((Drinkability + Sessionability) x You)
You Are What You Drink
A collective moan had been released by the majority of the classroom. Keith Lemcke, one of the directors for Siebel Brewing school, had just begun his presentation on a more philosophical topic when it comes to beer brewing, much akin to The Zen & Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’s stance on quality: The ‘drinkability’ of a beer.
We had all seen the advertisements being pushed for the last several years by AB-InBev – typically involving some white dudes complaining about how beer ‘all tasted the same’, thus resulting in someone breaking the third-wall, interjecting, to let the viewer know, that Bud Light had #SUPERIORDRINKABILITY.
Obviously, when Keith mentioned drinkability in front of a bunch of craft beer drinkers, at a brewing school, you’d be surprised not to get a condescending moan as an appropriate response. Though we would absolutely never admit it at the time, we all knew, deep down in our hearts, that a longing for cheap, mass-produced lagers existed.
After the laughter had subsided, we were a bit shocked (and maybe, a little bit, embarrassed) to learn that drinkability wasn’t just a buzzword used by big breweries as a marketing force, but an actual official term used in the brewing science community to describe beer.
Even after the long discussion in our fateful classroom that very day, drinkability is still a difficult term to nail down. If I were to ask you, dear reader, to describe ‘drinkability’, what would you say? Is it a measure of how many beers one can have in a single setting? How does one beer’s drinkability vary from the next? What makes a beer have drinkability? How do you describe something so loose and amorphous?
Little did I know, at the time, that such a ridiculous, amateurishly thrown together word would cause me such existential duress, waking me with those god damn night sweats. Eek.
Well, let’s see if we can dig a little deeper, and break a few things down.
Urban Dictionary, not to be confused with Merriam-Webster’s, describes drinkability, as such:
“..How suitable a beverage is for consumption;
an adjective evaluating how smooth and easy-to-drink a beverage is.”
I’d buy that, and honestly, I think a lot of us would. My first judge of character on a new beer isn’t so much an analysis on the malt/hop/yeast/water profile, but literally how easy the beer rests and goes down. You can throw any characteristics, be it ridiculous ingredients, hop content, or high alcohol, you want in the beer you’re serving me… But when it comes down to brass tacks, all beer, in my opinion, should strive to have drinkability. Even those that one may deem out of the spectrum, such as funky mix-cultured sours, or barrel-aged pastry stouts, should seek a full dimension of drinkability. A balance must always be made.
If you happen upon many craft beer styles for the first time, obviously, they’re going to shock you. Hell, even your first sip of your parents’ Guinness or Coors was probably quite a distasteful experience. Like all goods things, the taste must be acquired for enjoyment.
Now, dear reader, this where you and I, may be having the same thought process – drinkability is different for each and every single beer! Not to mention, drinkability is totally different between every living person. While a beer may be drinkable, it’s an absolutely ambiguous statement in the first place… Like taste, drinkability is completely subjective.
It wasn’t until our brewing class was released onto the mean streets of Munich, that one could fully understand the meaning of drinkability (beating the word to death). Craft beer, at least the styles known to us lucky North American’s at the time, hadn’t quite reached mainland Europe. We were instead, unbeknownst to us at the time, #blessed with the old world styles of beers who’s recipes hadn’t changed in the past 500 years. While Bud Light and Pabst rained supreme in the US for your everyday average beer consumer, over in Bavaria, Helles lager was king.
Lucky for us, the bar connected to our hostel room sold mainly Augustiner Helles. So after a ‘long day’ of classroom study, we’d schlumped up to the bar slab, requesting a beer (“ein Helles bitte!”) from the bartender, who happened to be from different country each night. A full golden glass stein would be placed in front of our anxious eyes, and we’d be greeted by one of the most profound, simplistic, styles of German lager supremacy. Did I mention it went down easy? Too easy. British beers may differentiate from German styles by a long shot, but their foundations in drinkability are absolutely similar.
Thinking back on those past drinking moments, brings me drinkability #nostalgia.
Does a realm exist where we can set a standard for drinkability? Style guidelines give a somewhat generic answer, but it’s not at all definitive or reliable… New beer styles emerge daily, so drinkability easily comes into question there. At this point, it’s difficult to honestly say.
My answer? If you’re able to finish your beer without a complaint, I’d say it has decent drinkability…
So what if you’re finished lamenting on your first drinkable beer, and you’re game for another round? An alarm sounds in your brain – “This doesn’t seem like drinkability anymore!” exclaiming to the empty bar. Well, now we’re switching gears, into a similar, yet parallel territory. A problem arises with drinkability when you get into to the quantitative spectrum of consumption – it has tendencies to be limiting.
Here, my friends, is where we step in the realm of sessionability.
Again, our good pals over at Urban Dictionary, help us out with a definition for sessionability:
“The characteristic of an alcoholic drink (usually a pint of beer) which is suitable for a lengthy drinking session. Usually referring to beer with an ABV between 3.5 and 4%. Used when a non-pejorative word is required for a weak beer.”
For myself, a beer that is sessionable, or has sessionability, is one that automatically beckons for another, after I’ve finished the first. Even further props are necessary if I have more than three. While I’ll agree session beers are typically in the lower alcohol range, I tend to stray from restricting them too much inside of typecast box. These are beers you can go all night drinking, and not end up embarrassing yourself by puking in a bush at the end of a long evening. We’ve all been there.
The first order of business is establishing that drinkability =/= sessionability. Think back to your elementary school geometry class – while a square is always a rectangle, a rectangle does not necessary mean it’s always a square. The same applies to our frothy friend; while a beer may be extremely drinkable, that doesn’t mean it’s sessionable.
