Sunday was the 80th anniversary of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which made it once again legal to sell beer up to 3.2% ABV in the States, effectively ending prohibition on April 7, 1933. The anniversary of this date is now being touted as Session Beer Day, an opportunity to celebrate the social pint.
It sounded like a good reason to spend a day drinking. I grabbed a few bottles of my home-brewed breakfast stout (it was closer to lunch time, but whatever) and headed to Joe’s.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier
Step 1 – beer run. As I stood at the counter paying for a bottle of Fuller’s London Pride, I looked over my shoulder and saw Joe inspecting a bottle of German beer. The only word I recognized from the distance was “rauchbier.” I had used rauchmalt in my homebrews before, but I’d never had an authentic German rauchbier, despite my recent trip to Germany.
“It’s a smoked beer,” I said from the counter.
“It’s a really smoked beer,” said the cashier. “It’s like drinking a campfire.”
That sealed it. Joe got us a bottle to share. It was a rich brown, almost black and with a slight haze. Joe stopped short before taking his first sip, remarking on how powerfully smokey the nose was. It wasn’t just a campfire in a glass, it was more like when you burn the best hard wood and the smell makes you want to stand in the trail of smoke. The taste was not unlike the aroma. It was like if you were brewing a German black lager on a wood stove.
This was not a session beer. I could have had another, but it was not a beer to be drinking all night. While certainly not for everybody, I will be buying this again.
I tried to explain “session beer” to Joe – it’s a bit of a catch-all term. It’s certainly not a beer style, and you’d have no trouble finding beers which are radically different from each other but still both session beers. As The Session Beer Project states:
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.
My definition: A session beer is a well-made beer that is designed for “drinking” as opposed to “tasting.” If you can’t make it through several pints, it doesn’t qualify. If you’ll be rolling over under the table by the end of several pints, it doesn’t qualify. It’s got to be good without being over-the-top, ie. balanced – something that you’d want to drink all evening whether or not it gets you drunk.
Doghouse Breakfast Stout
We moved on to my homebrew, the beer I designed to be drunk early in the day, a 3.5% ABV stout brewed with oats, coffee and smoked malt. It poured almost opaque black, but with a rich red-brown colour at the corners. A thin layer of dense, chocolate coloured head formed over the surface, like the crema on an espresso, and some of it managed to survive the pint. The nose was very faint, just some roasted hints from the coffee and the barley.
The mouth is a bit watery, but still fairly round and creamy for only 3.5%. The carbonation is very low, but not low enough to make it taste flat. There’s a little hint of hop when the beer hits the tongue, but it’s quickly overpowered by the roasted flavours from the barley and coffee and a touch of smokiness. Then on top of that, surprisingly, comes chocolate, which dominates the flavour right to the finish. The aftertaste is dry, leaving me thirsty for another sip.
Definitely a session beer. There’s a lot of flavours but they’re all very subtle, nothing is cloying. The low alcohol and the small amount of coffee encourages a long and fruitful day of social drinking.
Fuller’s London Pride
Now for the classic. It pours a pale, reddish amber, with a thin white head that doesn’t stay for tea. The nose is caramel in a flower garden. Almost perfumey. The mouthfeel is watery, with a light carbonation that doesn’t really satisfy in small sips. Like a true session beer, it’s meant to be drank in big gulps. It feels better that way, and it tastes better that way.
The flavour is excellent. A balance between caramel maltines, a flowery blend of British hops and just the right amount of bitterness to hold it together. It starts off floral, turns malty, and finishes bitter, but nothing steals the show. This is one of my favourites, and at 4.7% makes an excellent session beer.
St. Ambroise Pale Ale
5% would be considered high for a session in some places but lower alcohol levels are more rare in Canada than elsewhere. It pours a golden amber in the glass, with half a finger of white head which dissipates quickly, leaving a thin film to covering the surface. The nose is floral with a hint of citrus, more bitter than London Pride and with little of the caramel.
It’s surprisingly thick on the tongue for the style, with a medium level of carbonation but not enough to seem fizzy. The favour is quite bitter from the beginning, with some caramel maltiness and British hops following. The wheat comes in at the finish, a distinctive quality of Montreal pale ales, and leaves a sweetness on the tongue at the end.
The character is similar to London Pride, but it’s more bitter and less balanced. Still, it’s my go-to session beer. When I plan to drink a dozen of something, it’s this.