In Praise of Session Beers

Down here in the South Pacific, we have just changed our clocks for daylight saving.

Longer, sunnier evenings are on the way, perhaps with a barbecue, and every change of season is a good excuse to explore new beers.

This winter has seen many high-hopped, high alcohol monsters set loose from New Zealand’s craft brewers, largely in New World Imperial IPA stylings. They have been excellent examples of the current range of hops available from New Zealand, but with ABVs up around 7% plus, they are made to be appreciated slowly rather than to slake a thirst.

Alcohol carries flavour, and these high-alc IIPAs have plenty of that, especially leading with the New World hops I love. But somewhere in the back of my mind I have a sneaky suspicion that dialling up the alcohol is the easy way to present flavour in your beer.

Look at restaurant cooking. It tastes better than your cooking at home, and that’s partly because chefs use more salt and butter than you do. Salt enhances flavour and fat carries it, and produces a good mouthfeel, but if you ate like that everyday you’d be fat, tired and broke. It takes extra skill to produce food that is flavourful and healthy.

It’s the same with beer. Higher alcohol content makes the flavours stand out, but producing a flavourful and balanced beer with less alcohol takes more skill.

Britain’s mild and bitter ales have been the definitive session beers for generations, and our New Zealand Draught brown lagers are their modern descendant. Emerson’s Bookbinder is probably the benchmark session ale from our craft brewers, but it isn’t a crowded market. Sunshine Breweries Gisborne Gold was developed at 4% 21 years ago – when most of its contemporary lagers were at 5% – specifically so that consumers could enjoy more of it. And that’s no bad thing – there are certainly occasions when the company and the craic are more important than the beer, and an overly assertive beer is out of place.

So what am I looking for in a session beer? It should have that flavour and balance, it should have no more than 4% alcohol so I can enjoy a few over a long evening, and it should be relatively cheap, so I can afford a few over a long evening.

I suspect this is one of those “pick any two options” situations and my wish list is contradictory. I know alcohol carries flavour, but I don’t know if it carries all flavours equally. Brewing experts, help me out here – is it possible for a beer to be both hoppy and relatively low in alcohol?

My ideal session beer would probably be a Bitter at 4% or so, and emphasising New Zealand hops. If you know of one like that, tell me about it.

And what about you – what do you look for in a session beer? And are there any you recommend for a long, sunny evening?


PS #1 – Don’t forget to enter your session beers (and any others) in the SOBA 2010 National Homebrew Competition. Perhaps you’ve already invented my ideal session beer and just need to win some glory before taking your recipe to the world. Good luck to all entrants. Here’s the link.

PS #2 – Wow beer of the week – Golden Rye Ale from Kaimai Brewing Company. Tried it off the tap at the Malthouse yesterday, out of curiosity over the rye. At first I thought it wasn’t my glass of beer, as it is sweeter and less hoppy than my usual choices. But there’s something very pleasing in the balance in this one, the fruity hops balance the toffee malt and rye, and it has a good mouthfeel. I went back for more and will enjoy it again. Try if you find it.

Follow us on Twitter @nzbeerblog
©Martin Craig. Reproduction with permission only.

11 Responses to “In Praise of Session Beers”

  1. I haven’t tried it but Yeastie Boys have released Punkadiddle at 3.7% based on a red English Ale so I,m sure thats worth a go. Hallertau Copper Tart (No.3) is 4.2%, and Luxe (No.1) at 4.5%. Mike’s Ale at 4% & Green Man also have a Best Bitter at 4.5% & a Dark Mild at 3.5% for those of the organic persusion. Fot those who love a swish label there is Renaissance APA @ 4.5 or Paradox Blonde at 4%. Good Bastards Dark, Original and Lager at 4%, Townshend Cathcarts and No.9 at 4%. So theres about a dozen options from the craft NZ scene and I,m sure some are more expensive, some are better than others but theres a bit of choice in there, just not as much as when you get into the 5-6% abv area.


  2. Yes the Punkadiddle seems to disappear everytime I get to an outlet that stocked it, so I haven’t had more than a taster yet. The Paradox Blonde is a favourite of mine – I was a convert to Blonde/Golden/Summer Ales last year through 3 Boys and look forward to seeing waht this summer has to offer.

    Thanks for the tips – which is your favourite?


  3. I,m not much of a routine junky so I drink what I feel like at the time but Hallertau Copper Tart always seems to go down well. Green Man Best Bitter is really good when its good but unfortunatly the last couple of times I’ve tried their beers I haven’t been impressed. Good breweries have been lost due to inconsistency and I hope they don’t suffer the same fate.


  4. The “pick three” option is, to my mind, Hallertau ‘Minimus’. We had some last year, and I want it back. I harrass Steve Plowman about it literally every time I see him, and heartily encourage others to do the same. Not that I’ve fallen out of love with Bookbinder, of course, but it was nice to have a lighter golden sessionable ale around as well.


  5. Hallertau Minimus would probibly be up your ally. I have a 3.3% new world bitter recipe thats along those lines to.


  6. Ahh yes – I’d forgotten about Hallertau Minimus. Perhaps my memory needs refreshing…


  7. I’ve already had quite a bit of Punkadiddle and, depending on availability, I can see myself drinking a lot of this over summer. once again, if available…………on FYO (hint……hint……hint…….*coughyeastiescough*…………hint………*coughkierancough*…………hint hint)

    OR I’ll just take that recipe Kieran


  8. Ryan – if you can convince Regionals to buy a whole batch, we’ll make it again with an NZ hop instead of East Kent Golding.


  9. After writing this, I remembered Roosters Summer Ale. It’s hoppy, it has a reasonably low alcohol content, and its cheap as chips when you get it off the tap at Regional. All up, it is one of the best Beers I have had for the price.

    When is it coming back Keiran? The beer, I mean, not summer…


  10. I will find out. Cue the complaints from the Roosters Dark fans when it swaps over.


Leave a Reply

Copyright ©     Powered by WordPress MU    Designed by WPDesigner    Hosted by