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On Tafelbier and Session Ales – Part 1

Tafelbier is a Dutch word for “table beer.” It is a Belgian beverage traditionally brewed somewhere between 1 and 2% alcohol by volume. When looking at Belgium for a cross-cultural link, tafelbier appears closest to the American idea of session ale. Still, there are many important differences and distinctions between the two cultures. The English also have a unique perspective on session ale, which I’ll touch on more in part two of this piece.

A beer recently released and catching attention is the Flying Dog, Brewer’s Art collaboration, Table for Two, a “Belgian-style table beer.” Belgian-style of course being the operative phrase (to avoid semantic and BJCP style debates).

Matt Brophy, Flying Dog Head Brewer, had this to say:

“Table for Two is a beer crafted for those who enjoy the complexities of Belgian ales but don’t always want a ‘big’ beer. The combination of ingredients, including rye malt, Styrian Golding hops, local wildflower honey and a true Belgian yeast strain, create a wonderful balance of spice, honey and fruit aromatics followed by clean bread and biscuit malt tones finishing dry and refreshing.”

The debate over what craft beer drinkers really want from their libation is not a new one. Is it flavor, alcohol, refreshment? All of these are perfectly acceptable answers. One beautiful thing about American craft brewing is that the “best beer” is completely subjective. The best beer for flavor, the best beer for alcohol, and the best beer for refreshment can be and often are three very different beers.

While tafelbier is traditionally between 1 and 2% alcohol by volume, I have a hard time believing that a 2% beer could find shelf space in the American marketplace. Belgium is different than the domestic marketplace but only this style of beer could be suggested by a Flemish beer club to be a healthier and favorable alternative for Belgian school children, compared to syrupy juices and sugary sodas. And while that wasn’t exactly what the Maryland collaboration was about, what is American craft brewing without its freedom to break away from tradition?

Even if we narrow our wide-lens discussion to beers being produced in the DMV, the scope of the conversation could be massive.

So, I turn to a beer writer who has provided guidelines for this kind of conversation. For all of you out there in #dcbrews land that don’t know Lew Bryson (@lewbryson), he founded the Session Beer Project. Say what you will about the project but the dialogues Lew has helped initiate create robust conversation in many beer circles. As Lew says, “a line has to be drawn somewhere; I drew it at 4.5%, and I don’t really quibble with anything under 4.9%. But if I’d drawn it at 5.0%, the same people would be bugging me about 5.2% beers being ‘really session beers, aren’t they?”

I fundamentally believe in what Lew is doing, opening dialogues within the beer community and giving brewers a number to shoot for. Still I find most DMV drinkers think that “session ale” is a relative term. Several beer writers have already called the Flying Dog and Brewer’s Art collaboration “sessionable” which I agree with. And of course more beers, which will be described as “sessionable,” are coming.

But perhaps there needs to be a further definition drawn between session ale and a beer that you find sessionable. A beer that you find sessionable could be any beer, really, in the way that the “best beer” is completely subjective. Session ale is a beer that clocks in at 4.5% ABV or lower. Could it all be so simple?

No. For Lew, session ale must meet additional criteria (by Bryson’s rules: is it under 4.5% ABV, is it flavorful, is it conducive to multiple pints, conducive to conversation—meaning it won’t stop conversation, and is it reasonably priced?), and I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

This concludes part 1 in our series on table beer and session ale. Part 2 will discuss English ale and DC Brau amongst other things.

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