Monday, September 23, 2013

Open thread: Is Bud Light America's session beer?

If you’ve been part of the growing craft beer community over the past few years, no doubt you’ve heard the term “session beer” by now. But what exactly does that term mean? The answer depends on who you ask.
England’s definition of session beer: a 3.5% ABV traditional bitter.
The traditional answer from the U.K., where session beer was born, is simply any beer of 4% ABV or less. Seriously, that’s all the criteria you need. Styles, taste and quality are regardless – it’s all about the strength.

The modern American answer is a bit more specific. Though I find that the answer varies even among serious beer enthusiasts. Probably the best definition is described by author/historian Lew Bryson on his Session Beer Project blog as:

► 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
► flavorful enough to be interesting
► balanced enough for multiple pints
► conducive to conversation
► reasonably priced

I’d probably agree with these five criteria for the most part. However, it irks me whenever a discussion of the definition of “session beer” is held and a limit is set at a seemingly arbitrary alcohol content. Why 4% overseas and 4.5% here? Also, shouldn’t it be a relative term (within reason)? For example, I have friends that are over six feet tall and weigh over 300lbs. To them, a 6% IPA is a session beer since they can drink a lot of it over time and not get drunk.

Another question that needs to be answered is: what exactly IS a “session”? For all the countless blogs and articles I’ve read squabbling over the definition of session beer, I’ve yet to see a concise, reasonable definition of a session. Though I find the answer is the same as defining what “session beer” is: it’s all relative.

From what I can gather, in the U.K. a “session” is defined as a meetup among chaps at their local pub where they drink for hours on end. And not just one or two hours, but closer to four, five, or six hours! Basically, you’d spend an entire afternoon and part of the evening drinking ale with your mates and engaging in camaraderie. Session beer, therefore, is what you drink over that period.

But do Americans engage in this type of activity? For the most part I’d say no. When we go to a bar or restaurant with friends, we’re usually there to enjoy a dinner together or to watch a sporting event on TV. Oh sure we may meet up with friends after work for a beer or two, but how many of us go to a bar just to drink and chit-chat for hours on end without getting drunk?

And if you do go with friends to a bar, brewpub or restaurant for that purpose – what the heck are you drinking? So few beers are available that meet Lew Bryson’s definition of “session beer,” and almost none meet the traditional definition. You essentially only have two choices: Guinness and any macro adjunct lager. And while Guinness is a fine beverage, it doesn’t have nearly the popularity, appeal, or raw drinkability of a Coors, Miller or Bud Light. Hence, the question of this blog: is Bud Light America’s session beer?
America's definition of session beer?
America's session beer?

Bud Light (or, as I like to call it – “urine helper”) is by far the best-selling light beer in the country, and one of the best-selling beers worldwide. While I don’t personally care for it, I understand why it sells so well: the taste is inoffensive, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s easy to drink. At only 4.2% ABV you can drink a lot of it without having to worry about the calories or a hangover (unless you drink an entire case by yourself). It’s available pretty much everywhere and it’s a constant happy hour special at mainstream establishments. Hell, I’ve been tempted to order 2-for-$3 Bud Lights just because of the price.

But I digress. Getting back to the topic at hand, I have a few questions for you, dear reader:

1. What are your definitions of “session beer” and “a session”?
2. When was the last time you engaged in a true session (3+ hours of drinking without getting drunk)?
3. When regular Joe Six Pack types drink light macro lagers over a long period of time – is that a session? Are such beers actually session beers?
4. Would you like to see more craft breweries producing lighter, more sessionable beers?
5. Taste versus cost: which is more important? If you can get a 6-pack of craft brewed, highly flavorful session beer for the same price as a 12-pack (or case) of macro light lager, would it affect your buying decision?
6. Can you even name a beer under 4% ABV?