April 7th is Session Beer Day: A Conversation with Lew Bryson

Quick: name the best beer you had this weekend.

If your answer started with “Barrel-Aged…”, you might be a beer geek. And that’s okay.

At Craft Beer Cellar, we love high-gravity beers. Intentionally unbalanced, palate wrecking (literally) Double IPAs, dangerously drinkable 13% bourbon barrel-aged stouts, and the like are hallmarks of craft beer. Big, bold beers with explosive flavor are our jam. But maybe not today…

While many celebrate April 7th as “National Beer Day” (referencing the Cullen-Harrison Act not the ratification of the 21st amendment that repealed prohibition; Alan from “A Good Beer Blog”, as well as other beer writers in the comments, explores this “holiday” in a piece HERE ), our celebration of choice today is “SESSION BEER DAY!”

If this is you’re first time that you’ve come across the term “session beer” or the first you’re hearing about Session Beer Day, that’s fine too! To help, we chatted with Lew Bryson of “The Session Beer Project

Image copyright: Lew Bryson 2009
Image copyright: Lew Bryson 2009

From “The Session Beer Project”:

The Session Beer Project is a non-profit, unorganized, unofficial effort to popularize and support the brewing and enjoyment of session beers.
For our purposes, ‘session beer’ is defined as a beer that is:

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

If that seems vague…it is. Here’s another definition: low-alcohol, but not low-taste. It’s subjective. Live with it, and enjoy it. We’re here to help make your night out more fun, more tasty, and more safe. Cheers!

CBC: Why is session beer important to you?

Lew: It’s about a lower alcohol choice in great tasting beer. Craft has always been about adding variety, adding choice to the beer drinker’s options. It just struck me that my “choice” was becoming MORE restrictive: I could have my choice of imperial stout, some version of IPA, or a sour, all of them usually over 7% ABV. I wanted to bring attention to the beauty that could be had on the smaller end.

CBC: What is the goal of Session Beer Day?

Lew: Same as that of the Session Beer Project: raising the profile of session beer, bringing it to people’s attention as a choice (“people” meaning drinkers AND brewers AND purveyors). 
CBC: How has session beer influenced the growth of craft beer culture? How has the growth of craft beer culture influenced session beer?
Lew: The growth of craft beer culture kind of smashed session beer for a while, but now that we’ve grown to the point where craft beer isn’t quite as defensive and adolescent and shouty as it was…I think more room for session beers has developed. Session beer in turn has influenced craft beer culture already, with the surging popularity of lower alcohol choices. But I believe the greatest influence session beer will have on craft beer culture is yet to come. What do most American beer drinkers choose, still? Light beer, practically all of which is under 4.5% (except things like the oxymoronic Bud Light Platinum, at 6+%). Give those people a craft choice at an ABV and calorie level closer to what they’re used to, and watch craft brewing explode. People WANT to drink their local beer…but often they don’t if their local beer is 8%, 80 IBU, and $8 a pint. Which gives me a chance to throw this in: should session beer be cheaper because it’s lower in alcohol? Not really, because the impact of materials costs of a 4.5% vs. a 6% beer is about a nickel a pint. But I DO think session beer should be cheaper because brewers are selling a ton of it…so drink up!
CBC: Is the distinction between 4.5%ABV beer and, say, 4.7%ABV beer really that important?
Lew: Yes, but not so much because of the alcohol. It’s because of the worth of the label. If “session beer” just means “as little as 0.1% ABV less than ‘regular beer'”, it starts to lose meaning. Session beer has to be significantly less than a regular beer in alcohol content. 4.5% is 10% less alcohol than 5.0%; that’s significant. I want it to mean something, and to continue to mean something, so I’m going to be picky. We weren’t picky about what “craft beer” meant — Is it about who makes it? What it’s made of? What it tastes like? — or what an IPA is (it’s apparently anything someone chooses to call an IPA), and those terms are losing value. I don’t want that to happen to session beer, so I’m using every bit of influence I’ve earned over 20 years of writing about beer to try to fence it off. Making 4.5% a bright line and calling any brewer — like Sierra Nevada, even — to task who calls their beer “session” when it’s more than that, is part of the job. I’ll take flak. There will be backlash. Okay. It’s worth it. This was thankless in the beginning; I can handle it. 
CBC: What does Session Beer Day 2020 look like to you?
Lew: Fireworks, parades, men and women in love and enjoying beer. Hey, why not? I’d love to see the options grow and spread, so we get more than just “Session IPA” (Jesus, people, really? What the hell is the matter with you?), so places in America other than Boston and Philly can have a great selection of session beer every day. I’d like to see more respect for good tasting beer, and less concern about the ABV. Is it about flavor and fun, or getting your money’s worth of ethanol? I mean, why ARE you drinking? I thought craft beer was about variety and FLAVOR. You want ABV? Join me for a bourbon.
CBC: What session beers will you be enjoying today? Any that you wish you could be drinking but are unavailable (either out of production or not available locally to you)?
Lew: My locals: Yards Brawler, Philly Brewing Kensinger, Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout, and Victory Donnybrook (I’d drink the Victory Uncle Teddy’s Bitter, which I love, but it’s hard to find outside of the brewpub). And if I could get it, I’d be drinking the hell out of Notch Pilsner! Hats off to Chris Lohring, who took a huge chance and proved that session beer CAN be successful. 
CBC: Do you have a session beer/food pairing recommendation for us?
Lew: Never really think about it. I like bitter and cheeses a LOT, and session IPA (God help me) is pretty good with a spicy pizza. But man, Victory Dark Lager and pulled pork is awesome. DRINK MORE VICTORY DARK LAGER!! They only make it once a year, and I wish more people knew about it. It’s a beautiful beer!
CBC: We know you’re a champion for the cause, so we’ll gladly allow you a few words on beer privatization in Pennsylvania.
Lew: I could write a book. It would be great to blow up the PA liquor code and start over, but there are long-time retail champions of craft beer whose businesses would be severely damaged by it. We need a considered approach without shouting and bullshit and lies, and we need to include the consumers in the discussion. We’ve been ignored forever, and it’s long past time that ended.


Thanks for that, Lew.

Lew Bryson writes full-time about beer and spirits, since 1995. He is the Managing Editor of Whisky Advocate. Craft Beer Cellar appreciates his time today, especially with a flat tire. Lew, next round’s on us!

To celebrate “Session Beer Day”, Craft Beer Cellar Belmont and Craft Beer Cellar The Annex will be pouring some of our staff favorites from 5-7pm tonight (Monday). We hope you can join us, and if you’re drinking out tonight: Go Small or Go Home!

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