kolsch the unfiltered version of their GABF Gold Medal winning Keller Kolsch and Stonehenge Dark Mild from Franklin’s Brewery is Hyattsville.

  • “We’ll end up being parodies of ourselves.”

    Very well put. I have nothing against craft beer, but until they figure out how to make a decent Pilsner Rolling Rock is about as micro as my friends and I are going to get.

    I’ve been told they don’t because it’s easier to flavor something with coffee beans and civet feces than to make a nice, clear, delicately flavored and refreshing bruski.

    It’s not as if I can’t find the kinds of beer I like to drink, but I do think the craft beer industry is missing out on a potentially large market segment.

    That’s my $.02.

    • There are excellent microbrew pilsners out there. The craft beer industry will never please you because you clearly prefer macro-brew piss water. The micros are never going to make that stuff. So, stick with your Rolling Rock and the rest of us will drink beer with flavor.

      • You are correct, there are outstanding micro-pilsners out there. North Coast Scrimshaw, Avery Joe’s Pilsner, and (while actually an ale) Schlafley Kolsch are all excellent examples of easy drinking craft beer. That being said, I have one question and two statements:
        1) Who died and made you the beer master?
        2) If you are going to have the balls enough to call someone out like that, have a=enough character to put your name on it. Stand behind what you say, don’t hide behind anonymous statements.
        3) Your statement is made with the assumption that you are looking down your nose at the OP. We were all in beginning stages of good beer at some point in our lives. I, for one, preferred the people who were cool enough to teach me something without being a dick about it. Why don’t you try being “that” guy…… or go drink wine with the rest of the snobs.

      • Agreed. There are those who prefer Rolling Rock to Oscar Blues Yella Pils because they’ve never tried the latter. Then there are fucking idiots.

        It’s like people who swear by Dunkin’ Donuts coffee over locally roasted freshly ground stuff. On one level, it makes you sad; on another it makes you angry.

    • I agree that it’s a hugely untapped market segment. One of the most flavorful and well-balanced beers I’ve had in the past year was an “American Bitter” session beer that 21st Amendment brewery was selling this summer. It comes in around 4.5% ABV and tastes like somewhere between an ESB and a Pale Ale. Awesome stuff and I wish more breweries get on this style.

      • Oh and anonymous, if you’re looking to step up to a good pilsner, I would suggest trying Prima Pils by Victory. Pretty easy to find around here.

      • Gotta love some Kolsch for a light and refreshing beer. I know I do.

        • Amen to that. Does it make me weird that the best Kolsch I’ve tasted is from an American brewery?

          • Which one? I personally think you cannot get better than Gaffel or Reisdorf, but I am always up for trying more! I also like checking out American interpretations of the quintessential German style.

  • Acch, in my mind, the craft/small batch brewers have fallen so in love with hops, that it is all they seem to care about. I find so many of these undrinkable, as it is all bitter hops on top of bitter hops (yes DC Brau, I mean you).

    This sounds like an appealling ale. What are the thought of the Pint folks doing a lager? Session beers are great, and lager is a great session style. All the craft ales are nice, but some of us like lager pints as well.

  • Any chance of getting the MP4 on cask?

    Sounds terrific, can’t wait to try it. I love the ‘House in Session’ collaboration. Oh and Landlord is a lovely bitter – one of my favorites in England. Along with Adnams, Harvey’s, Hook Norton and Westerham Grasshopper.

  • Belgium beer is over rated and I wish bars in DC would stop thinking that they have a diverse beer list because they have a ton of belgium style beers from all over the world.

  • i’d been skipping these review posts because frankly i’d rather just drink beer than read about it. but my neighbor told me they were cool posts and i trust his assessment of things beer related. and i gotta agree. great freaking post.
    so where can we get this beer?

  • Ahh, Timothy Taylor Landlord, that stuff is fantastic, especially pulled from the pumps at the The White Lion, Cray, followed with a plate of local lamb chops and chips…bloody marvelous!
    I used to live in the Dales in North Yorkshire and thoroughly enjoyed those “session beers” (which generally tended to be what they call “bitter”, as in “pint ‘a bittah, please”). Tetley, Theakstons, Timothy Taylor, Copper Dragon, Black Sheep – lovely lovely brews.
    I don’t get the current fixation with hopping beer so much that it taste only of hops…like the grains are only there to deliver the bitter…as opposed to complimenting each other. Sure, I love good IPA but sheesh! It’s getting to be a bit of “Hops Race” out there in craft brew land.

  • saf

    Yay for session beer!

    The first time I heard this term was at a beer tasting with Bruce Williams, the owner/brewer at Heather Ale (now Williams Brothers.) It made so much sense.

    So, does this mean that perhaps we will see more session beers at the Pint? I would appreciate it!

  • Very good article. Wish I could be there to taste your brew. Let me know how the evening turns out

  • Can’t agree more with the thrust of this article. We need more session beers in DC. Particularly on cask. Twenty years ago, you’d come across a cask about once every three months, and it would inevitably be a Double Imperial Blueberry Sour Ale, or some such stupidity.

    While things have improved, and while I don’t want to single out DC Brau, which is a welcome addition to the scene, their line-up is almost a parody of the modern ale offerings: a super-aggressively hoppy “pale ale” which is indistinguishable from most West Coast IPAs, a super-aggressively hoppy IPA which is sorta different from the pale ale, but not really, and a super-hoppy IPA that’s brewed with Belgian yeast.

    Meanwhile, you can’t even buy a fucking English bitter at Schneiders.

    Thanks god for Oliver’s.

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