Low ABV Sours, Session Beers, and Acidity Scales

I'd like to point out two "subjective qualities" that make up the defining characteristics of a session beer according to The Session Beer Project. Obviously these are not technical definitions and they're not set in stone but when I read them I realized I wasn't alone on a particular way of thinking about session beers:
2. Flavor in balance. A session beer can't be insanely hopped, syrupy with residual sugar, or funkier than hell. The whole idea of a session beer is that you can drink them smoothly glass after glass without anything cramping your palate. Plenty of flavor is fine, but nothing overpowering.

3. The beer doesn't overpower the conversation. Session beers shouldn't make you interrupt the conversation and start geeking about how marvelous the beer is. Session beer is more about backup than topic, it's something you drink while you're talking, not something to talk about. Er...this blog is an obvious exception.

The reason these stood out to me was because over the past year or so I've wondered whether or not people consider very sour beers, that also have very low ABVs, to be session beers. For the sake of argument, let's take The Session Beer Project's guideline that a session beer must be below 4.5%. Calling it an "American Session" beer is the way this traditionally high ABV of 4.5% is currently justified as a session beer. Now let's look at a sub-4.5% locally made sour beer.

Trinity Brewing's Jason Yester let me know in an email that they are bringing the ABV of their Old Growth (Flemish Inspired Wild Brown) down to 4.4%. Under the general ABV definitions above, Old Growth would be a session beer. But anyone who has drank that beer knows that it is one of the most sour beers available. I mean there is a ton of flavor and sourness packed into them little bits of ABV, the beer tastes gigantic, it is truly an amazing and delicious beer by all accounts. However, that doesn't mean that I would drink more than one bottle of it in one sitting. And that one bottle would take me some time to get through because it's a beer to contemplate as you drink. Perhaps some folks would down one after another but I would eventually become overwhelmed by it's acidity if I were quaffing a beer like this. This doesn't remove any value whatsoever from the beer itself, it's still a great beer.

So, can a beer so sour be a session beer? I hesitate to say so, at least for me, even though I wouldn't get wasted in drinking it, my thoughts and conversation would be on the beer, and there's no way I could drink more than a bottle at once. My mouth dries up, my stomach starts to feel strange. I have about a 12oz limit on beers with large amounts of acidity. Doesn't mean anything about the beer, the low ABV sour and the session beer are just two different, wonderful, things.

How about Crabtree Brewing's Berliner Weisse? This beer sits at 4.3%, is way less tart than Old Growth, and has a simpler profile too. This is where a look at the historical background of a session beer comes into play. Traditionally the terms not only refer to low ABV beers, but beers that are meant to be drank back-to-back over a long period of time while hanging out with folks at a pub, without getting wasted. Even in such a case, I hesitate to say that I could handle a beer with even a lighter tartness, even if the taste is simpler, if I were to drink it back to back to back. But I know this isn't true for Scott, who writes for this blog, he could drink sour beers all day no problem.

So how subjective is the notion of a session beer? DING is a die-hard sub-4% advocate, The Session Beer Project says in the US our threshold is a bit higher. I say I can't drink too many beers with acidity to them, but my friends drink these kinds of beers all day long without blinking.

It's fun for me to think about these things, and since I really enjoy my low ABV, easy drinking beers, I thought I'd toss around some things I've been thinking about. Hope you don't mind!

As a side note:
Has anyone considered creating a rating scale on acidity in a beer? A scale that can be used by the general public the way that IBUs are used to give someone a basic idea of a perceived bitterness from hops. I wouldn't mind a perceived sour scale. Do I think it's necessary? No. But it could be fun for us geeks. It could create new avenues of playfulness for brewers. Remember when Mikkeller made a beer that had 1000 IBUs even though there's no way we could ever perceive that amount of bitterness.
***Update - I'm referring to a scale that customers can easily access. Although this might dumb down the science behind butyric acid, lacto, or the perception of tartness from Brett in a way that is less interesting, too.

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BeerEric Steen