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On Tafelbier and Session Ales – Part 2

Originally asked in part 1 of this double feature: what is American craft brewing without the freedom to break away from tradition?

Of course it is important to remember styles’ origins: where they came from and how they were traditionally brewed. I know several brewers who feel this way, even if what they are brewing does not confine itself to style specifications. Remember porter and its rich history. This history is something Jeff Hancock, DC Brau President, is fully aware of with his English brewing background. Still, looking at the DC Brau portfolio of beers one might be surprised to learn about Jeff’s days brewing English styles in Ann Arbor, MI.

It is always refreshing when breweries admit that their beer bridges a gap between two styles. While DC Brau’s Public Ale straddles the line between pale ale and IPA, their porter bridges the divide between porter and stout. As Hancock said:

The Penn Quarter Porter is brewed for those who truly love porters. Brewed with caramel, chocolate, roast barley, and black malts, Penn Quarter goes down with an assertive burnt character coupled with a big malt backbone. Challenger hops help to balance this 5% ABV English-inspired robust porter.

I’d like to pose a question about DC Brau’s lowest ABV beer yet, Penn Quarter Porter: is this session beer? I’ve heard both sides of this argument, and I really must say that given the strict criteria for a session beer, it’s pretty damn close.

Whether or not Penn Quarter is session ale, the original style came from England where the quibbles of beer writers and good beer fans can be endless. I’m not even going to touch the would-be debates of ale vs. beer (at one point in time the two were not synonymous), porter vs. stout and “the modern American habit of referring to all ‘top-fermented’ beers as ‘ales.” Martyn Cornell examines these debates and quibbles and does a bang-up job of it.

Another beer writer whose quibbles I’ve always admired is Mark Dredge. When I asked him to shed some light on the subject of American session ale as compared to British session ale, he did not hesitate to share his thoughts. While Mark is not one to shy away from a barleywine, he lamented “[w]e have the opposite problem to finding session beers in the US – it’s difficult to find beers over 5% served in most pubs.” When expanding upon session ale, I realized Mark and I share a similar conception, differentiating between session ale and ale that is sessionable:

What I don’t understand is how some Americans think that a session beer can be 6% ABV…For me, a session beer is 3.5%-4.3% ABV. Even 5% is ‘strong’. It’s fine for a beer to be described as ‘sessionable’ but try sitting in a pub for four hours drinking it and then see how you feel at the end. A session beer needs to be something you can drink lots of but there’s a difference in meaning between something being ‘sessionable’ and being a ‘session’ beer. Of course, we don’t call these ‘session beers’ in the UK; they are just beers to us.

Under The Session Beer Project’s definition, ale must meet the following criteria: under 4.5% ABV, flavorful, conducive to multiple pints, conducive to conversation—i.e. conversation won’t stop, and is it reasonably priced?

My main point is simple: I want more local lagers and ales under 4.5%. Sure, this may not be seen as a breakaway from tradition as tradition indicates that pale light lagers under 4.5% ABV are America’s most popular beers. Still, that fact doesn’t mean craft brewers should shy away from pilsner. To purloin a common @funkmasterflex refrain adding a twist of #dcbrews: where da lagers at? As good as Dogfish Head’s My Antonia is, why not lagers with flavor that are under 4.5%? Consider Kolsch: both Mad Fox Brewing Company (@MadFoxBrewing) AND Capitol City Brewing Company (@CapCityBrewers) have great interpretations.

So back to the question at hand: is the Penn Quarter Porter session ale? It is not under 4.5 % ABV. Though it is incredibly flavorful. While it is conducive to multiple pints it is perhaps too robust to not be a conversation stopper (this is actually a compliment to the brewers at DC Brau). And lastly, it is most definitely reasonably priced at what winds up being $2.50 a pint (that’s a $10 fill, without growler purchase).

As Lew says (@lewbryson) of the Session Ale Project’s ABV limit, “it’s like the speed limit; you set it at 45 mph to keep people under 50. The real reason to draw any line on this? To give brewers something to shoot for, and to get people thinking about what they really want from a glass of beer: flavor, alcohol, refreshment. It’s a blend of the three, and I want more options on the blend.”

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