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Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Session with some Sessions

It's been awhile since my last post - sorry. It's those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer and I really have taken the "lazy" part to heart. Also ran into a crazy Internet virus that struck both our desktop and my laptop. The source seems to have been an email which looked legitimate (from Fedex) but when we opened it there was simply a blank page. Next time we restarted the two computers (which are networked) we had all kinds of problems. The desktop I finally reformatted and am in the process of adding back all the programs we've lost. The laptop I spent hours with and got nowhere. Basically it's going to cost a couple of C's to get it straightened out (I am one month off the warranty!) Anyhow, be aware of any emails claiming to be from Fedex.

To the important stuff: our latest Beer Club meeting took place at Mike and Diane's on a warm Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately Gerry was unable to make it (and unable to get his beer to us either - a true tragedy) however everyone else was present. Being summertime, when the living is easy, we decided to take a look at Session beers. What exactly are session beers? It seems you often hear certain beers described as being an ideal session beer. But what exactly does that mean? With the help of our friends over at Beer Advocate, I'll give you a little history, an "official" definition, and then the definition we choose to use.

A Brief History of the Term

Like so many beer-related stories this one could be in part beer-fueled or it could be the real deal. It certainly has the sound of truth to it. Apparently during World War I British workers in the factories that produced artillery shells were given time periods, or "sessions" when they were allowed to relax and imbibe. These consisted of two 4 hour sessions (11:00 am - 3 pm and 7 pm to 11 pm). Now we all know it is quite possible to become decidedly shit-faced in a four hour session of drinking, especially if you are consuming brews of high alcohol content. Not the ideal way to be working with high explosives. Ergo, they sought out beers with a relatively low ABV so they could return to work without blowing themselves (or the soldiers using the shells they produced) up. These beers were called session beers. They were generally around 3 to 4 percent alcohol meaning as many as eight beers in the four hour span could be consumed and the consumer could still remain upright.

A Working Definition

The Beer Advocate created a nice working definition which I will rip-off for your perusal since I can never see the point in reinventing the wheel, so to speak:

"Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and typically a clean finish - a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication. (Yes, you can drink and enjoy beer without getting drunk.)"

Our Somewhat More Workable Definition

So we tweaked the definition above a bit to fit our purposes. Ours goes something like this: "Any beer that allows you to remain coherent and able to walk a relative straight line even after consuming several. Somewhere around 6% or less."

Hey, it's not like we're building artillery shells here after all.

The Beers:

The beers we choose in our typically random style were:
Otter Creek - Solstice Session Ale - contributed by Herb Clark; Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale - brought by Hal Moore; McSorley's Irish Pale Ale - Dan Riley's contribution; Ithaca Brewing's Phin and Matt's Extraordinary Ale - my addition; Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale - brought by Ron Harrington; and Grindstone Brewery's Baby Shower Pale Ale - Mike Watkins' contribution.

We opted not to rate the beers against each other this time, but merely talk about each on its own merits. The reasoning being that they are not all the same style so it didn't make sense to compare them.

Otter Creek's Solstice Session Ale

This is a true session beer - fitting both of the above definitions with a 4% ABV and 18 IBU. It is the lightest of the beers (and I don't mean that in the same vain as Lite). Very easy drinking, smooth. A good lawn mower beer. This is a real nice summer beer without being annoyingly lemony as seems to be the case with some of the seasonal beers. There were still good beer flavors if you know what I mean, but nothing was overpowering. A very pleasant beer.

Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale
As you might expect from the name, this beer has a nice nutty taste to it though the predominate taste here is malt. A real nice color, kind of a deep ruby with a lively off-white head resulting in much lacing. At 5% ABV it fits the bill as a session beer and the nutty, malty, caramel flavor notes make it a beer worthy of more than one. There is a nice, rich flavor that is perhaps not typical of summer beers which usually tend toward the lighter side. There is a distinctive hops presence but this one is really all about the malt. Made for a nice contrast.

McSorely's Irish Pale Ale

As a general rule, Irish beers tend to make good session beers - they are low to moderate in alcohol and they are full bodied, tending toward the malty side. Mcsorley's Irish Pale Ale weighs in at 5.5% ABV. Like Samuel Smith's it has a nutty, malty taste with some hints of coffee perhaps and a nod to some hops.It is a bit sweeter too. The flavors are not as pronounced as Samuel Smith's however and, depending on your preference that may be a good thing or not.

