California Brewing: Session Beers

Three session beers worth earning and the stories behind them

By Derrick Peterman

Strike Brewing.

Strike Brewing.

Just what is a “session beer” anyway?  Terms like Saison, Hefeweizen, IPA and now session beer entering our beer vocabulary can be confusing to those just looking for something good to drink. Session beer makes things even worse because the term is rather vague and subjective.

Session beer loosely describes beers low in alcohol and easy to drink yet flavorful such that they can be effortlessly enjoyed in a casual setting. Beer writer Lew Bryson, considered an authority on session beers, has tried to capture their essence, describing them as: containing 4.5% alcohol by volume or less; flavorful enough to be interesting; balanced enough for multiple pints; conducive to conversation; and reasonably priced.

While beer geeks continue to passionately debate these gray areas, plenty of session beers are enjoyed around the campfire, on the beach or along the trails by people who don’t bother with stuff like that.

I’m a big fan of session beers myself and spoke with the brewmasters responsible for three of my favorites. One of the best things about different beers is that there’s usually a story behind each one of them, and session beers are no different.   

Strike Brewing’s Blonde Ale
SB-Strike-Brewing-22oz-Labels-0215-Final-01For Strike Brewing brewmaster Drew Ehrlich, Strike Brewing Blonde Ale started as homebrew for his light beer drinking friends. “I had a bunch of friends into the light lager craze, and I wanted to brew something that wasn’t going to scare them away,” explains Ehrlich of those home brewing days years before he co-founded Strike Brewing. “So I used pretty simple malt and added a little hops at the end to give them something extra they weren’t getting from what they usually drank. It’s one of my originals.”

What makes Strike Blonde work is the simplicity of the clear malt coupled with its light earthy bitterness. Ehrlich accomplishes these earthy flavors with Cascade hops added midway through the boil. “It’s pretty standard brewing practice that adding hops at the beginning of the boil adds bitterness, adding them midway through the boil adds flavor and towards the end of the boil adds aroma,” explains Ehrlich.  “So midway and towards the end of the boil I add Cascade hops to give it a bitterness you might not have with a super light beer.”

While session beers have become popular only recently, Strike Brewing was into session beers from the very beginning when the brewery opened way back in 2010. In addition to a session Blonde Ale, they brew session Brown and Wit beers all year ‘round. “We really enjoy session beers – they’re great for drinking a few with your friends without getting wasted and we love session beers for that,” says Ehrlich. “They’re great for people who are active or working out, who want a beer at the end. Session beers provide lots of flavor without all the alcohol. Session beers are good social beers. That’s why we strive to have a lot of good session beer available at any given time.”

Anderson Valley Brewing’s The Kimmie, The Yink, and the Holy Gose
SB-GOSE_12ozCAN_HiResA light sour and salty beer based on the nearly extinct German Gose style is one of the more unlikely brewing success stories of the past year. While sour and salty hardly sounds like a winning combination, those flavors coupled with a low 4.2% abv come together to create a unique and highly refreshing brew that’s become a big hit with California’s craft beer drinkers. According to Anderson Valley Brewmaster Fal Allen, the beer was created largely by chance in the collaborative way he develops recipes.

“At the time, we were experimenting with a sour mash and someone suggested we try brewing a Gose. Only a couple breweries in Germany were brewing this style at the time. So we tried that and we all really liked it.” Of course, with most beers, there’s a process in tweaking the recipe to get the final brew. “It took us about four or five months and four or five test batches to finally get it down,” recalls Allen. “It wasn’t too difficult figuring out the grain bill and hops for the beer. The bigger challenge was determining how sour or salty to make it, and what level of ‘funkiness’ it should have.”

With the success of Gose, Allen started experimenting by adding spices and fruit to it in order to give it an extra dimension. He had high hopes for a Tamarind Gose, but it turned out to be a disaster.  “Tamarind is also sour, and sour on sour is just too much.” He tried fruits like tangerine and grapefruit. Then he found the tanginess of blood orange created better flavors and aromas. “And besides, it gives the beer a cool name!” said Allen.  Anderson Valley released Blood Orange Gose last year.

Both the regular Gose and Blood Orange Gose are part of Anderson Valley’s Highway 128 Series of session beers. Gose and Blood Orange Gose are the only beers in the series available for retail sale, but stop by the brewery tap room in Boonville and you’ll likely find a couple of Fal Allen’s other session beer creations on tap.

21st Amendment Brewery’s Down to Earth
SB-21st-Amendment-Down-To-Earth-12oz-canOne beer that helped start the wave of popularity for session beers was 21st Amendment’s “Bitter American,” a hoppy brew with only 4.4% abv, released in 2011. “We first brewed Bitter American at our small San Francisco brewpub in 2006 and then canned and distributed it in Spring 2011,” explains 21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan. 21st Amendment packages their beers in cans with striking cartoon artwork based on moments of American history. In coming up with the Bitter American artwork, O’Sullivan recalls, “We were thinking ‘Who is the bitterest American?’ and after lots of discussion and beers we decided it was Ham the space chimp who was the first American in space back in 1961. Here was a chimpanzee plucked from the wilds of Africa and trained to push buttons, strapped to a rocket and hurled into space.”

After a few years, O’Sullivan decided to update the Bitter American recipe which eventually became Down to Earth. “Craft beer drinkers’ tastes have evolved and so have mine and I saw Down to Earth as an opportunity to mix it up and look into newer hop varieties. I added a lot more late kettle additions with Cascade and Mosaic hops giving the beer a more chewy citrus flavor and then dry hopped it with Centennial and Mosaic hops adding pine, citrus, mango and tropical aromas.”

With a change in the recipe, it only seemed to make sense to update the story of Ham. “Once we went down that path we thought it would be fun to play with the package design and continue the story of Ham. We brought Ham back home from space to a sunny beach, relaxed and stretched out in his hammock made from his space capsule’s parachute.”

In addition to giving the story of Ham a happy ending, you’ll find Down to Earth a lively yet easy drinking brew.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s windmills.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s windmills.

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