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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Beers of Summer - Full Sail Session

Full Sail's Session Lager is a lesson in a (stubby) bottle. No brewery suffered the downturn in the mid-90s more than Full Sail, which had just expanded to a 250,000-barrel brewery. They expected to grow from the 80,000 barrels they were brewing, but instead shrank 25%. There followed a series of label redesigns (they've had four in all) as the brewery cast about, trying to find its identity.

They ultimately landed on a heavily-researched style that combined various visual cues to clue in their target audience that they were not only good beer, but hipster beer to boot. (John Foyston wrote an unforgettable article about the process, which sadly isn't even cached online anymore.) The last brick in that wall was the Session, a beer designed to reach out and grab young Pabst drinkers by the collar. Foyston wrote an article on the introduction of Session, and that is archived. Here's how he described it:

[Full Sail founders Irene] Firmat and [Jamie] Emmerson figured out what to put in the stubbies when they finally solved the Mystery of the Reluctant Neighbor. He'd drop by their house to pick up his daughter from a play date, they'd offer him a Full Sail beer and he always turned it down. "He's this big guy, an ex-U of O linebacker," Firmat said. "And I always thought, 'Now there's somebody who looks like a beer drinker.'

"He was a little embarrassed, but he finally told us that he didn't like craft beers, that they were too big, too bitter, too heavy," she said. "We realized that there are people who want to drink a Heineken, or a Corona or a Beck's. You're not going to get them to drink an ale, so we decided to make a beer that would appeal to them."

It's a good strategy: instead of bemoaning the fact that imports cut into the market for craft beers, Full Sail created a beer -- and a brand -- for the import lager drinkers. The label bears only the small initials FS with a tiny 47 underneath -- the number of employees in this employee-owned brewery.

Given that Pabst is a purely market-driven phenomenon (don't believe me?--do a blind tasting and see if you can distinguish it from other national macropilsners), packaging a beer to appeal to the highbrow-averse was a stroke of brilliance. Stubbies died out when the last of the regionals were snapped up, and now the only odd-sized bottles are in collections. Session has the distinction of being totally retro and ultramodern simultaneously.

I don't actually know how Session is selling, but whenever I go to the store and watch someone pick up a half rack, it's someone who looks like he was trying to decide between Pabst and Session. And I've seen a lot of those guys.

Tasting Notes
But marketing aside, what's it taste like? Sessions, as you know, are designed to be drunk in a "session" of drinking. It's a category of beer, rather than a style. Sessions should be low in alcohol and not overly aggressive of palate.

FS Session is actually revolutionary in more ways than just the palate. True, it looks like a standard macropilsner when you pour it out (should you ever pour it out, which is unlikely)--pale (not as pale as Bud, but pale) and effervescent. The brewery plays along with the ruse, citing pre-prohibition pilsners as inspiration (in order to recall in the drinkers mind, perhaps, Henry Weinhard's?). But the palate is clearly borrowing a lot more from pale ales than pilsners. The hops ("American") have a note of sweet citrus and imply Cascades. You'll find esters in the palate as well--or psuedo esters, anyway.

In short, it's a tin-can beer for people who like pale ales. I don't know why no one else thought of it first.

Hops: "American" and "European"
Malts: Unknown (but there is a "touch of wheat")
Alcohol By Volume:5.1%
Original Gravity: Unknown
BUs: Unknown

As a stand-alone beer, good. Compared to any beer that has ever appeared in a stubby bottle, a classic.


  1. I have to take exception to your claim that in a blind tasting you couldn't tell a Session from other macro brews. As someone who cringes at the thought of trying to drink anything dark and hoppy I've run the gamut of what you beer snobs call crap beer.

    When I first tried a Session from Full Sail I was thrilled to not only find a new beer that actually was a pleasure to drink but it was even made not more than 45 minutes from where I live.

    When a beer line got too long and I made the decision to go with a pitcher of PBR in order to avoid having to wait 20 minutes in line for more beer I realized just how much better Session lager is than the rest of the beer in its category. This stuff is awesome.

  2. Anon, I said nothing about a blind tasting and agree with your assessment of Session.