Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Session Sensibility

Over the last month I've noticed a number of posts about session beer. Martyn brought up session beer, or rather it's origins, on May 20th. Stephen Beaumont, recently, pointed out a few flaws written about sessioning (to someone who shall remain nameless.) Joe and Alan have been engaged in a dialogue, on the warrants of American Light Lager as a sessionable beer, on Joe's blog Thirsty Pilgrim. Let's not forget Lew Bryson, either—he has a whole blog dedicated to it!

What I've noticed throughout all of these discussions is that a few points keep getting repeated, 1) session beer should be somewhere between 3 and 4.5% ABV and; 2) session drinking hasn't caught on in the US because American craft brewers don't make enough low ABV beers. A lot of emphasis is being put on the beer and it's characteristics, like quality and style. But, I see the beer itself, as only one part of the equation. It's the other part that's interesting, the part that's being overlooked—culture.

Americans and Brits have different drinking habits. In the US we are a happy hour culture and they are a session culture. We consume, as Beldar said, "mass quantities" while we barbecue or watch football—at home. The idea of "going down to pub," on a nightly jaunt to the local watering hole, is a foreign concept to most folks. Don't get me wrong, Americans do their fair share of boozing-out. However, most—over the age of 25 with families—aren't going to just go down to the local bar, after they've already gotten home from work. I want to be clear on this, I'm not—in any way—saying that behavior is wrong, it's just different than what happens in the US (I'll get to that a little later.)

Americans' go out on Friday and live it up; we stop for a quick one after work with colleagues; we barbecue with the neighbors and their kids on weekends. Beer is all part of that, but it's in the peripheral. It's not about going out on Friday to drink beer, it's about going out to drink—period. The quick one after work isn't about the beer, it's about not being at work. As much as I love the concept of getting together with friends and having a great conversation for a few hours over five or six beers, it's just not what happens. As a father or two little kids, I'm lucky I get to go to the occasional happy hour at all. I'll be honest, thanks to our Puritan roots there's a stigma associated with drinking in the US. Good, stand-up citizens don't drink six beers in a single sitting—in public—only drunks do that. You can drink a hundred beers at home in front of the TV, just don't do it in a public forum, where others can see. Thy other stumbling block is, that we don't have pubs—proper pubs—we're missing those places, those hubs of community where local people have come for fifty-years or a hundred-and-fifty years. Places where beer is to be had, and everyone knows you, your brother, his kids and their wives.

Beer is an integral part of the British culture. It's woven into the fabric of British lives and has become part of their identity. Low strength beer has been around in British culture for a thousand years. Small beer, Table beer, Family Ale, the Industrial Revolution, excise taxes and both world wars—all of these contributed to what would become modern session drinking. Beer isn't that influential in the lives of most Americans. So, if beer is Britain's Castor, then what is America's Pollux? Firearms—You may laugh when I say that, but it's true. Both industries have helped to build their respective nations, both are integrated into their histories, and both beer and firearms have a social aspect to them. Whereas four blokes in Abbotsbury might go down to pub on a Thursday evening; four buddies in Ashland might get together in the woods on a Thursday morning. Generations of young, American boys received rim-fire rifles, on Christmas morning, from their fathers. Just as generations of young British boys would grow up and go down to pub, the same pub their father—and his father's father before him—went down to. Not as far fetched as it originally seemed, right?

You can come at me and say, "Hey! You love beer, and you drink not to just get drunk. You drink because you really enjoy the experience of beer—you should be an advocate for session beer!" To that I say I am. Session drinking is amazing, It's just not a reality in the US. I wish it was, but it's not. We still don't have flying cars either—and they've been promising those since the 1950s.

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