Sunday 22 August 2010

Session Beer

I've been busy, very busy. We are starting our long awaited brewery upgrade, the VAT return needs to be done and beer needs to be brewed. All well and good, but I miss writing my blog.

I wrote this last week but never got around to proof reading and publishing. I'm going to get back into writing, I have lots to say, most of it will of course be challenging the standard drinking and pub ethos that I sometimes think constrains us from achieving broader acceptance of new ideas. My views on this makes people think I object to what we have got, which is not true; I'm interested in augmenting what we have in our national pub and beer culture, not wholesale change. The words I wrote the other day were an attempt to prove this.


17th August 2010

I brewed today, Infra Red as it happens; We seem to have very little beer of any description in stock, but one or two beer festivals have asked for that one so that's what I made. Brewing is fairly physical, at least on a little brewery like mine. By the end of the day I generally feel satisfied emotionally with the fact I made something real, but quite physically tired and, well, hot and sweaty. The only appropriate course of action is to visit the pub that happens to be conveniently between our brewery and our home. It's handy because it normally has one of my beers on and one of someone else's. I can try someone else's and then one of my own and see if I prefer my own beer. Mostly I win, but not always; it's a handy little QA test, that's my excuse.

Because the pub in question is a fairly normal sort of small-town pub the beer choice is generally the normal suspects. Cream flow bitter, a couple of main stream lagers, a very well known stout, keg mild and a cider. The two handpulls don't do too much volume, just enough to keep two cask beers going. If either handpull has got anything on that is too dark, too strong, or worst off all, dark and strong, it doesn't sell and the competing beer sells out in no time.

If I'm writing this in the way I intend you will now be expecting me to launch off into some tirade about how terrible this situation is; about how awful it is that this pub can't sell something a bit more interesting. Readers of this blog will know my fondness of strong beer and might be forgiven for thinking I detest session beer. This really is not true.

It struck me when I read a fellow Cumbrian brewers blog about the difficulties of selling stronger, more "interesting" beer; perhaps the fact that I am vocal about my love of stronger, darker beer suggests I don't like anything else. That simply isn't true, quite the opposite in fact.

Returning to the thoughts of my journey break on the way home, it is better for this particular pub to have two handpulls selling two good session beers than to have one handpull selling a session beer and one handpull serving a slow moving beer that few of the locals would drink. The vast majority of their clientele drink keg, and there is no way of changing that. To be honest, it's a miracle they keep two cask beers on.

From the brewery's point of view it is nearly impossible to make a viable business without the bread and butter of session beer. That's what pays the bills, and would buy the cat food, if I had a cat.

Moreover, there are other good reasons to make session beer, even if there is no financial driver. The biggest one is yeast propagation, a subject I'm still building up knowledge about. I intend to start pitching-on yeast once I feel both my knowledge and brewery infrastructure can guarantee a good outcome. During my investigations into this I have discovered that yeast multiplies cells better and more quickly in low gravity solutions and with a low alcohol level. As soon as yeast is in a high sugar concentration or high alcohol environment it is less likely to replicate and more likely to make more alcohol, or perhaps die.

This results in some of the very best brewers only cropping from their standard session beers. This is not an urban myth, more than one brewer has told me this.

So, as a brewer who gets hot and sweaty when brewing I can now celebrate session beer for two good reasons; It slakes my thirst without getting me too drunk and I can use session beer to propagate excellent healthy young yeast for my stronger beer.

Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to continue to explore how it might be possible for brewers who would like to make more challenging beers to get the fruits of their hard work into an appreciative audience. But then that will be for future blog posts.


Alistair Reece said...

I think session beer gets a bad rap in the beer "geek" world simply because a lot of beer geeks are not drinkers, in the sense that their natural drinking location is their front room rather than the pub.

I wonder if the standard of "session" beer or "boring brown bitter" mythology would improve if more of the RateBeer and BeerAdvocate would get away from the computer and into the pub?

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

I love it when BeerAdvocate posts a review of my beer. The notion that cask X on day Y of batch Z might be different from any other is lost to them. Just relax and have a pint.

Sid Boggle said...

Interesting thoughts there, Dave. Aren't you already putting your challenging beers in the way of receptive drinkers by bottling them?