Ithaca Brewing's Phin and Matt's Extraordinary

The color is deceptive. That was the thing that struck most of us. It is a very light yellow in color, a bit of a head and some decent lacing. But the color makes you think "lager" immediately. But then there is a nice nose - hint of hops, a pleasant, citrusy smell. When you taste it though, it most definitely is an ale, with a good piney hops taste right from the jump. Had a very pleasing aftertaste which hung in there a bit. Overall a very drinkable beer. At 5.4%, it fits nicely into our definition of a session beer.

Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale

Great Lakes Brewing Company out of Cleveland has really been a pleasant addition to craft brew aficionados. While the company has been around since 1988, it really only made a presence in our area (Central NY) in the last year or so. But boy they do make some good beers and Burning River is one of them. At 6% ABV is dances on the outer edge of our session beer parameters, but it is definitely a beer you could enjoy repeatedly on a nice summer day (or fall, winter or spring for that matter.) The color falls somewhere between Mcsorley's and Phin and Matt's - a nice amber. Very balanced though tending toward the malty side. It's got a hops presence which tends to come in toward the end. Nutty malt taste predominates. A very solid beer.

Grindstone Brewery's Baby Shower Pale Ale

"So I give you that name and I said goodbye;
And I knew you'd better get tough or die:
And it's that name that helped to make you strong."

-"A Boy Named Sue" - Johnny Cash

You name a beer "Baby Shower Pale Ale," a name that flies in the face of all that is holy in the world of men and beer (which are essentially synonymous, let's face it) you'd better have a beer that can transcend the image of women "oohing" and "aahing" over new bassinets and cute little onesies.
But maybe that's just the point. Maybe what we have here is a brew so assured of it's own "beerility" that it can take on whatever name it damn well pleases.
Grindstone Brewery, located on the banks of Grindstone Creek in the wilds of Richland, NY, is a small, family owned brewery known for using generous amounts of hops grown by the owner. Baby Shower Pale Ale clocks in at 5.5% ABV. As expected, the Cascade and Northern hops are front and center, giving it a nice grapefruit-like hop opening. However this American Pale Ale is eminently drinkable, with a malt balance that nicely complements the aggressive hoppiness. Overall, a tasty brew and remarkably restrained for this hop-happy brewery. Having said that, it was still the hoppiest of the bunch - which is not a bad thing at all.

-A shout out to one of our followers, Mike Metott. He emailed me to suggest a couple of beers at the opposite ends of the hops/malt spectrum. He suggested I try Samuel Adams Cream Stout and Heavy Seas' Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale. I must admit I had never tried either, but after purchasing the two I was glad I did.

I find that Sam Adams' best beers are the ones you don't see around so much. Their lager is often a lifesaver at a bar or restaurant that feels it has an extensive beer menu because they have both Bud AND Bud Light. I was at a local Fireman's field days the other day and would have killed for a Sam Adams Boston Lager. Their choice was: Bud Light or Blue Light! Really?! They couldn't have had Blue and Blue Light? They had to have two light beers? I don't get it. I said, "You've just got light?" And some woman standing next to me said, "Hey, it's cold and wet!" Yeah, well so is water. Anyway, the Cream Stout is quite tasty. Very malty, nutty, with a hint of caramel perhaps. Real nice, rich head. And it did have a very pleasant creamy mouthfeel. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but I felt like I got why they called it a cream stout. Nice beer.

Loose Cannon from Heavy Seas, on the other hand, really throws the hops at you. The grapefruity aroma jumps right out at the pour. And your first taste is wonderfully hoppy. It has good staying power, too. An American IPA, it weighs in at a solid 7.25% ABV. There is a real nice crispness to this beer. Very fresh, sharp bitterness that is quite refreshing. Clipper City Brewery is located in Baltimore, Maryland. They are another one of those breweries that take their beer seriously, but have a lot of fun with their labels and the names of their beers. If you like hoppy beers, you need to try this one. If you like dark, malty beers, go for the Cream Stout. I tend, as I may have mentioned, to be a hop-head - but more and more I have begun to appreciate the joys of a good stout or porter.

Got any beers you think we should try? Let us know at

-August 1st is Middle Ages 15th Anniversary party at Leavenworth Park in Syracuse. It's free admission and the festivities begin at 2:00 pm. Live music throughout will be provided by "Enter the Haggis," "Hot Day at the Zoo," and "Dark Hollow," a Grateful Dead tribute band.
The featured brew will be Double Wench - a terrific beer that we reviewed last month as part of our all Middle Ages blog. Food, music and good beer - see you there!

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