Ed Note: Since our Route 1 adventure was something of a bar crawl by way of Hot Tube Time Machine, this week we dug into our March 2011 Honest Pint archives, when Chris Lohring of the Ipswich-based Notch let us into his North Shore world. It’s worth a revisit.
In a marketplace where alcohol percentages can be higher than the tax rate, the thought of session beer seems out of step. Session, a category of beers with an ABV of 4.5 percent and below, is the land of Notch and its founder Chris Lohring. Where once his project to promote “American session” was brushed off, his company is now bottling beer, invading taplines and promoting their drinkable flavor. We talked to him about what session is.
Tell me about the new Notch.
We have two new brews out, one that I call an “American Session Ale” which is really an American style pale ale but with a freshened strength. The other beer is a “Czech Style Pilsner” and its style of pilsner is naturally lower ABV based on the style, it’s actually called “worker’s beer” and that’s 4%.
I’ve seen you call session beer “worker’s beer.” Can you explain?
Session beer has a long history of being workers beer in some of the great brewing nations. They just happen to have lower alcohol and it was served to the workers to quench their thirst during times that clean water supplies weren’t always the best. In the Czech Republic the workers beer was basically for glass blowers, in Belgium the farm workers were given saison which was typically 3% not the 7% you see today. You go to the home of session beer, to England, the workers there would drink mild, pretty moderate strength. In Germany its called Schankbier and that’s based on the alcohol percentage. In Belgium they are referred to as “table beer.”
In terms of session beer, the British have done it really well.
Some of the reasons why the British beers are so good has to do with the cask conditions. I’m actually coming out with a line of cask only beers this year, they will be one-offs based on one style for one time and it will be all cask.
Is there a secret society of session brewers?
We’re still the lunatic fringe, no question. Session brewers are looked on a little oddly. I’ve been a brewer since 1993 and I took a break from it for a year and when I got back into I told people what I was doing, and the response couldn’t be colder. Nobody understood it but I think people are starting to wrap their heads around it now. There are other brewers, not a lot in New England, that do true session beer, no easy drinking session beer or really low ABV session beer, that’s something different.
For those doing true session beers, you have to look around the country a bit. There are some guys in Philadelphia, Yards Brewing Co, does a really good session beer year round, there’s a guy in Pittsburgh brewing and then you need to go to the West coast and there are a couple guys who always have a session beer in their portfolio but you’ll be hard press to find anyone doing it around here. And none of these guys are doing session brews exclusively, they all do something else, I was the first one to jump in doing only session beer. So I was a fringe in the lunatic fringe.
What is your goal in doing this?
Session beers have a number of styles, several historic styles that naturally have lower alcohol so I’ve built a lot of my inspiration around these styles that have been resisted by all the big brewing countries and has been simply ignored in America for twenty plus years. Maybe we get one once in a while but its never been the main focus. So when I want a brewing style I look to other countries for inspiration. With the session pilsner that I have right now its really inspired by the workers’ beer of the Czech Republic. It’s a beer that has great flavor, really interesting hop character and when I went to the Czech Republic I had an epiphany there, I had no idea that such low alcohol beer could be so flavorful. That was one of the first ones that I’ve brewed and this next beer I’m working on is probably going answer your question a more direct way.
I wanted to have a summer beer that would be refreshing and something that had a bit wheat in it. What I looked to was Belgian beers, farmhouse ales, that were traditionally served to farmer workers and was created with ingredients that were local to that farm. Its not really a style, saison beer, its really a category with a large range of beers under that category. What’s interesting about what I’m going to do with this farmhouse ale is I’m going to be using all local ingredients that are available in the North East to be in this beer. There is a local farm in Massachusetts that will supply me with the grain to put into the beer.
Wow! Not only are you making session beers but you’re also doing local session brews. It’s kind of blowing my mind right now.
That’s the cool thing! In Belgium farmhouse ales were based on what was locally available, they were the workers’ beer. They didn’t call it session beer but it served the same purpose. So I think that’s a really cool thing to call up in making our own, in making the American version, doing it in a way that’s true to the source That’s one of my goals with Notch, to show off styles that are traditional but haven’t been paid attention to. This will be our own take on it, Americanizing it if you will, but I won’t be Americanizing the ABV and I won’t be calling it a 6% session beer because that’s just bullshit.
Is there any sort of personal motivation here? Was it a health thing?
I think it was a combination of things. When I was out of the industry and I was taking a break for a few years I became a consumer. I never been a real fan of really high alcohol beer, I enjoy them, but I would have on maybe once a month. What I like to enjoy I always had at home, because I’m a brewer so I guess its sort of required.
I’m always going out to bars looking for things on pint that would allow me to have a couple pints without getting inebriated and having a tough time getting up the next day.
I think with age, with the ageing craft beer consumer can probably appreciate this having a beer that tastes good but has less alcohol in it so you can enjoy a few. So it wasn’t really about healthy or getting too drunk, it was just the type of beer I liked to consume. For me it was, if I’m going to get back into brewing I need to come back with something different to the consumer that they haven’t been exposed to and session beer gives me the perfect opportunity to do that.
For me it’s not so much the high alcohol content but extreme-type flavors that I’m tired of.
If a beer is fatiguing to me on my tongue the drinkability, for lack of a better word, goes way down. I don’t want to be fatigued by my beer I want to be invited back for another sip, another pint. And that’s what I look for in a beer something I could go back to and drinking beer is all about the moment.
So if I’m drinking beer with my friends in a pub, I want to extend those times not shorten them.
When I was working for another brewery at the end of the day the beers the brewers were going for were the beers on tap with the lowest ABV because they wanted to have a few.
Do you think the worker’s beer or the session beer the first beer? Are the recipes for session beers any older than higher alcohol beer recipes?
I think that both have been around for a long time. The beers back in the 1800s were pretty strong, even by today’s standards, there were some really high alcohol beers out there but there were just as many low alcohol beers. Often what would happen is the higher alcohol beers were produced and there was a lot of leftover sugar that would have been otherwise wasted but were used to make what was called the “last runnings” or “second runnings” of the brew day and were used to make lower alcohol beer, at the time they were called small beers. So I would argue that in the late 1800s, early 1900s there was much more variety then today because today all you see is the higher end and the lower end was completely forgotten.