In session: Beer style light on alcohol, big on drinkable flavor

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. St. Elias has a light-drinking Insidious XPA on tap.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. St. Elias has a light-drinking Insidious XPA on tap.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

America has always had a strange attitude toward drinking. Call it a legacy of our Puritan origins, call it a hangover from Prohibition, call it what you will, but as a nation we don’t have what I would consider to be a normal/healthy relationship with alcohol.

Having lived and traveled overseas, I can say unequivocally that other cultures out there have a much more mature view of alcohol. The typical European young person is introduced to drinking alcohol in a supervised and supportive environment, be it having a beer in an English pub or drinking wine with a meal at the French or Italian family table. Contrast this with the typical American experience — furtively consuming illegally obtained alcohol in a secluded location surrounded by other teenagers.

Is it any wonder that many Americans reach our legal drinking age of 21 (as compared to the typical European age of 18) without having developed the ability to properly handle alcohol consumption? In my opinion, drinking is like driving — you have to learn how to do it right. We would never think that simply hitting a certain age qualifies you to operate a car safely, yet we have a system that ostensibly prevents our young people from drinking a drop until they turn 21, at which point we give them all they want. How crazy is that?

Another concept that is popular overseas and which we here in the U.S. are only beginning to embrace is the idea of a session beer. Like many of our better beer style ideas, this one originated in Britain and refers to a beer that is designed to be consumed during a drinking session — i.e. a beer that is designed so that you can (safely) have several of them in succession.

What are the characteristics of a session beer? Well, to begin with, it cannot be overly strong. British Ordinary Bitter, which for many is the classic session beer style, has a typical alcohol by volume from 3.2 percent to a max of 3.8 percent. Compare this to Budweiser, with an ABV of 5.0 percent. Even Bud Light has an ABV of 4.2 percent, significantly greater than even the strongest Ordinary Bitter. This becomes even more significant when you remember that the British typically consume their beer in pint glasses, which are actually imperial pints, holding 20 ounces. That means a person can drink a pint of 3.2 percent bitter and consume the same amount of alcohol as a 12 oz. Budweiser.

But besides having a lower alcohol content, a good session beer has to have a flavor profile that will keep the drinker coming back for more. Americans in general (and American craft brewers in particular) have a tendency to confuse depth of flavor with intensity of flavor. However, overly intense flavors, whether we’re talking hop bitterness or malt sweetness or added spices, tend to overwhelm and fatigue the palate. It’s more important to have balance and depth of flavor if you want people to drink several of a particular beer in a row.

There are several beer styles out there that lend themselves to being brewed as session beers. I’ve already mentioned British bitters. With their relatively low carbonation and ABV, moderate bitterness, yet nice flavor and aroma from wonderful floral British hops like Fuggles or East Kent Goldings, this is a brew you can enjoy for hours on end and still get home safely.

A second classic British session beer is mild ale. Quite rare outside of Britain, this is also a 3.2 percent to 3.8 percent ale. However, where bitters are pale beers that emphasize hops, milds are typically dark beers that emphasize roasted malts. Once again, they are well-balanced brews whose drinkability encourages multiple glasses in a single session.

Here in the U.S., craft brewers have slowly begun to develop a new style, referred to informally as a West Coast Session Ale. Beers in this style have ABVs of no more than 4.5 percent, and ideally below 4 percent, bringing them close to British Bitters in strength. They are top-fermented, using a British or American yeast, very hop forward, interesting enough to drink happily yet balanced and refreshing enough to drink all night. Personally, I find beers in this style are more enjoyable to drink than a 7.5 percent, 100-plus IBU palate-wrecker of a double IPA.

If all this talk of session ales has gotten you interested in trying one, St. Elias Brewing Co. has recently put a beer on tap that more or less qualifies. Called Insidious XPA, this beer weighs in at 4.5 percent ABV, is light on the palate but bursting with hop flavor and aroma from the use of plenty of Galaxy and Citra hops. As it’s neither too heavy nor too bitter, you can certainly enjoy more than one.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a homebrewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.

1 Comment

Filed under beer, Drinking on the Last Frontier

One response to “In session: Beer style light on alcohol, big on drinkable flavor

  1. Mark Keene

    Nice article, Bill! XPA is a great style, and that Insidious sounds superb. I really like using a large percentage of pilsner malt with a hop combination like that in my own brews. Great summer drinking.

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