05 August 2010
Should Session Beers have Session Prices?
A lot of fellow promoters of "session beers"--lower-alcohol beers perfect for a working lunch or a hot summer--are eager to promote how the winners of the Great British Beer Festival awards for Champion Beers of Britain were all session beers. Indeed, the average alcohol strength of all the winning beers was only 4.37%--a figure that would earn derision in many a "beer geek" establishment like Max's, Mahaffey's, The Judge's Bench, etc. even on a blisteringly hot day. (Like we haven't had a few of those lately?)
Yes, part of this is that we're snobs. We have been well trained by "beer geekery" to associate bigger beers with more complexity and assertive flavors. And, yes, part of this is the well-deserved American stereotype that constantly associates "bigger, bolder, brasher" with "better" whether or not it's deserved. In my personal experience, you can sell the hell out of almost anything in American beer as long as it has a superlative attached to it--most hops, most exotic ingredients, or most bikinis in the advertising.
But there's another factor involved, if you ask me.
Session beers are lower in alcohol, and usually lower in the other attributes that give beer mouthfeel. That doesn't mean they're watery or lacking flavor; it just means that there's a bit less "there" there. (I've often run into beers where the brewer or server says "you'd never guess it's an 8% beer--it tastes like a 5%, doesn't it?" But I've yet to have someone say "you'd never guess that's only 4%, eh? Tastes as full as an IPA, huh?")
Yet we're asked to pony up the same price as a regular, or even a bigger, beer.
Come on, admit it. Who reading this hasn't walked into a good-beer establishment intending to only have one or two beers, sized up the list, and ordered the most potent beer for the "biggest bang for the buck"? Or, for that matter, looked over the list and "thrown back" a selection as being too weak? Yes, I've done it. And if you say you haven't, you're probably lying. Or a very special breed of beer enthusiast, worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.
Most brewpubs or beer bars, of course, won't hesitate to charge extra for an expensive-to-produce beer, or serve it in a smaller serving for the same price as the rest of the line-up. I have no problem with that. I was scared beyond belief at the bar that, on one night, was selling full pints of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for $3--and, thankfully, I was the only one noticing. But session beers need to be promoted. Can we not apply the same rationale to session beers?
Serve up the session beers in a bigger glass--if you're using 12- or 16-oz tumblers, pour the session beer in a 20-oz. imperial pint for the same price. Knock fifty cents off the price. Make it the Happy Hour feature for a discount. Heck, have a heat-wave special: when the publicly-displayed outdoors thermometer breaks 95 degrees F, the session beer is a dollar off! (When I was in the UK in September 1991 and the temperatures cracked records at 85 degrees, bars pushed all manners of "shandy," typically a lager-and-fresh-lemonade blend but cheap-lager-and-Sprite at its worst.) Put together a "Dog Days Special" of a cold plate or salad paired to go with the session beer and the beer itself.
Have you ever gone out to eat with a vegetarian or decided you might as well treat your body a bit better, looked at the menu, and then had a change of heart as you realize that the vegetarian options on the menu, despite having ingredients that are at best 50% of the cost of the meats, are only priced a dollar or two cheaper than the "carnivore" entrees? With a vegetarian wife, I see it all the time--and it's why we seldom go out to eat.
Before the bars and brewers attack me, let me say that I understand the real mathematics of the proposition. I've been a restaurant manager. A 25% reduction in ingredient costs certainly does not translate into a 25% cost savings at the glass--there's still labor, overhead, fermentation vessels and cooperage being occupied ("opportunity costs"), and distribution. But at the same time, a token gesture towards what many consumers must certainly feel when they look over the menu or chalkboard can certainly go a long ways towards promoting the finer art of a well-made session beer.
(Much more on session beers at Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project website/blog.)