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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Bill Argues For Small Portions, I Argue for Small Beer

Bill Night has a great post up about the issue of "session beers." The post riffs on an earlier post by Andy Crouch arguing that Americans just aren't cut out for small beers. Andy says a drinking session is a British thing, and anyway, we don't like small beers. I half disagree with Andy. Americans do like drinking sessions--those who live out here, anyway--but we don't really like small beers. Bill, however, takes it in a different direction:
Reading it as I returned from vacation in Europe, it made me reflect on the beer-drinking culture I'd seen in Amsterdam and Belgium. The beers were not low-alcohol -- that's a 10% Westvleteren in the picture above -- but serving sizes were generally very small: often 25 cl (less than 8.5 ounces) or 33 cl (less than 11.25 ounces). Instead of simply beating the drum for lower ABV beers, maybe we need to start calling for lower alcohol servings. If it's a lighter beer, the serving can be larger; if it's a higher-gravity beer, serve it in an appropriate volume.
Fair enough. I think if you're going to have a session of drinking, it's healthiest to make sure it's moderate. If that means drinking Belgian tripels by the thimbleful, godspeed. It's better than throwing back an imperial pint of Pliny the Elder.

I, however, happen to like small beers. The flavors may not be as screamingly intense, but they often have more molecular space to unfold and blossom. You find subtle aromas and flavors in small beers you couldn't hope to identify in bruisers. All things being equal, I'd choose a well-crafted 4% beer over a well-crafted 8% beer almost any day of the week.

What's frustrating for this advocate of small beers is that our team is burdened by an economic disincentive. If you pull up to the bar at the Horse Brass and consider your options, I believe a certain calculation crosses your mind. It goes like this: "Hmmm, that cask bitter looks mighty tasty, but it's only about 4% alcohol. If I have it, I'm likely to want two at the very least and probably three. That IPA looks almost as tasty, but it's north of six percent and I can probably get by with one if I nurse it. Maybe two." A session of the cask will run you $10-$15, but the IPA only $5-$10. So you go with the IPA. Bill thinks this won't affect most beer geeks, but he's wrong: I know because it even affects me.

Now, there may be a festival in three and a half weeks that could turn the tide. It may be called Mighty Mites and I may have had something to do with it. But we'll come to that in due course.

13 comments:

timdogg said...

"The post riffs on an earlier post by Andy Crouch arguing that Americans just aren't cut out for small beers. Andy says a drinking session is a British thing, and anyway, we don't like small beers. I half disagree with Andy. Americans do like drinking sessions--those who live out here, anyway--but we don't really like small beers."

I have to disagree with this. Americans overwhelmingly prefer small beers. At 4.2%, Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, etc are all small beers and dominate sales. These ARE our session beers. Portland is different, but think of your average American sports bar. What are most patrons drinking while they watch a 3+ hour football game? Light beer. Certainly very few are drinking Imperial Stouts. Collectively, we LOVE small beers.

Now, if you sya American CRAFT beer drinkers don't go for small beers, well then you probably have a point.

Jeff Alworth said...

And indeed I did. Throw me a bone here.

Dan said...

In my experience (as a Brit living in Canada) North Americans just don't seem to spend as much time hanging out in pubs the way Brits do. The sports bar is one exception, but in this scenario all sensory focus is on the 72 inch plasma — not the drinks or company. The vast majority of my drinking here is done in my house or at friends' houses, and eveyone wants to bring a "wow" beer which generally means bigger flavours which often goes with bigger ABV.

I'm not sure if I've hit on the reason, but I can account for part of the pattern.

Bill Night said...

I have to point out that I'm not arguing against small beer, nor was Andy Crouch. I just want to point out another solution to the dosage problem.

I find it interesting that you might choose a stronger beer at the same price so that you'll have to buy fewer glasses of it. I always figure that I'll drink two or three beers no matter what, so if I want to go slow, I'll pay the same for a lower-ABV beer (as long as it's good).

a said...

Sorry, but I'll disagree with your point about the alcohol/value calculation. I do the very opposite calculation in my head when I go out to drink:
"Hm... There's an interesting oak-aged imperial stout on tap, but it's 12% ABV. I'll be full and drunk if I drink that, so let me just order a lighter beer, instead... That way, I can have 2+ beers without getting too drunk/full."

The reasoning is that I want to try as many different beers as I reasonably can in one session. Money is rarely a concern (unless we're talking about something that's overpriced, like rare-ish bottles in most bars) for a true beer snob! :-)

Anonymous said...

So you want to try to skew the market to wee beers? Leave us alone to drink what we want and stop trying to manipulate. Who died and made you brewmaster?

And bring me a bucket of double arrogant bastard while you're at it.

Jack R. said...

I'm with a. I avoid high ABV beers. What's the point of One-and-Done? Two Honest Pints of 9% ABV beer puts me at/near the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle.

At my local in Salem, Ore., the best selling beers are mellow [<7.5% ABV] IPAs. Kegs of Big/Extreme beers linger.

My current favorite summer beer is a 5% ABV Zwickel/Keller beer by Columbus Brewing Co.

Harth said...

I see the different drinking styles here, but I am with you on this one, Jeff. Value wise, it is tough to order smaller beers when I rarely get to go out for a pint. So at home, I try to keep a keg of IPA on the low end of the alcohol spectrum, then when I go out, I look for bigger beers.

Still, it amazes me how hard it is to find really tasty, complex beers with less than 6%. Suggestions welcomed.

Chris said...

I see that same mental calculation play out every single day in our store and bar, so despite the anecdotal evidence presented here to the contrary I guarantee that the vast majority of craft drinkers associate abv with value.

Why get the 6pk of Mama's Pils (5.5%), when the 6pk of Old Chub (8%) will get you 30% drunker for the same money?

Why drink that amazing 5% Astoria Citra Pale when the 8.5% Bitter Bitch is only $.25 more per pint?

The only real time I see this trend being bucked is when the weather hits the mid-80s or higher, and then suddenly everyone is drinking Prima Pils, Caldera Pils, or Ft George 1811 Lager.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with Jeff here. I recommend Hale's in Seattle as an example: their beers are all the same price but different dose. So $4 of a small beer is 20 oz., but gets you only 16oz. of a mid, and 10oz. of a heavy (a rough estimate by memory). I think it's a great system--you aren't tied down to the heavy forever, the total alcohol for each one is probably the same, and they all take about the same length of time to drink.

Dann Cutter said...

First you brew a commercial beer, then you are mucking about with festivals? Whatever happened to impartial journalistic brewing integrity! ;-)

Anonymous said...

"All things being equal, I'd choose a well-crafted 4% beer over a well-crafted 8% beer almost any day of the week."

Hear hear!

And Americans don't like drinking sessions? Um, what?

Unknown said...

I'm all for drinking flavorful well thought out small beers!

Bring it on!

Any brewer worth their salt can make hop bomb monster gravity rocket fuel. It's the tasteful and smart small beer that really interests me these days.

Cheers.

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