Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Revival of Session Beers with Notch Brewing

A renaissance is coming in the world of craft beer. It’s the resurgence of “session” beers. One of this movement's local leaders is Chris Lohring - formerly of Tremont Brewery - now founder of Notch Brewing.

What's a session beer you ask? Essentially, a beer that’s lower in alcohol. Though there’s often debate as to where the ABV (alcohol by volume) cutoff mark is for a session beer, it’s commonly thought to be at or below 4.5%. An ABV of 5.0% is acceptable as "sessionable" by modern-day beer geeks, but traditionalists disagree.

Years ago, drinking a few beers at lunch before returning to work was not frowned upon. Times have changed because, among other things, beer has changed. In Britain, session beers were commonplace due to taxation around on a beer’s alcohol level. Brewers had to develop flavorful and desirable beers that hovered below 4.0% (as a point of reference, Bud Light has an ABV of 4.2%).

What’s common among beer geeks is their love for beers with names that include words like “imperial” and “double”. These beers are higher in alcohol. And it’s not uncommon to find them aged in oak, whiskey, or bourbon barrels. Left behind, though, are session beers.

Beer geeks will never tell you they don’t care for session beers. They’ll advocate for them with honesty. However, they won't rate them as high as double IPA’s, barleywines, and Russian imperial stouts; what are typically referred to as “big” beers.

According to Chris Lohring:
            We’re not sure when high flavor beer became synonymous with astronomical ABV, but to us it doesn’t seem right. Drink a "delicious" beer these days means you're falling off your stool after three... The art of great beer without a debilitating ABV seems all but dead.”

It’s with this mindset that Lohring started Notch Brewing in Massachusetts. Like a few other local brewers without a home, Lohring contracts time from the Ipswich Ale Brewery to brew on their equipment.

recently had a poker game with some friends. Being a fan of appropriate beers for appropriate situations, I brought the Notch Session Pils. We typically have a few beers at poker night, and because I had a 45 minute drive home after, I didn't want to drink anything too high in ABV.

The pilsner was a hit. At first I notice that it's yellow color is foggy, unlike most of its pilsner brethren. Although, some believe classic Czech-style pilsners are not always as clear as their German counterparts. 

A large, white frothy head forms and laces well down the glass. There’s a little malt husk in the aroma with notes of bright hops and yeast.

The taste combines flavors of bread, a little wheat grass, and lemon zest. I can tell it has Pils malt, and Saaz hops. Its malt profile tastes faintly of corn at times, which is undesirable terrain for my liking, but it never quite falls victim to it.

The mouthfeel is a little slick. It drinks smoother rather than crisp, which I didn't expect, but enjoyed. 

Drinkability is high of course because of its ABV. But lets not forget that taste plays an important role into the idea of drinkability. Just because a beer is low in ABV doesn't mean it's tasty enough to warrant a few. The Notch pils satisfies both needs and is worth picking up again for the right occasion. It doesn’t beat my favorite pilsners, which tend to be crisper, but it’s well made and worth the money. In the end, I was left with enough curiosity to try more from Notch.

As you spend one last afternoon around the grill this Labor Day weekend, I encourage you to put down that double IPA and oak-aged imperial stout. Instead, try a situation-appropriate session beer. Of course there are other low-ABV choices beyond Notch. But not many others pull it off while still providing big flavor. Notch is making it happen right in our backyard, and that deserves our attention.

Grade: B

Notch Brewing

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