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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Americans Are Not Doing It Wrong

George Howell in Dunbar.
After a tour of the gorgeous Belhaven brewery in Dunbar, Scotland, brewer George Howell took me and my peripatetic friend to the pub for beers.  At one point, extolling the simple virtues of session ales from the United Kingdom, Howell pointed out that "when you're out with the lads and you have ten or twelve pints" you want a low alcohol beer.  Ten or twelve pints?  That's nearly two gallons of beer!  Patrick and I snuck goggle-eyed peeks at each other.  I assume Howell's session was several hours long, but still, ten pints of even 3.5% beer and I'm under the table trying to find where I left my mind.

I bring this up because Martyn Cornell has an interesting cross-cultural post about a trend Brian Yaeger mentions here--India session ales (ISA).  The post is thoughtful and well-documented in the typically Cornellian way, and the upshot is that the style may have much to recommend it, but it's not for session drinking.  He used Dogfish Head DNA as an example:
While it was less hoppy than 60-minute IPA, at 32 IBUs rather than 60 (and lower in strength, at 4.5 per cent ABV), there was still masses of floral flavour and aroma from both the Dogfish Head addition and the dry-hopping with Simcoe hops the beer had been given in Bedford, so that this was very clearly an American IPA, not a British one. I enjoyed my pint. But I only wanted the one. Palate overload set in after just that single glass. And that means that, regardless of its strength, DNA New World IPA cannot possibly be a session beer.
Matthias Trum in Bamberg
We'll come back around to ISAs in a moment.  But let me tell you about rauchbier.  When I was in Bamberg, Schlenkerla's Matthias Trum explained that you had to drink his rauchbiers up to at least the second and preferably the third half-liter:
"Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness.  So the second Schlenkerla is for you a different beverage than the first one.  And yet the third one is different than the second one.  From the third one on, you have the system running, so to say."
Many people hate rauchbiers and don't want even a mouthful, but in Bamberg they pour them down their throats like water.  (I happily joined them.)

Belgium is a little different, because the variety is such that at a cafe, you are likely not to be drinking a single beer in your session.  You may start off with a gueuze and then head to something lighter with food, and finish up with more alcoholic drinks.  In the US, "Belgian" is an adjective some drinkers deploy only in the negative, to describe any beer that has an abundance of yeast character.  A session of these beers is anathema to them.

I might be able to drink ten of these.
The point of all this is that ISAs are an American thing.  I don't have any doubt that most Brits would find them--and our far more common session ales, IPAs--too assertive for a long session.  Increasingly, American craft beer fans don't.  When I go out with friends, mostly they throw back hoppy beers.  Like rauchbiers, the intense sensations wash over your palate and do overwhelm it; thereafter you adjust, and the other elements of the beer comes out.  For an American, drinking a pint of IPA is just the foreplay for more IPAs--at that point, you can't really go down the ladder, anyway.

But that's what Americans like.  (Or those in the still-small minority who drink craft beer.)  I get that there's a certain amount of disdain around the world for our out-of-balance beers (I'm not a fan of ISAs because they tend to be more out of balance than IPAs).  There's an implicit judgment--not in Martyn's post but elsewhere--about foolish upstarts who don't know what they're doing.  Actually, we do. A love of hops represents the evolution of preference, of local taste.  I wouldn't expect Bambergers to jump on our bandwagon, nor Londoners.  But that doesn't mean we're doing it wrong.


  1. Cheers to that. I've been reading a lot of the comments surrounding the "ISA" discussion, and I've read many that suggest a sessionable beer goes beyond the ABV level; that it has a lot to do with flavor. And I agree, but that's a relative concept. Perhaps an India Session Ale isn't destined for world-wide acceptance, but it's something we seem to enjoy here, and in large quantities over the course of a session. It's how we do.

  2. I agree with you that ISA is probably not a session ale in the sense that you discuss above. I do like the style because I like the hoppy-ness without high alcohol. That level of hops has more frequently been found in Imperial IPAs in the past. For me, it's a session beer in the sense that I can have an ISA and then have another, different beer without stumbling home.

  3. The main problem with the use of session in ISA is that, as you point out, folk in the US are not that keen on draining four or five litres of beer down their cake holes. I just spent a couple of days in Albany, good beer town, and watched a lot of prudent drinking out of tulip glasses and snifters as well as shakers but no 20 ounce UK pints of low alcohol session beers.

    This is compounded, of course, by the very recent UK adoption of session beer. It's only a couple of decades old as a phrase. Session is simply not an adjective normally limited to beer consumption. Training at the gym, making out and therapy all come in sessions.

    So, I think your observations are quite correct. Very different approaches to drinking bouts are cultural. In my home of Atlantic Canada, kitchen party is one way of describing a long session. But "session" had not had any established meaning that either informs the noun "beer" or "ale" any more than "India" does.

    So, because light hoppy ale no longer has enough craft marketing value (because you know we are now in the era of craft marketing) we are stuck with ISA.

  4. My interpretation of the India Session Ale (Or anything called a "session ale" for that matter) is that it can be PART of my session, in that I can drink it and then decide to 1) Have another or 2) Have a different beer, all the while not falling off my stool. Perhaps that understanding of the word is more unique to us than we realize.

  5. As a Londoner, I have happily (hoppily?) jumped on your bandwagon.

  6. That's a very good perception by Matthias Trum. And it explains too why the huge hoppiness (i.e., bitterness and Pacific Northwest hop flavors) of American beers poses no problem for so many - it's because after the first one, even sans session, you don't taste it the same way. The taste lessens in fact because of the deadening effect of ethanol on the tongue. You need the first beer to be "over-engineered" one might say to see the course under the stresses of the second and third drink.

    This is no doubt why sours, lambics, India pales, smoked beers and other "non-intuitive" styles have a long history and a certain future.

    This is where IMO the mass marketers of beer went wrong. You can hardly taste a typical light beer the first time, so the second surely has even less flavor and what there is, I would argue, gives less satisfaction, not more - at least to the large number of people who count themselves craft beer drinkers.

    Focus groups don't really reflect the way people drink in a bar or other social setting, it isn't decorous sips with a fresh palate...


  7. But the English have been brewing such beers for years now: low gravity, well-hopped golden ales, so to say it's an American thing...don't think that's really accurate. Oh, sure, Americans were the first to come up with the moniker "ISA", but the likes of Buxton Moor Top, Thornbridge Wild Swan, Phoenix Spotland Gold, any number of Mallinson's or Steel City (Sheffield) beers, Hawkshead Windermere Pale Ale, and even the venerable old Harviestoun's Bitter & Twisted have been around for at least several years. There are many more.

    Steel City coined the term "trans-Atlantic half-IPA" years ago, which is absolutely fitting: English-style gravity and malt (completely crystal-malt-free!), American hops. I brew my own half-IPA nearly weekly, at 3.5% and 100 - 130 theoretical IBU's, with 5/6 of the hopping coming in the last 15 minutes of the boil.

    These Yanko half-IPAs sound right up my alley. Trade you some Kellerbier for them.

  8. Eri, I don't think Jeff's post, nor American drinkers, are asserting that the notion of a low-ABV, highly hopped pale beer is an American innovation. Just that Americans have a taste for them.

  9. I think increasingly that Britains, who drink craft beer, are quite happy to drink these assertive beers. There is quite a following for them in the craft beer bars.