Thinking small: The session beer

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Americans don't have much experience in consciously limiting their alcohol intake. Our history has been punctuated with periods of government enforced moderation or prohibition and our doctors have informed us of the health benefits surrounding limited alcohol consumption. But as a drinking populace, Americans have not yet embraced the concept of session drinking, or purposely selecting lower alcohol products in order to sustain a lengthier drinking session. Most people have just generally viewed alcohol as a means to a socially lubricating end.

The origins of the term "session drinking," as with all things beer history, are a little hazy, but the concept remains a relatively accessible one. A session beer is one that allows its imbiber to consume several glasses over a few hours without becoming disturbingly and painfully drunk. The term can be applied to many styles of beer and doesn't reference any particular method of production beyond lower booze content. This idea of lower alcohol beer comes with some negative perceptional baggage here in the United States. With the legacy of Prohibition era "near beer," 3.2 beer, and modern non-alcoholic offerings, the concept of session beer can often times be a hard sell. For starters, we're not talking about no alcohol, just lower alcohol than usual, which compared to the elevated ABVs (alcohol by volume) of modern craft beers may hardly seem slight. In defining session beers, this can refer to any beer that possesses less than 5 percent alcohol by volume, even though the British tend to apply the term to beers under 4 percent. While the British definition is certainly a truer acknowledgment of the powerful physiology effects of alcohol, American brewers don't actually make very many beers that weigh in at 3.5 percent. That is a bit of a shame, as many British brewers have demonstrated that their session beers, while small in alcoholic prowess, are anything but diminutive in terms of flavor. When viewed through the bottom of a 20-ounce British Imperial pint, however, it's easy to understand why they felt compelled to shave an extra point or so of alcohol off their session sipping beers.

It can be challenging today for the drinker looking to undertake a session of beer enjoyment without incurring the taxing if pleasant after effects of alcohol. For one, most bars don't list the alcohol levels in the beers they serve unless it is mandated by law. So undertaking a true session might require asking the bartender about his or her selections, or doing a little advanced legwork. With that said, certain beer styles are often safer bets in terms of limiting your alcohol intake. These styles include Mild, Golden Ale, Kolsch, Hefeweizen, American Wheat Ale, Witbier, American Pale Ale, and many fruit beers. But substantial alcohol deviations can appear in individual brands so even this list is anything but a sure bet. The best option is to come armed with a little knowledge, ask the bartender, or patronize better beer bars that provide you with a descriptive menu.

It's important to note that the best session beers provide a focused and complex flavor experience without relying upon the diverse flavors and aromas contributed by alcohol. By selecting high quality and flavorful malts, brewers can produce highly drinkable and nuanced beers that sustain your interest every bit as much as boozier offerings. Hop heads need not worry either, as brewers remain fully capable of brewing less robust beers that still pack the full range of hoppy aromas, flavors, and bitterness levels. For example, the Stone Brewing Company, celebrated by hop and alcohol fans alike, brews a beer called Levitation that gives consumers a rise—not from alcohol, but from prodigious amounts of Amarillo, Simcoe, and Columbus hops. With its snappy hop aroma and pleasant malt flavors, you'd never guess Levitation weighed in at a meager 4.4 percent alcohol. American brewers produce many such beers that result in twists on the old session beer concept.

So next time you're getting ready to sit down for a few beers and some conversation, take a moment to think about the alcohol levels in the beers you're drinking and consider experiencing a new side of light beer, with a full-flavored but less boozy craft offering.

Picking the Right Glass for the Right Moment

If you've ever seen a shapely, elegant glass of Hefeweizen pass by, you know the value of serving beer in different glassware. The tall, curvy weizen glass accentuates the gentle gradations of color in the beer, while providing a secure and attractive home for its cavernous, pillowy crown of foam. While taste and smell usually capture all of the limelight when it comes to enjoying beer, the importance of the sense of sight is too often ignored or left as a mere afterthought. With its arresting, multi-colored tones and gravity-defying, craggy heads, beer opens up a seemingly endless vista of visual elements that deliver a new level of pleasure to the drinking experience.

Even when it comes to enjoying tap beer at bars, Americans don't spend much time thinking about the visual side of beer. In the drive for efficiency and order, most bars and restaurants have tended to adopt the utilitarian over the eccentric when it comes to serving beer, opting for the ubiquitous and uninspired Shaker pint glass as the vessel into which they pour nearly all beer. Derided by some brewers as a mere "jam jar," the shaker pint's appeal lies not in its intrinsic beauty or its ability to accentuate and showcase the style of the beers it contains. Rather, the Shaker pint has come to rule pubs and home bars simply because of its ability to stack evenly on shelves. In addition to its uninspired design, the Shaker pint allows all aromatic esters to escape through its wide-brim, while its inevitable stacking scuff marks quickly kill any head on your beer. When it comes to choosing a glass in which to maximize the enjoyment of our beers, the time has come to send the Shaker pints packing.

In rejecting the culture of apathy that the Shaker pint represents, drinkers can learn that different types of glassware can actually influence the aromas and even the flavors in their beer, all while certainly enhancing the ceremony of the drinking experience. In Belgium, the presentation of beer has been raised to a level approaching an art form. Casting efficiency to the side, servers in beer cafes in Brussels thoughtfully locate your beer, choose the matching glassware, carefully present the beer to you, and methodically pour the proper beer, stopping just short of the brim and allowing you to decide if and when to pour the last delicate ounces. These same bars also manage to carry several dozen, if not hundreds, of individual beer brands and their accompanying glassware, all without any storage problems.

