04 June 2010

Back to black and back again

Session logoSession beer is the subject of this month's, er, Session. It seems to be a bit of a preoccupation among the brighter sort of American beer enthusiast: why is all our good stuff ABV'd up to the hilt? Why can't we have top-notch flavoursome beer that you can stay with for a whole night's drinking and not end up bladdered before bedtime? I can't really speak to that motion, but am very happy that it's not an issue here. In fact, I wish the reverse -- that there were more beers outside the 4-5% ABV range available on the bar in Ireland. In both directions. I suppose I could write about Porterhouse TSB and Smithwicks, representing, respectively, the best and worst of sub-4% Irish beer. But that would bore me. Instead, I'm writing about stout because you can't beat a good stout session. Last night's Dungarvan shindig at the Bull & Castle, featuring sumptuous Black Rock on cask proved that beyond any doubt.

Much as I'd love to have more Irish session stout to write about, I'm looking across the Irish Sea and a couple of British ones that have crossed my path lately.

We kick off with Hopback Entire Stout, a case of which landed with a friend (hi Peter!) recently. It's 4.5% ABV and carries the hallmark of a good session beer: balance. The main flavours are sweet caramel and dry coffee, but not too much of either. The body is quite hefty -- entire, you might say -- but nowhere near filling enough to make you think twice about opening a second bottle. It's just the right level of chewwiness to show the flavours at their best.

Since I rarely have the attention span for the same beer twice in a session, next up was Night Beacon from the Breconshire Brewery, a company I've had an unpleasant encounter with previously. This started off worryingly by pouring almost completely flat. There's a very slight tingle of carbonation, but otherwise it's a pancake -- a dud bottle, perhaps? So the flavour compounds are not in any hurry to create an aroma and it doesn't smell of much as a result, just a hint of dry roast. The flavour is also dry, but in a crisp and minerally sort of way, with a slight background of chocolate and tobacco. The lack of condition leaves it on the thin side, but that adds to its sessionability: not exactly a lightweight at 4.5% ABV but definitely good for more than one if the flatness doesn't put you off. Redemption of a sort, then, for Breconshire. (I should add also that I tried their Golden Valley golden ale too a while back and quite liked it -- another understated plain sessioner).

Low ABV, balance, light fizz: all these elements go in to make beer properly sessionable. Any colour and flavour profile will do. Getting this right without making the beer dull is one of the challenges for the brewer. I reckon the guys at Hopback and Breaconshire have it down, however.

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