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Drink: Session Beers: When the Best Drink Isn't the Most Extreme 

Wednesday, Mar 7 2012
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Recent trends in American craft beer have indicated a "bigger is better" mentality. Aficionados have become fixated with so-called "extreme" beers. The Top 50 list on Ratebeer.com is populated almost entirely by high-alcohol brews. One case in point is The Bruery in Orange County, a brewery that catapulted to nationwide popularity with the introduction of Black Tuesday, a bourbon-barrel-aged stout boasting nearly 19 percent alcohol by volume. You read that correctly: 19.

The ABV arms race doesn't end there. Pushing the limits of fermentation, Scotland's BrewDog released The End of History. Clocking in at 55 percent alcohol and inexplicably bottled inside taxidermy squirrels, the experiment marks the absurd endpoint of extreme beer. While experimentation continues to be the hallmark of America's brewing renaissance, the pendulum is swinging back toward low-alcohol, everyday brews.

Designed to be enjoyed over relaxed drinking sessions without obliterating your sobriety, "session beers" — a promising new brewing trend catching on in the Bay and around the world — emphasize flavor but don't go over 5 percent ABV.

Despite generally restrained malt and hop additions, these brews don't taste like your father's bland lawnmower beer. At Boston's Extreme Beer Festival, a showcase of oddball brews, organizers have thrown down the session beer gauntlet with the "Extreme Session Beer Project." Festival sponsor Dogfish Head Brewing, known for "off-centered ales," responded with the Dirty Fermentini. That beer, brewed with puréed olives and botanicals such as angelica root and juniper, replicated the flavors of a martini without overwhelming the liver. Our very own Shmaltz Brewing answered the call with Pastrami on Rye, a low-alcohol rye pale ale spiced with peppercorns and mustard seeds.

Some flavorful, classic beer styles are also being resurrected under the session beer moniker. It's increasingly common to find options such as Berliner Weisse and gose beers on local shelves. Both styles land in the 4-to-5 percent alcohol range, but display wildly unique flavor profiles. While both are wheat-based beers, a gose is brewed with spices and salt, and a Berliner Weisse makes use of souring bacteria. One of the most buzzed-about beers of SF Beer Week was Bear Republic's Tartare, a bracingly tart 4 percent Berliner Weisse with strong notes of lemon and Chardonnay.

In the Bay Area, the session beer movement has been quietly fermenting away in our backyard. Anchor Brewing kicked off its new Zymaster Series with a 4.9 percent brew described as a "sessionable lager." Increased demand led 21st Amendment Brewery to promote its 4.4 percent Bitter American pale ale into a year-round offering, and Shmaltz Brewing retooled its staple Genesis brew, now described as a "dry-hopped session ale." Our local session beers continue to receive national accolades. Santa Rosa's Moonlight Brewing makes Reality Czeck, the most highly rated domestic Czech-style pilsner on both Ratebeer and Beeradvocate. At this year's Great American Beer Festival, Fairfax's Iron Springs Brewery took home a bronze for its 4 percent ABV Kent Lake Kolsch, and Magnolia Pub took both silver and bronze in the "ordinary or special bitter" category. The winning bitters, New Speedway and Bonnie Lee's Best, clock in at 3.6 percent and 4.1 percent ABV, respectively.

Newer Bay Area brewing outfits are also displaying a penchant for session beer. Operations such as Linden Street and Lucky Hand focus on session lagers. Upstart Dying Vines, which operates out of the Linden Street facility, produces a full lineup of beers that fall exclusively in 3.5-to-4.5 percent territory without sacrificing flavor. Draft options include English bitters, an IPA, and even a sour ale.

Extreme beer isn't going anywhere, and we're thankful for that. But high-calorie, instantly intoxicating beers aren't always the best choice. Unless you're living a Mad Men fantasy, tossing back a double IPA at a work lunch can have negative (read: fun) consequences. Take some time to enjoy the Bay Area's session beers — and remember, it's the little things.

About The Author

Jason Henry

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