Session to the Rescue: How Craft Beer Can Shrink to Greatness

Despite being a massive beer nerd, I'm very much a lightweight, which makes me a natural fan of session beers (those at about 4.5% ABV or lower, though the definition has some flex in it).  I sometimes struggle to find lighter beers on bar tap lists, which I can understand, to an extent: there's definitely a market for big, unique beers, and a beer bar wants to have the kind of edgy things that draw a crowd.  What surprises me, though, is that bars and breweries don't seem to be seeing the major economic upside to offering more session beers.

This is all the more relevant in the context of last week's article: there is currently more beer being produced per drinker than ever before, and that market is probably shrinking even as production and the number of producers increases.  

Session beer to the rescue!  And it's good for everyone - brewers, bar owners, and beer drinkers.

Same Alcohol, More Product, Better Beer, More Money

I have a sack of grain.  That grain contains a fixed amount of starch, which produces a fixed amount of sugar, which is fermented into a fixed amount of alcohol.  If I make a 9% Tripel or Double IPA with it, I get some number of pints out of that sack.  If I make a 4.5% Belgian Blonde or Session IPA, I get twice that number of pints out of the same sack.  

Bought a beer lately?  I'm assuming so (and if not, PLEASE comment below and tell me why you read Beer Simple if you haven't ordered a beer lately!).  If you have, you might notice that you pay about as much for that 4.7% Kolsch as you do for the 7% IPA.  If you're a brewer, why wouldn't you make more of the cheaper beer?  The profit margin is almost certainly higher.  Lower ABVs also mean less sweetness to balance and higher hop utilization and easier-to-spot hops flavor and aroma, which means you're saving on hops in two different ways, too.  

Then there's the idea that you can sell a customer more than one.  I can drink a couple-three pints of English Bitter and still carry on a conversation about how much Arsenal sucks (sorry - English Premiere League season starts up this weekend - #COYS).  If I drink a pint of a certain Belgian Tripel (terrific beer) I feel like what I assume it feels like when you smoke too much peyote.  

Session beers are also a bit easier to brew.  As a practical matter, alcohol creates toxicity, and yeast don't actually like it that much.  As ABV increases, the challenge of brewing that beer goes up, as yeast tend to produce more off-flavors when they're pissed off.  Skilled brewers can still do it, of course, but it creates a higher degree-of-difficulty.  That's not to say session beers are a breeze to make, but at least that one variable is a little more friendly.

If you can't create more mouths to pour beer into, then a solid way forward is to increase the number of beers going into each mouth.  You can either encourage people to get more drunk, or just spread out that same alcohol across multiple pints.  Even marginal reductions in ABV would yield significant savings and increase sales.

Over the Bar, Not Under It

I don't own a bar, but if I did I think I know what my major concern would be: drunks.  I mean, you're selling alcohol, and when people drink they sometimes get drunk, and when they get drunk they sometimes fight, puke, or talk incessantly about Game of Thrones - and who wants that?

Increasing the availability of session beer means it's a product that you can not only sell more of (see above), but also that consumers can better dial-in their level of intoxication and lowers the probability of someone going overboard faster than they realize, thanks to that 12% barrel-aged Quad.

Wouldn't you rather send more beer over the bar than clean up the folks laying under it?  Fewer rowdy drunks (or more less-rowdy not-quite-drunks, to be accurate) also means a better environment, and more patrons, and more sales.  

Easy Does It

This is good for beer drinkers, too.  Lower ABV per beer probably means less alcohol consumed overall.  I assume that most of us order a more-or-less stable number of beers, dictated by the circumstance.  Out to dinner, Happy Hour, on a date, out with friends, picnic at the beer garden, and any number of other set-piece beer drinking situations tend to yield a certain number of pints ordered.  

More session beer might mean you add one to that tally, but you won't make up all of the alcohol unless you're drinking a lot more pints, and less alcohol is a good thing, health-wise.

I'm no physician (though I am a doctor...of the mind), but it's my understanding that alcohol can have some negative health impacts, which is why we should try to consume it in moderation.  One thing I definitely know, though, is that alcohol = calories, and lower ABV means fewer calories, other factors in the beer recipe being equal.  

Order more session beer.  Fewer calories, fewer hangovers, fewer long-term health risks (I think).  

Everybody Wins

This is one of those situations where everyone wins.  Yes, some beers use alcohol to great effect as a flavor, but you'd have a hard time convincing me that anyone is really noticing the difference between a 6% and 5% IPA.   

Brewers can save money in production.  Bars can increase profit margins.  And we consumers can drink more beer and less alcohol and fewer calories.  And Craft Beer as a phenomenon can buy itself some more time to figure out how this is all going to shake out.

Session to the rescue!

Keep it simple.

JJW