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Judging Beers by Tim Prendergast Vol. 8 – Session Beer

by Prince Of Petworth October 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm 27 Comments

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.


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