Members of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club who have attended even one meeting have heard me rant about balance and subtlety in beer. While I like big beers and appreciate the complexities of high alcohol, barrel-aged, über-hopped, snifter-sippers, my real preference is for simpler, smaller brews. With this in mind, the club met Saturday night at the home of member Vickie Parks to explore session beers. A session beer is the essence of balance and moderation. Low alcohol allows you to down a few and still retain reasonable possession of your faculties. The best ones are both flavorful and light enough to make you want more. Session beers are beers for socializing and conversation. For the purposes of this event defined session beer as having no more than 6% alcohol by volume. It would have been nice to stay below five percent, but in this time of “bigger is better” those beers can be a bit hard to find. We persevered, however, and sampled our way through eight flavorful beers ranging from 3.3% to 6% ABV.
We began the evening with Samurai from Breckenridge Brewing Company in Denver. Like an ale version of an American or Japanese rice lager, Samurai is light, crisp, and refreshing. Lightly sweet and grainy malt is balanced by moderately bitter spicy licorice hops that set off a nice apple and citrus fruitiness. A great lawnmower beer for the lingering summer. Samurai was followed by Anchor Small Beer. For this beer Anchor Brewing, the folks that make Anchor Steam, have revived an old English brewing practice of getting two beers from one barley mash. The rich, sweet first runnings become their Old Foghorn Barleywine, while the more dilute second runnings become Small Beer. At 3.3% this was the lowest alcohol beer we tasted. But low alcohol doesn’t have to mean no flavor. Small beer has a sweet caramel malt profile with hints of toast that serve as a base for an assertive bitterness. Pleasantly grassy hop flavor and light fruitiness round it out. The big taste in this small beer led one person to ponder why all the supermarket 3.2% beers aren’t as flavorful.
Next up was Trout Slayer from Montana’s Big Sky Brewing. This beer was the surprise hit of the night. Big Sky calls this beer a “wheat pale ale” and the description is apt. This is a very well balanced 4.7% beer with moderate bitterness, bright citrus hops, and a beautiful bread and biscuit malt. Neither malt nor hops dominate as the beer heads to a clean, dry finish. This one’s a keeper. A fruit beer was next. Samuel Smith’s Organic Cherry Ale to be exact. Next to the Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart from New Glarus, the Samuel Smith fruit beers are the best tasting fruit beers I have had in a while. These blended wheat-based ales are brewed in collaboration with Melbourn Bros., the last sour beer brewery in England. They are lightly tart, deliciously refreshing, and enormously fruity. While the strawberry and raspberry versions are great, the cherry gives the most fruit bang for the buck. I would drink this beer all night and at 5.1% ABV I could.
It’s time for Oktoberfest, so we celebrated the season with Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen. Traditionally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Bavaria, Märzen style beers were stored cold over the summer to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Lighter in body than some examples and with a crisp, clean lager character, the Ayinger Märzen still has a rich caramel/melanoidin malt profile. Malt is the star, but it is supported by moderate bitterness and spicy German hop character. The other German style session beer that we tasted was Headless Man Amber Alt from Tyranena Brewing Company in Wisconsin. Brewed in the style of a Düsseldorf Altbier, it has a caramel and toast malt profile with assertive bitterness and spicy German hops. This was everyone’s least favorite beer of the night. I found it to be a bit out of balance with thin malt and overdone bitterness that was somewhat astringent in the finish.
The favorite beer of the night was Moose Drool Brown Ale, our second beer from Big Sky Brewing. Moose Drool displays a rich toasty and cocoa malt profile that I described as toasted Tootsie Rolls. The balance leans toward the malt, but spicy/resinous hops play a significant supporting role and assertive bitterness from both the hops and the light roasted malt keep it in check. It had been a couple of years since I had tasted this one. I don’t think I will wait so long to try it again. The last beer of the night was also the biggest. At 6% ABV, the silky smooth Black H2O Oatmeal Stout from the Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis seemed almost decadent compared to the evening’s other selections. While some thought it was lacking in body and oat character, I found it to be quite satisfactory. Smooth and a bit sweet with pronounced coffee and cocoa roasted flavors, Black H2O was a satisfying capper.
At the end of the night, after tasting eight great beers and consuming the leftovers, we each headed our separate ways still sober. That is the real beauty of session beers.