I suppose if you let the thinking run on a bit, you get to considering the right environment to match the offer to the audience. So your local isn't likely to become a hotbed of craft exploration any time soon, but will the market eventually compel something like that in your area? If Cumbria suddenly decides it wants Sierra Nevada, will the market work to fill the demand?


BeerReviewsAndy said...

I think it's all down to the beer, there are some great session beers out there but most pubs tend to stick to BBB becuase that seems to be what sells and what is available locally.

Like scoop said your light cascade rocks and thats most definatley a session beer I also had a nottle of hole hearted from oakleaf which was packed full of cascade and would have made an excellent session beer despite its really crap label.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Oh, and while I'm still up at 12:38 AM in front of a computer, I thought of something more to say. This is not necessarily a good thing, but my fingers are still open to the notion of pressing little black squares with letters on them. The owner of one of my favorite local breweries recently posed a question that has been haunting and intriguing me lately. He said, "Why put something in a bottle that doesn't benefit from being in a bottle?" Sounds like a blog post in the works.

Unknown said...

Al, there are two sides to the beer geek going to pubs; clearly they should and I know many that do. There is also the fact that it would not take much for a pub to stock the odd bottle of something a little more interesting.

BUL180, that's the point of good session beer, nice enough to just sit back and relax.

Sid, you are right of course, my market is broadly split into two. Cask is doing well and that is still where my volume is. Bottling is still in it's infancy due to us needing way more investment and better distribution logistics.

Andy, my session beers are tasty, guilty as charged.

BUL180, I agree. There are many beers put into bottle that would just be better off left as the cask version, but there is a demand just the same, so if the brewer can sell it, good luck to him.

Alistair Reece said...

"There is also the fact that it would not take much for a pub to stock the odd bottle of something a little more interesting."

That's true, but surely one of the unique selling points of going to the pub is draught beer itself rather than bottled beer?

Having said that, if I were a publican, most of my bottled range would be the weird and wonderful rather than the kind of beers people can get at their local off license to take home.

Eddie86 said...

I think the biggest thing that affects you selling the 'more interesting' beers on draft is distribution. There appears to be a growing number of pubs selling a wide range of casks, and it would be getting your beer to these places that needs doing. For example I use LWC to source different beers - whilst local and Welsh brewers that we mainly sell produce some great ales, occasionally I find myself offering 6 handpumps of 3.7%-4.6% ale. Being able to offer a weissbier/barley wine/hop bomb to mix up the options is a huge benefit to me.

Especially as the pub is developing, I'm finding the customers are 'coming with us' if you'll excuse the marketing speak. So now most of the regulars who just drink Butty Bach are having a pint of something different now and again. Putting Brooklyn on the other day saw it nearly being the only lager sold for the day.

A blog post is needed I think...

Peter O'Connor said...

I completely agree that session beer is a good thing- it's the core of a business and the core of what most people drink. I agree with Andy, in that the problem is they tend to be BBB. At the end of the day, a strong beer has something that a lot of beers can't quite achieve. But that doesn't mean that if a beer isn't strong, it can't be well hopped, flavoured, straw, or ruby- wheaty and almost ghostly, or dark like the night sky.

A session beer needs balance, first quench and can't be too strong. As long as it's balanced, that's fine. Problem is balance does not equal boring. The problem is, many equate the two together.

About time someone brews a funky session, calls it "session", and see if people get the clue! :P

Leigh said...

..and session beer doesn't have to be on the tamer side of flavour, either.

Unknown said...

Al, I think the main USP of a pub is conviviality. It is true that draft beer is also one but many people who go to The Pub drink whisky or wine or indeed Becks, Bud or some other single serve bottled product.

Eddie, you are doing exactly the right thing, one of these days I'll get my beer to you.

Peter, "Session" good idea, I might use that. It's a bit like the Marble "Pint" idea.

Peter and Leigh, balance and flavour, that's what makes a truly great session beer, I agree.

StringersBeer said...

Did Hidden in Wiltshire do their "Pint" first? And "Session" has been done loads of times...

There's only so many words in the language, and only so much space on a pump clip, so I guess there's a finite number of names for beer. I suppose we shouldn't be too precious about them - unless we're going to trademark them - I can't see that working for "Pint" or "Session" tho'