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Session Beers: Brewing for Flavor and Balance Paperback – October 1, 2017
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About the Author
Jennifer Talley's brewing career began in the state of Utah as brewmaster at Squatters Pub Brewery in Salt Lake City. She honed her skills through a variety of positions at Salt Lake Brewing Company, Redhook Brewery, Russian River Brewing Company, and Auburn Alehouse in Auburn, California. With more than 20 awards from the Great American Beer Festival® and World Beer CupSM, Talley is also a Cicerone Examiner, craft beer industry speaker, technical committee member for the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, and a national and international beer judge. Talley was awarded the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing in 2011. Jennifer resides with her children in Grass Valley, California.
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In fact, the book excludes table beers (because they merely accompany supper) and Scottish Ales (because of their relatively high finishing gravity) from the definition of session beers. This is disconcerting, because the fact that those smaller Scottish Ales are offered almost exclusively as draught products in their native land speaks to their role in session drinking (i.e., socially in a pub) and would seemingly guarantee their inclusion within the session beer category. Would the author argue that cider—immensely popular in the UK and many examples of which are sweet—is not sessionable?
The exclusion of Scottish Ales is hard to justify considering the BJCP and GABF guidelines place Scottish Ale final gravities between 1.006 and 1.014—not exactly “cloying” territory, as stated by the author. In fact, many final gravities for recipes in this book fall on the higher end of this range, with a Yards Brawler clone coming in at 1.012 FG. (Equally bizarre: This book contains index entries for double and triple IPA, but none for Scotland or Scottish Ales.)
Yes, everyone has different taste preferences and alcohol tolerances, so it’s fair to acknowledge that individually we may have a different concept of “sessionable.” But Brewers Publications markets this book as one about “low alcohol” and “mild strength” beers (see the description above), so it really comes as a surprise that so many of the styles discussed are in the 5.0 – 5.6% abv range.
In support of her argument that stronger beers merit inclusion within the session beer category, the author mentions more than once that Germans don't understand that “session beer” is a distinct concept, because to them it's just beer. However, this is the wrong conclusion to have drawn. That Germans don’t distinguish between session beer and beer, or session drinking and drinking, is more an insight into their culture than about beer styles. Annual per capita beer consumption in Germany is 104.7 liters; compare that to 75.8 in the United States, 72 in Belgium, and 67 in Great Britain. So, the Germans are consuming almost 40% more beer per person than Americans; of course they're not going to bat an eye at “sessioning” 5%+ beers.
The author is openly hostile to placing a limit on the amount of alcohol a session beer can have, referring to those discussions as “tiresome.” It may well be a tiresome debate, but at least it provides a semblance of definition and isn’t as lazy as allowing the category to be completely subjective. Including 5.6% abv beers just dilutes the meaning of the “session beer” label.
By loosening the definition, the author made it difficult for herself to write a book that is ostensibly tailored to the history, customs, and unique brewing techniques of session beer. How do you achieve high quality in a session beer? The same way you achieve high quality in all beer. At least, that was my takeaway. Ultimately, the author is left making very broad statements in an effort to make the advice apply to brewing most types of beer: Watch your yeast count; properly mill the grain; ensure temperature control during fermentation; rely on "trial and error" to reach flavor balance in a recipe. I can't count the number of times the author advised that a session beer needs to be balanced and drinkable, without giving actionable advice on how to make it that way or giving advice that should be applied to nearly every beer style. For those of you looking for a tip on brewing double and triple IPAs, however, there’s one on page 77. To her credit, the author does give good advice on ensuring sufficient body and mouthfeel in session beers generally (but not in specific styles). That's the kind of info I was looking for, but it's available in most other brewing books.
The book’s lack of focus results in it becoming scattershot and contradictory. I couldn't help but snicker when the author described Bavarian helles as "slightly sweet, heavy-bodied," (74) and “full-bodied” (76) beer that isn’t sessionable like an American adjunct lager. Compare that description to one in the first chapter, when the author characterized helles as "well-attenuated and finishing dry," "subtle," "conducive to long hours spent in Bavarian beer gardens," and "light enough to drink multiple liters of over a period of time" (33). The author goes on to refer to helles as a session beer multiple times elsewhere in the book (8, 78 and 97). The author's point that adjunct beers are lighter and were better suited for American laborers in the 1800s is still valid, but at this point the book's potential to be a credible source has deteriorated.
Other statements or assertions in the book are equally shaky. Take this one: “There was a time when ‘extreme’ beer was the only thing you could find at your local pub...” (77). When was that? Craft beer, let alone “extreme” craft beer, has never held enough market share to crowd out macro lagers at “local pubs.” And certainly this could not have been the case in the author’s adopted home state of Utah, where 4% abv beers were the limit.
The book’s initial section that surveys various session beer styles is much better, but there’s an excess reliance on the Classic Beer Style series and other sources from the 1990s. Tradition is certainly important in many brewing cultures, but have local examples of session beers really not evolved over the past two to three decades? Likewise, the author cites a 1997 book when making a point about present-day beer sales in Germany (30).
The book does break new ground in its thorough description of Session IPAs. In this way, it picks up where Mitch Steele’s IPA left off in 2012, offering solid and well-supported advice on brewing this style of beer that you may not find elsewhere. Otherwise, if you are seeking specific, practical information about a particular type of session beer, you are much better off consulting the Classic Beer Style series (e.g., Mild Ale) or Ray Daniels' Designing Great Beers. This is unfortunate given that the author’s extensive experience brewing low alcohol beers is used as a selling point of the book.
The recipe section is very true to what many people associate with session beers, and is this book’s saving grace. Most recipes are for beers in the 4-4.5% abv range and represent a variety of beer styles, most of which are clones of excellent commercial examples.
Here's a suggestion for Brewers Publications: Commission a book on table beers and small beers. It would be eminently more useful to a significant portion of Session Beers' intended audience, and it would be a much more faithful execution of the "low alcohol" and "mild strength" concept. Brewers Publications set a high bar for itself with the Classic Beer Style series and more recent titles like Brew Like a Monk, Wild Ales, and Sour Beers. This book just isn't in the same class.
the history, tastes and process of brewing Session beers.
This is a book which appeals to all levels of beer lovers:
brewers, beer drinkers and home brewers. I am in the
beer drinking group and loved it. And there are recipes!