Is the Session Beer Revolution Here At Last?

March 2, 2011

I long for a good session beer

I reached drinking age in 1964. At that time where I lived in a sleepy commuter town some twenty miles south of London there were two pubs that were popular with teenagers and twenty something’s. Both served the thin, fizzy, metallic, skunky, chemical beer known as Keg Bitter.  In the so called swinging London sixties this fetid style brew had replaced many standard bitter beers as the main drink of the day.  Not really even cheap and not cheerful.

Americans do not know that in the UK most pubs were owned by the largest breweries. The managers or landlords of these pubs were told quite bluntly what to serve or be fired. There were free houses around that served more traditional bitters, and whatever else they liked, but they were scarce on the ground in 1964.

In those wondrous days we young lads burped our way through thousands of gallons of this liquid muck until we finally discovered that there were actually beers around that had been brewed for a century or more. Bitters that had taste, character and history.  These were in sharp contrast to keg bitter, whose only positive quality was that it was not very strong.  Unless you were, as they used to say, “reely chuckin it dahn”, it was hard to get drunk in the restrictive opening hours that pubs were allowed by law. 10.30 AM to 2.30 PM and 6 PM to 10.30 PM.

The traditional bitter and other beers that had been almost killed off by the larger brewing companies had not only the aforementioned flavor and character but also had a range of strengths to satisfy the man or woman who was intent either on moderate or less moderate intoxication. There were beers that were tasty and satisfying yet with original gravities of less than 4%. They were most often called ‘ordinary bitter’. And there were beers that had slightly higher original gravities; 4% and over; that were call ‘best bitter’ or sometimes ‘special bitter’. And of course there were hundreds upon hundred of regional variations, which if things had not changed would have been slowly swallowed up by the largest brewing companies and would have disappeared for ever. Some did, and some remain.

A sensible drinker would approach an evening out with his friends as theater. He or she had a few hours to enjoy the drama. What to do. Strategies varied but most common was to begin the evening with two or three pints of ordinary and see the night off with one pint of best. My own strategy was slightly different in that I would start with a pint of best to gain what I called cruising altitude before tapering to a slow landing with following pints of ordinary. At these gravities it would be hard to get drunk at this rate. And yet we felt we had enough alcohol.

The change I mentioned was the Campaign for Real Ale; CAMRA. It was one of the most successful consumer campaigns ever effected. By promoting   the presence of real ale and focusing on young and impressionable people CAMRA changed the brewing industry on the UK in less than fifteen years. It published a guide to real ale paid for by subscription that pointed out pubs where good beer could be had. Pubs started to try and get into the guide because they knew young people with disposable income read it. It is still very active today.

By the time I immigrated to the US in 1974 the real ale revolution was in full swing and we ‘KNEW’ where to go to get good beer.

Immigrating to the US I knew that I losing something very dear to my social life. Good beer. In 1974 the same fetid chemical muck that had attempted to rule the British drinking public was the only thing that could found in bars under the name of beer. I had a lot of friends who took me to many different drinking haunts in the NYC area telling me that this beer or other would be different. It was not. It was chemical lager through and through. Different labels but still thin, skunky, fizzy, and just awful.  It was dreadful. And they had swallowed the same advertising hype that plagued the UK. “The Champagne of Beers” , oh please!  Rolling Rock, Steam Beer, Genesee Cream, Labatt’s, Olympia, and worst of all Coors. Even less flavor than the rest!  But so long as it was served ice cold so that one did not have to taste it, one could eventually get intoxicated.  It was a sign of the times that another very plain lager beer from Europe was considered exotic. Heineken. Almost as bad as Budweiser, but in a different bottle and imported. Oh boy!

And over the intervening years it has been a pleasure to watch the rise and growth of the American bitter. As an antidote the barren desert years it is long overdue. I have spent way too much money going home to England just to get a decent pint.  But there is this hiccup. There are in Portland, where I live now, many very creative and wonderful beers. Too bad they seem to think that the only marketing message they have is how flipping strong they are! It is a shame that I cannot drink over an evening without getting as my old drinking buddies used to say, legless.  Over hopped, over strong and indigestible some of these beers leave me cold, and sometimes with a very odd aftertaste.

Think about it. Bars and restaurants in Portland can be open for many hours. People like to hang out in them for as many hours as they can. While there they may eat food at a much higher profit margin than beer. You need to keep these folk in the pub! So a beer with moderate gravity and bags of character and ‘reasonable’ hopping is going to do that. It is called a session beer.

Portland brewers, come with me to London, and we will drink Young’s ordinary and special. We will go to Henley and drink Brakspears, and on to East Anglia, once considered a wasteland of keg bitter, where we will try Adnams, and on and on. We will never get drunk, we will never be legless, we will taste good things and we will have had just enough. Just enough to make us happy, loquacious and with a sublime aftertaste. I am not suggesting you duplicate these beers here in Portland.  You can’t. And I’m not suggesting that there are no bad beers in the UK. There are a lot. Call me if you want names. But the basic style of a session beer is within your grasp and is needed now!

Do this and I will mention you in my will.

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