Low-alcohol, full-flavor “session” beers grow popular

Nathan Payne
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City, Mich. – — Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to a swelling segment of the craft brewing market.

Craft brewers have thrown everything into their wort kettles — literally everything from hops and malt to chocolate and smoked pork — during the past 30 years to garner droves of adoring followers. But somewhere along the way they overlooked one huge niche in the market: low-alcohol, full-flavor “session” beers.

“When craft beer started, people didn’t want anything that looked like macro brews,” said Nick Panchamé, head brewer at Right Brain Brewery. ,

Panchamé often spends his days brewing the four beers the small Traverse City brewery distributes in pint cans across Michigan. Two of them qualify for the “session” category. The brewery’s Will Power Pale Ale, which weighs in at 4.2 percent alcohol, was its first beer offered for distribution in cans.

It’s a bit of an about face considering small brewers who, for 20 years, were in a race to produce big beers packed with malt, flavor and therefore alcohol.

Many are quick to note that customers haven’t abandoned the high-octane ales, they’ve simply embraced a lower-alcohol option also.

Craft beer consumers lust after big, bold flavors produced by small breweries in small quantities compared to industry heavyweights like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. Big producers all make flagship light lagers with alcohol content between 3 percent and 5 percent. They contain less alcohol, but also less malt and hops flavor.

That’s why “session” beers — ones with less than 5 percent alcohol that can be consumed in larger quantities in a sitting without debilitating inebriation — have elbowed their way into the craft beer market in recent years. Some of them are so popular they have craft brewing industry leaders tossing around the term “game changer.”

Founders Brewing Company CEO Mike Stevens is one of those who recognized the need for small brewers to develop beers that offer their customers all the flavor they love in lower-gravity forms. Founders spent about three years developing its All Day IPA, a craft brew that contains 4.7 percent alcohol.

“We set out really not to dumb down beer at all,” Stevens said. “This goes back maybe four years, before the session ales category really existed. We never intended to fill a void. By accident we seemed to time it right.”

Founders certainly wasn’t the first craft brewery to produce a “session IPA” — some say the concept for “session” beers dates back to World War I when England instituted only two sessions during the day when pubs could serve booze — but it’s one of the most successful.

The company’s brewmaster, Jeremy Kosmicki, tinkered with the recipe, unveiling several renditions of what eventually became All Day IPA under several different names at the brewery’s tap room. Creating a balanced and flavorful beer with less alcohol is a tricky proposition, Stevens said.

Craft beer pioneers built their customer base by layering mounds of malt on heaps of hops to create bold — albeit often high-alcohol — brews that appealed to hop heads who wanted something more than cans of mass-produced lager. Thousands of small breweries across the U.S. turned out millions of barrels of India pale ale, stout, porter, American pale ale, blonde, saison and bitter beer for a crowd of enthusiasts who didn’t mind the 6-plus percent alcohol that often accompanies those stronger flavors.

Few offered beers that fell into the “session” category and even fewer won the taste buds of craft beer enthusiasts.

“We cut our teeth on high-gravity beers,” Stevens said. “For whatever reason we all kind of overlooked the beauty of a simplistic beer that carries a lot of flavor.”

Founders released All Day IPA to limited markets in 2012. The beer sold so well that within a year it was the brewery’s No. 1 seller, Stevens said.

Tony Hansen, brewmaster for Short’s Brewing in Bellaire, said the northern Michigan brewhouse began experimenting with “session” beers four or five years ago. They were a little unsure whether the new beers would appeal to customers the brewery won through its bigger beers.

“We were brewing these huge monster beers,” Hansen said referring to high-alcohol experimental beers that served as the foundation of the brewery’s lineup. “We just realized big and bold beers aren’t perfect for every occasion. We started brewing these beers for ourselves and we realized there was more of a mass appeal. The biggest surprise for us was that they were popular.”

Short’s produced several varieties of “session” beers in subsequent years and now distributes a low-alcohol IPA, Prolonged Enjoyment, in bottles.

“I think for a lot of people who are moving away from the big macro American lagers (sessions) will be kind of a gateway beer,” Hansen said. “It’s an easy learning curve, too.”