The American Session Beer Column is a collaborative effort with Lew Bryson’s The Session Beer Project™, and aims to seek out the finest lower-alcohol brews from the West Coast and beyond. For these purposes, we consider a U.S. ‘session beer’ as being 4.5% ABV or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough for multiple pints, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced. Lew also puts it another way: “low-alcohol, but not low-taste.” These beers can be complex, effortlessly satisfying, indelible, and elusive.
Desperately Seeking Session Beer? More like desperately seeking a better title, sinuses that don’t feel like they’re about to explode, and a blissful reprieve from the seemingly endless task of moving. Finally… We’re alive, living in downtown Santa Rosa (hurray!), and still seeking out the best in American craft beer.
I think the new title better gets to the heart of things.
Over the last couple months, I’ve managed to scrounge up more than a few new session beers, but not enough time to write about them. I’ll be making up for this in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, Lew’s been covering plenty of new ground over at The Session Beer Project™, including updates on Notch‘s all-session beer project, session cocktails, and a whole bunch else. Lew is and remains the key voice of American session beer, and I’m happy to do my part from this coast.
Which leads me to a beer I’ve been looking forward to trying since it was first announced about six months back. Stone Brewing Co., the poster child of brash marketing and unapologetically hoppy brewing, already makes one enjoyable session beer in their Levitation Ale, a 4.4% amber ale with 45 IBUs that’s dry-hopped with Amarillo. For many folks, this is also one of the most high-profile and readily available American session beers out there. Well, Stone has been organizing an annual AHA Homebrewing Competition in which the winner gets to have their beers brewed by Stone and another commercial brewery. Last year, Ken Schmidt won with an imperial porter, teaming up with both Stone and Maui Brewing Company. This year, the winning beer was about half that size.
Let’s back that train up for a second. AHA Homebrewing Competition on March 13th. 23 entries. The winner? A “West Coast Bitter” XPA (Extra Pale Ale) clocking in at 4.3%. As someone who regularly berates the American palate for tending towards sweetness and obviousness, I find this incredibly (1) surprising and (2) heartening. But ultimately, it speaks volumes about Kelsey McNair’s brewing.
For the commercial brew, Kelsey and Stone pulled in Ballast Point Brewing Co., whose 3.5% Even Keel served as inspiration for the winning entry, the hop bill of which included Warrior, Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo, and Chinook hops.
San Diego County Session Ale pours a bright, high-clarity, golden-yellow color approaching an orange hue, with an off-white head and lacing that sticks. The aroma, for me, was the highlight of highlights, showcasing a ton of piney, citrusy, and grassy hop character, suggesting generous dry hopping (which pulls off those aromatics without bringing the bitterness). There’s just the slightest touch of excessive lightness in the mouth (similar in heft to the Levitation Ale above); that’s the closest thing I can find to a detraction; lots of grassy and citrusy and floral hop flavors just pop here, in a way that certainly points back to English bitters and their high-sulfate brewing water. Zesty, non-astringent, and blessedly dry, this generous beer carries a whole lot of hops in a very delicate package.
(It says something when a good friend who generally doesn’t care for Stone products messages you about how solid their latest release is. When I told him that it was originally a homebrew, he felt much better about the whole thing.)
The only thing that really keeps this from being a model session beer is, well, the price. At least in bottles. Unless I’m mistaken, retailers are generally selling these as singles and around $4 each, which means a $24 sixer. Maybe once I’m rich and famous and blowing my nose in gold-plated tissues… Maybe. Until that day, look for it on draft and cross your fingers for six-packs to appear.
Leave a Reply