While the Belgian approach is certainly impressive, it's unlikely that American bars and home drinkers are likely to stock hundreds of different glasses. Moreover, it's not necessary, as a few staple glasses will well-serve even the most diverse drinking needs. Start with the basic, everyday drinking glass, the shaker pint. While it can be a handy option in a pinch, replacing it with the gently sloping Willi Tumbler offers a more attractive and functional option. With its taller countenance and narrow brim, this inexpensive, everyday drinking glass better contains the volatile and delicate aromas teeming in craft beers and improves the appearance of beers, all while stacking neatly side by side. Its slender base also limits the transfer of heat that naturally occurs between your hand and the liquids inside your glass every time you grab the glass to take a sip. This glass comes in a variety of sizes, from smaller eight-ounce versions to the preferred seventeen to twenty-two ounce varieties that allow for a vigorous pour without worry of spillage. When referencing pints as the suggested serving vessel in this book, it is the Willi Tumbler I recommend using. In a pinch, the twenty-ounce Nonic or Imperial Pint glass will also better serve your drinking needs than the American Shaker pint.

For most everyday beer styles with average alcohol levels not requiring specialty glasses, a couple of other glasses can come in handy. A solid mug, with its hefty structure, wide-brim, and sturdy handle helps maintain the head of your beer, allows for deep sips, and completely limits the transfer of heat between your hand and the beer. They are best used for less delicate beers, styles whose strong flavors aren't likely to fade as the beer warms, thus escaping without a trace into the air. The dimpled and ceramic varieties definitely put a serious kink in the ability to see your beer, but can be kitschy fun at times.

The tall, angular Pilsener glass is another familiar sight to many beer drinkers and remains a staple in any home bar's beer glass collection for routine use. Precisely tapering from its wide-brimmed top to its fluted bottom, the Pilsener glass enhances the carbonation and striking golden appearances of Pilsener beers, all while directing the aromatics to your nose and providing ample room for the style's prodigious foam head. The glass is best suited for displaying brilliant, bright beers that lack any haze.

Certain styles call out for the use of specific beer glasses, and perhaps no style better captures this indivisible relationship than the Hefeweizen and the weizen glass. As described earlier, the Bavarian weizen glass is king when it comes to capturing and maximizing the visual appeal of beer. Usually about a half-liter or seventeen-ounces in size, the weizen glass slopes from a wide yet tapered top to a narrow and slender base, allowing the colorful hues and immense foam heads of the Hefeweizen style ample room to display their beauty. The glass is designed to capture the substantial head, all while containing the full yet delicate banana, fruit, and spicy phenolic aromas associated with the style.

Not to be outdone by its Bavarian cousin, Belgium's Witbier also commands its own glass, the stout, sturdy tumbler. Almost synonymous with the classic Hoegaarden version, a once style-defining Witbier now brewed by mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, the workhorse tumbler glass is squat in stature, with a wide top bowl and a narrower base. Thick glass walls line the sides and the style is not so much form as functional, a testament to the everyday utility of the glass as a workingman's way of drinking many Belgian beers, from witbiers to lambics.

In getting a little fancier and less conventional, the snifter is probably familiar to you in the context of watching your grandparents drink ridiculously oversized glasses of cognac and brandy as digestifs. Beyond the caricature of large snifters filled with nearly no booze, endlessly swirling around the base, rounded snifters allow drinkers to vigorously agitate the contents in order to release delicate aromas, which then funnel through the glass's narrow top. American craft breweries and beer bars have picked up on this old-timey practice and have applied it to beers possessing higher than usual alcohol levels. Whether it be a Barley Wine, Imperial Stout, or other strong beer, the snifter naturally slows down your drinking, allowing you extra time and space to experience the aromatics of your beer in an enclosed glass environment.

In branching out from snifters, a chalice or goblet also works well for stronger beers, especially big, sturdy beers with loads of malt. Similar to the mug in its lack of ceremony, but with greater utility due to a more enclosed opening, the stemmed goblet ranges in shape from robust chunks of glass to delicate, handcrafted works. Gently curving from a wide-mouthed brim to a lengthy stem, the more gentle offerings can resemble flute or tulip glasses. With the addition of intentional scoring in the bottom of the glass, additional boosts of carbon dioxide may be released, continually reinforcing the beer's head.

Long, narrow flutes, like those used for Champagne, help certain beer styles maintain and maximize their carbonation levels. Strikingly attractive and objects of curiosity when containing beer, flutes are tall and thin, with stemmed feet, causing particularly effervescent beers to cascade their bubbles towards the tapered, flared top. Highlycarbonated fruit beers display well in flutes, as do American wild ales and even Czech and German pilseners.

The final glass is perhaps the most important when it comes to branching out from traditional glassware. With its undulating and chaotic shape—wide-brimmed at the top, trim in the middle, and bulbously squat at the base—the tulip glass is the utility player on the beer glassware team. Capable of containing and improving nearly any style, from routine IPA to fabulously creative Saison, the tulip offers ample room in the base to contain the beer, gently guiding the aromas into a tapered top, all while thoughtfully displaying the contents and encouraging and sustaining the head.

A quick trip to your local home goods store will certainly provide you these options and many more for enjoying any beer you buy. Following the examples set by the Belgians, American craft brewers have also begun to display a greater appreciation for the benefits of diverse glassware, and some have even designed their own glasses in which to serve their particular beers. By replacing a few of your Shaker pints with a Willi tumbler, a tulip glass, and a snifter, you'll have the makings of an excellent lineup of options for improving your beer drinking experience.

Reprinted with permission from GREAT AMERICAN CRAFT BEER: A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Breweries, © 2010 Andy Crouch, Running Press.

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