The Beer Issue: Our panel rates local session beers
BEER I saw a great T-shirt in upstate New York this summer, and it's become my official motto: "You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning."
Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration — I'm not as young as I used to be, and the days of morning (or even afternoon) drinking are becoming rarer. But I'm still the guy Schaefer Beer was thinking about when they wrote that slogan in the 1960s about the "one beer to have when you're having more than one." Frankly, I'd rather down three or for (or five) cheap light beers than sit around all evening nursing one fine IPA.
So I've taken quite an interest in session beers — craft brews with an ABV (alcohol by volume) level of less than 4.5 percent. You can drink a session beer at lunch and still go back to work. You can drink a couple-three after work and not be too blotto to make dinner and put the kids to bed. Or, as one of our tasters put it: "If I hit a happy hour, I'm usually done for the night. But after these beers, I was still ready for an evening of drinking."
The term "session beer" is usually traced back to England in the World War II era, where the pubs were only open for a short "session" during the lunch hour so the workers could get back to the munitions plants. They've become pretty popular on the East Coast, where session beer festivals abound, and they're making their way west.
It's still not easy to find good session beer — we live in the land of high-craft, high-alcohol brews, and a lot of the smaller breweries (scared, perhaps, of the evil "light beer" rep) stay away from the weaker, or at least less alcoholic, stuff. But if you shop around a bit, you can find some excellent local choices.
Our willing lab rats sampled six local brews — well, one, Stone Levitation Ale, comes from San Diego, but you can buy it locally — with Bud Light thrown in as a ringer. The tasting was blind, the labels on the bottles well disguised; I was the only one who knew which beer was which.
What we found: There are some truly excellent session beers out there. But not every craft session beer is created equal; our panel liked some a lot better than others. "None of them will grab a beer snob," one taster noted. "But there were some good ones."
(A note: Some of these brews — particularly the ones from Haight Street's Magnolia Pub and Brewery — are available only from the brewhouse. Others can be found in bottles anywhere that carries a wide assortment of craft beers.)
The two samples from Magnolia were the clear winners. Our tasters uniformly liked the Dark Star Mild, calling it "dark and rich tasting, with a light finish and soft aftertaste." One noted: "I could see sitting on a roof on a hot day and drinking this with my lunch." Even one of our skeptics, who wasn't thrilled with any of the offerings, noted "I could drink this one."
Magnolia's Sarah's Ruby, a dark, thick brew, was a close second. One panelist noted: "It has a lot of flavor going on, something I would be happy to order in a bar." Another liked the "nice taste of toasted barley and hops" while another called it "very robust, not at all like a light beer."
Anchor Brewing Company's Small Beer was a close third. The beer, which comes in at just 3.3 ABV, has an interesting history. Anchor brews a barleywine ale, Old Foghorn, that's almost 10 percent ABV. The brewers then take the once-used mix of malt mash and brew from it a second time, getting a much lighter result. But it doesn't taste like a rerun at all; one of us said it was "a nice beer that I'd like to keep at home and drink a lot of." Another called it "musty and earthy" and noted that it would "go well with a cheeseburger or pizza." And even the critics said, in the words of one, "this is pretty damn okay."
Ale Industries' Bliss got points for being "very drinkable." Our panelist noted a nice malty taste and called it "woodsy and smooth," although some described it as a bit watery. Stone Brewery's Stone Levitation Ale came off as "strong, with a bit of licorice flavor," although one drinker said its strength was also a weakness: "A bit to hoppy to drink a lot of it."
The Bud Light, I fear, didn't fare so well. We threw this in for fun (I, for one, remain a Bud Light fan) and for comparison. Although not technically defined as a session beer, it does clock in at 4.5 ABV, 20 percent lower than a standard Bud. Our tasters were not impressed: "This tastes like the 3.2 beer I had to drink during basic training in Fort Carson," our resident former infantryman wrote. Or, as another put it, "Has the metallic finish that makes for great keg parties and awful hangovers." Still the Bud Light got points for sessionability; "For sure the best choice for beer pong. You could probably consume mass quantities and still be OK in the morning."
Ale Industries Orange Shush came in last, probably because its flavor is unique and quite different from the other samples. The critics called its flavor too fruity. The people who liked it, though, said that it was a "good light beer that I could drink all night."
Which is, after all, the point.