Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Session Beers? Or Smaller Pours?

On the plane back from Belgium last week, I read Andy Crouch's opinion piece in Beer Advocate entitled Thinking Small. In it, he discusses America's "Session Beer" movement -- the push for tasty, well-made beers that are nonetheless low enough in alcohol to allow drinking quite a few in a row.  The word "session" comes from the English custom of drinking many rounds of big pints of not-so-strong beer over many hours at a pub.

While Andy doesn't quibble with the worthy goal of having some good-tasting lighter beers available, he thinks that the Session label might be misleading, since most of us don't have the same pub-drinking culture as exists in the British Isles.  In his own words:

In adopting the session moniker as opposed to simply calling their efforts a campaign for lower-alcohol beers, these brewers face target consumers who are not given to long stints in the pub or hours of uninterrupted drinking. Our drinking culture is goal oriented: have a beer to accompany a meal or fill a short window of time after work and before a commute.

His article is a good read, check it out.

Reading it as I returned from vacation in Europe, it made me reflect on the beer-drinking culture I'd seen in Amsterdam and Belgium.  The beers were not low-alcohol -- that's a 10% Westvleteren in the picture above -- but serving sizes were generally very small:  often 25 cl (less than 8.5 ounces) or 33 cl (less than 11.25 ounces).  Instead of simply beating the drum for lower ABV beers, maybe we need to start calling for lower alcohol servings.  If it's a lighter beer, the serving can be larger; if it's a higher-gravity beer, serve it in an appropriate volume.

Now, I've been known to scream for Honest Pints almost as loudly as anyone.  In Portland, that started off more or less as a push for bigger glassware -- the 20-ounce glasses popular at several of the finer pubs in town.  In my mind, though, the emphasis should be on Honest, not Pint, which to me means draft beer is served in glassware with marked volume lines, as it is everywhere in Europe.  That way you know that you received exactly what you paid for.  So "smaller serving" does not contradict "honest pint" -- it just requires marked glassware.

What do you think?  Is it worth calling for smaller beers?  Or just smaller glasses?


  1. I actually love short pours, especially at a place with more than a few beers that I would like to taste.

    In that case, it kind of achieves the same purpose as a session beer: I want to have more than one, but I still want to have my wits about me and drive home legally (which is a major difference in cultures to which Andy alludes).

    I love it when bars and pubs offer half-price, half-volume pours.

  2. I like small beers. If beer free and I could order anything I wanted at a pub, I'd almost always choose beer below 5%. (In this way we differ, I know.) I think the flavors in a well-made beer pop more in sessions, and I admire the craft. Some people like strawberry ice cream, some like chocolate. Some like big beers, some small.

    The thing that changes the equation is cost. If a pint of 6.5% IPA and a pint of 3.8% Breakside Grisette both cost $5, most people are going to go for the IPA because it means their session will be $5 or %10 rather than $10 or $15. (I use the example because Breakside Grisette is objectively the Greatest Beer Ever Brewed (TM)). So now we've put a premium on the small beer.

    A shame.

  3. @Greg, Jason: Patrick wrote an article called Linear Pricing on Beeronomics last year about why you rarely see half-price half-pints. But I agree, I like it when they are offered, like at Deschutes as Patrick pointed out (marked glassware, too), or at Bailey's Taproom.

    @Jeff: I'm not sure people who drink quality beer make their choices on how cheaply they can get drunk (at least, not most of the time). But I agree with you that it would be nice if the prices floated a little more based on what goes in. Hair of the Dog is good that way: the small beers are tasty and cheap.

  4. I agree completely with the idea of smaller pours. We have a brewery here in COMO that specializes in British styles. The normal serving size is an imperial pint, but when they do a special imperial stout or barley wine, serving sizes hover closer 8 oz. That's the way to do it. I can drink their 4 and 5% beers all night, but a sipper needs a smaller pour.

    Conversely, a bar with a decent craft beer selection serves every beer in tonic pints or larger sizes. That's fine for that 6% IPA, but 12 or more ounces of Avery's Samael (~14%) is just too much. That and the price is too steep.

    My favorite experience recently with such an idea was had at DC's Birch & Barley. 40 or 50 taps, 4 casks, and 100's of bottles meant that I wanted to try a variety of beers. 4 oz pours made this possible.

    It seems this post could be titled "Rethinking the Session."

  5. I agree that I love places that offer the option of half pints because sometimes there are multiple beers I want to try and sometimes I don't have time for a full pint.

    However, being a hop head I typically like a more assertively flavored beer, which usually isn't a session beer. I like to see a well rounded beer list where ever I go so if a session beer appeals to me that day I can have it. Of if I want a bigger beer in a smaller glass I can have that.

  6. I think consumer choice is important as long as pricing is fair.

    What I see most often is bars charging a high price for a smaller amount of a high alcohol beer. This may be a function of glassware management being a pain, I'm not sure. Occasionally I'll see a 10oz and 16oz pour as options for high alcohol beers.

    I'm all in favor of being able to get various pour sizes in a bar regardless of alcohol percentage and letting the consumer pay based on what they want to consume.

    I'd probably spend more if I had the ability to try more, which to me would translate to more, smaller pours.

    One favorite local watering hole recently had announced a four beer from a single brewery event (names withheld to protect the innocent) but did not offer the 4 as a flight. Boy was I disappointed as each was big enough that there was no way I was going to be able to drink all 4 and be able to drive home safely in any kind of reasonable timeframe.