In summertime, the beer drinker’s thoughts turn to refreshing, low-alcohol brews that can be enjoyed on hot days.
The session beer culture has been present in the United Kingdom for decades but has only recently caught on in the U.S., perhaps as a pendulum swing away from the bigger-is-better, 100+ IBU, over-10-percent-ABV craft beer trend of the past few years.
Definitions of the upper limits of session beer vary, but for purposes of this column, I will use the 4.5 percent ABV cutoff established by beer writer Lew Bryson in his popular Session Beer Project blog at sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com.
With the prevalence of hoppy India Pale Ales in the craft beer world, it comes as no surprise that session IPAs, featuring intense hop aromas and flavors, have taken the industry by storm. California breweries have produced draft-only session IPAs for several years, but the packaged versions took off when 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco released its Bitter American in 2011, followed by Drake’s Brewing Co. in San Leandro with its Alpha Session in spring 2012.
This year, several big California craft breweries have gotten into the game, with new releases from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. (Easy Jack), Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits (Even Keel) and Stone Brewing Co. (Go To IPA). Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada have released session IPAs slightly above the 4.5 percent ABV cutoff to meet Bryson’s definition of session beers.
I sought out some California-brewed session beers that were not IPAs to explore the variety of choices available, and I found intriguing and diverse options.
• The Hottenroth Berliner Weisse from The Bruery in Placentia pours hazy straw yellow with a generous white head of tiny bubbles. Its aroma is overwhelmingly tart Eureka Lemon, though there is no lemon in the brew – the tartness comes from inoculation with lactobacillus. The beer has moderate pucker power, though it is definitely more tart than sour. The finish has hints of earthy barnyard funk from the addition of Brettanomyces. Crisp and light, the Hottenroth is most definitely in session territory with a mere 3.1 percent ABV.
• Pete Slosberg, a former Los Altos Hills resident and the craft beer pioneer who created Pete’s Wicked Ale in 1986, introduced Mavericks “Not Yet World Famous Session Ales” last year. Brewed by Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., Mavericks beers are sold exclusively in cans, and all three varieties weigh in at 3.75 percent ABV. Mavericks Pace Setter Belgian Style Wit includes the traditional additions of orange peel and coriander, but the aroma and flavor mainly showcase zippy lemon peel and floral Belgian yeast esters, with wheaty malt in the background.
• Stone Levitation Ale is an old standby of American session beer, originally released in 2002. Dark-toasted malts dominate the aroma, with just a hint of orange citrus hop character. The hop flavor, on the other hand, is very forward, though balanced by caramel malts. While the bracing bitterness doesn’t approach IPA levels (particularly for Stone), it does last well into the finish. Some session beers, particularly hoppy styles, can be one-dimensional, but Levitation’s complexity belies its 4.4 percent ABV.
• Drakes’s Omega Session Ale, only available on draft, is billed as an “American Mild Ale,” playing off the classic English mild style with West Coast hops, though it could just as easily be called a session black IPA. Omega Session is dark brown with ruby highlights, and pretty opaque for a brew of only 3.8 percent ABV. The aroma features citrusy hops and a touch of roast. On the palate, potent earthy-hop bitterness hits up front and lingers into the finish.
Derek Wolfgram is chief communications officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which meets the first Friday of each month at a home in Los Altos Hills and welcomes both new and experienced beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.