Maybe things are getting a little rambunctious, and my friends & I are getting down on a 12.5% barleywine. While it may exhibit those smooth, lustrous, drinkable characteristics too it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to have another one (Ha, lies). Barleywine’s cloying sweet body will catch up with you eventually, if not the alcohol content first. As much as I love candy, I can’t inhale Reese’s peanut cups like I could after a solid night’s run on Halloween as a kid – too much of a good thing.
Germany & Britain are, once again, the rulers of this kingdom. Hell, there’s a bet to be made that the word, ‘session’, stems from long drinking nights at your local British pub. A few months after returning from Europe, a major reflection on the whole trip, seemed to be placed on a shift in my mental perspective: Essential styles we consumed so readily available during our few months there, started knocking at the back of mind, calling out to be brewed or consumed. While the American craft beer scene was slowly coming into its own at the time, relentlessly pushing those boundaries on alcohol and hop bitterness, I found myself lusting for those sessionable, drinkable styles like Helles, Mild, Hefeweizen, etc. They were so incredibly easy to drink, and so seemingly simple in their nature, that the nuances of their production process would reflect this complexity with every sip. Try brewing a Bavarian Hefeweizen to it’s exact style, hitting those bubblegum notes, slight acidity, and #haze, and you’ll learn exactly what I mean.
Funny enough, we found ourselves grumbling over these same styles, the closer our plane departure came… Growing tired of the same ‘simpler’ examples available for us, we all missed that good ol’ American hop bite. Little did I know, as much as I tried to push the thoughts of a sessionable, drinkable style away, trying to drown them away with more and more hoppy goodness, the harder they seemed to push back.
While sessionability and drinkability may not equal each other exclusively, they most certainly overlap – go ahead and imagine a Venn diagram here. Probably will catch some flak for this, but some might argue that all beers that are sessionable, have to be drinkable. Which, in this case, you’re looking at sessionability equaling drinkability to the nth degree. I consider myself split on this opinion. Definitely, for beers to be sessionable, they have to be drinkable… But for myself, a lot of beers have varying degrees of drinkability, thus affecting their sessionability; in the similar fashion to what was mentioned prior with barleywine. I game with drinking Hamm’s all day long (ya god damn right), but let’s be real, it’s not exactly the most inspiring beer (*ducks*) – it’s brewed to BE sessionable.
Of course, with any beer, you’ll reach a plateau where drinkability and sessionability have reached their peak limits. At that point, though, you’re probably just fried, and don’t give a hoot what you’re drinking.
The most potent beer is the one that has both the high level attributes of delectable sessionability and quenching drinkability. To have achieved both, you have transcended from being a mere mortal (jokezzz). To be honest, this is what separates the good brewers, from the pure evil. As Uncle Ben will always remind us: with great power, comes great responsibility. And in the case of beer, this is no different.
At Pravda, one of my favorite examples of this sessionable/drinkable combo, was our Belgian-style Tripel, Syla… Which literally translates to ‘power’, in Ukrainian. Clocking in at 8.5%, this beer was straight up dangerous. While the higher alcohol content might initially scare you away from having more than one, the minute the beer hit your lips, you knew you were in for the ride. Syla drank like a light adjunct lager, and oh, could you drink a lot of it. Syla captivated all audiences, drawing you in, especially with an effervescent fruity ester profile, from a step-fermentation method, and a balanced body. The secret was in the residual sugar content and carbonation profile of the beer – just enough residual sugar left over to dry the beer out (thanks to a healthy 15% sugar addition), but not too much to exhaust your palate, while the carbonation was hitting those bubbly champagne notes that ring you in for more. I saw many a friend and foe fall (literally) to the wild power of this beer, myself included.
Back at the Craft Brewer’s Conference this past April/May in Nashville, a bunch of us had stumbled upon a mecca brewery for hazy IPAs, including the double, fruited, and milkshake varieties. It’d been a minute since I’d filled up on those currently #trendibois, so the excitement to consume was palpable. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, I had only drank two in total – and they were on the lower extreme of the selection provided. There was nothing inherently wrong with these beers, if anything, they were done extremely well… While they were delicious to drink, the amount of hop power usage became too much, and you were left with half a pint, full stomach, and a luring awakening for something a little more simplistic.
During these fine moments, my past and present had coagulated into some bright and meaningful convictions, and I was finally starting to see through the once seemingly foggy window. Realizing then, at
BREWERY REDACTED, my absolute dream was to achieve the same balance in drinkability & sessionability, but this time, reigning in my power a little bit more. A pinpointed focus on lower alcohol styles, while delivering a sessionable complexity (throwing words together is fun) from completely unique offerings. Literally nothing I’m come up with on our menu is over 5.0% ABV. Two dedicated serving tanks will be solely for lager & hoppy-forward beers, with a push on a speciality variety of funk, saisons, kveiks, and spontaneous offerings. Call it a combination of what I’ve always wanted to brew full time, with a hot weather twist. It’ll be a fun challenge for myself. (Note: As this post is fairly long already, at some point there will be a PART II where I dive a bit deeper into my thought process for our offerings – including more existential crisis’!)
The one thing learned from the past several years of being with the industry, hell, even those days of homebrewing, is that the drinking state always trends back towards sessionable beers. Back in the early 10’s, like I mentioned earlier, when the rage was huge in alcohol and bitterness, everything downgraded back towards session, and now with the #hazecraze or dessert beers, everything is steering in that direction once again; A constant oscillation.
Call it palette fatigue, or whatever you want, but at the end of the day, we can’t eat candy constantly. We crave an easy drinking beer. These styles are engrained into our blood and mentality, and there’s no running from it. Luckily, each time, the twist is a little different.