Monday, March 28, 2011

Slicing and Dicing beer by ABV, by Local, by Session, and by Style

Here's a little something to stimulate your brain cells at the beginning of the work week.

There's been quite a bit of chatter these last few years around the word "session" — the length of drinking time that constitutes a session — the appropriate maximum amount of alcohol in a session beer — and simply whether we like the term session.

Some of this conversation has certainly been instigated by the worthwhile work that Lew Bryson has undertaken to help bring attention to what he perceived/perceives to be an under-served, under-respected, and under-appreciated segment of the craft beer market. He calls it the The Session Beer Project

Jack Curtin stoked the conversation again recently when he brought light to some comments made by Weyerbacher owner Dan Weirback.

I'll be focusing a longer article on this topic in the near term.

Until then, I decided to run some numbers — no, not those kind of numbers. Some beer numbers. As you likely know, I'm a numbers guy. So when faced with this question of whether session beers are adequately available, I took to the better beer bars and brewpubs in my local area for some evidence.

While gathering the data, other topics du jour came to mind. Like...
~ Does my local area supply a breadth of styles?
~ What is the spread of ABV percentages?
~ Are session beers monolithic?
~ Are locals being served fairly?
~ Are ABV percentages readily listed for customers at the bar?

The effort of data gathering was limited solely to electronic beer menus. (Hey, what a novel idea! I recall proposing that concept 6 years ago when there were virtually none and being told by several folks that there really wasn't a market for up-to-date, or even live, tap lists. Just ahead of my time, I suppose, right?)

Bars included in this "study" are Capone's, P.J. Whelihan's, Station Taproom, TJ's, Teresa's Next Door, The Drafting Room, and Ron's Original. Brewpubs included are Sly Fox and Victory. Okay, oops, I slipped. P.J.'s was provided to me on a printed menu. The others were either provided via email updates (e.g. Capone's), Facebook (e.g. Station Taproom), or website (the remainder).

Would love to have included The Flying Pig, Iron Hill, and McKenzie's, but I'm not aware that they have an online resource for current draft lists, ahem!

The lists are not all from the same day, but that was not important. The lists were all from within less than two weeks of each other in March 2011.

Let's see what we found.

9 establishments were polled. 183 beers were on tap. I did not distinguish between traditional CO2, cask/handpump, and nitro.

Some more interesting pre-game analysis. Only 6 taps were what might be considered macro-ish: one draft line each of Amstel Light; Coors Light; Guinness Stout; Miller Lite; Peroni, Yuengling Lager. There's a dry cider in the mix here too; I probably should have removed it. But, I didn't, so moving along...

I)  53 "styles" were counted across these 183 beers. The most popular with 24 taps, not too surprising, was American IPA, where three American IPA taps belonged to Bear Republic's Racer 5 and two taps each for Victory HopDevil and Ithaca's Flower Power. In a distant second was the American Pale Ale style with 10 taps. See style table for the wide range of styles. (click to enlarge)

II)  I broke the ABVs down into 6 buckets. This could be the most debatable, but here follows my logic. Almost no one will argue that Under 4.5% is considered a session beer. Folks seem to be generally split on the next range, so I isolated 4.5% to 5.5% as its own category. Personally, I have no problem with a session beer in the 5-ish range. I could even push my session beer threshold to 6% given my body composition, my drinking pace, and my drinking "experience". Therefore, 5.5%-6.5% gets its own designation, particularly also because it's the subject of Dan Weirback's criticized comments. From 6.5%-8.5%, we begin to get into almost everyone's definition of a stronger beer, but not at knock-out levels. No one should deny 8.5%-10% definitely is comprised of some strong beers. And, lastly, everything Over 10%, just because 10% as a double digit number somehow holds some magical significance.

53 beers out of 178 under 5.5% ABV, eh? Nearly 30% of available draft beer. Not too shabby for anyone looking for a relatively lower alcohol beer at one of these 9 spots. Although, there's an interesting drop in the 5.5%-6.5% range which could explain the spot that Weirback is looking to land a session beer in.

See the accompanying bar chart for a frequency illustration of the 178 beers in this study — 5 did not have a readily-published ABV% that I could track down. (click to enlarge)

III)  Opponents of session beer might perceive it as limited in diverse flavors and aromas. So next, I checked on what types/styles of session beers are being served at these 9 places. Does diversity exist within session beers under 5.5%? Or are they not very "exciting"? The answer seems quite apparent from the following table.

IV)  Are the locals being served? I don't know what the optimal percentage should be, but here in the western 'burbs of Philadelphia, a full 36% of the 183 draft lines in mid-March at these 9 establishments were dedicated to locals. That doesn't sound so bad.

I know, I know, I hear you. The next question is obviously: "Are not the brewpubs (100% local) tainting these ratios?" A bit, I'm sure. So, let's remove them and see what we get.

Without brewpubs included, the percentage of the 183 draft lines that locals occupied drops to 21% of the total. If you want to make a case for local beers, this might be a number that you focus on. Especially considering that Flying Fish, Sly Fox, and Stoudt's each only had 1 tap out of 183; and Philadelphia Brewing had none. Though, truthfully, the 1 in 5 stat is no where near as bad as things could be.

The local brewery with the most tap lines tied up with their product (outside, of course, of the 2 brewpubs in this analysis)? Victory with 7, Dogfish Head and Manayunk with 3 each.

From outside of the region (discounting that TJ's had some Allagash remnants and Teresa's Next Door had a recent Stone event), Founders was well-represented with 5 draft lines; Great Lakes and Sierra Nevada each had 4.

Click the pie chart below on the left to see where brewpubs are included. And, click the pie chart on the right where brewpubs are not included.

V)  On the topic of published ABV% levels, 8 of the 9 establishments prominently display the ABV% of each available beer either on the chalkboard or on the printed menus available at the bar or tables.

If you wonder what the big deal is here, take this as an example. The night prior to a long run a few weeks back, I found myself eating at TJ's. I only wanted one beer. A low-alcohol beer at that. A quick scan of the digital chalkboard (A+ for information) and I quickly found the 4.0% beer that I wanted to get through dinner.

With the ever-expanding diversity of beers available in the market and growing base of new customers, listing alcohol levels for customers to make the right choice is more important than ever.

So where does all of this lead us? I'd love to hear from as many of you as possible. Let's not contain all of the conversation to Jack's site, right? (just kidding, of course, my friend)

After seeing these numbers around the topic of ABV distribution and whatever it is that we wish to call a session beer (sneak peek at my article: "I (and you and you and you) can define my own 'session', thank you very much"), I'm fairly satisfied that I can find varying strengths of beer in almost any category I like here in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.

Now, I realize that I may be a bit privileged in that regard. So chime in and let me know how you feel in your town/region/state about having access to a breadth of beer styles and beer strengths.


Greg said...

Wow, nice breakdown Bryan.

I love it when someone takes a look at hard numbers to draw conclusions, so that we're arguing with some idea of what the real situation is.

I guess the only thing I'd say is that, if you're a zealot of the 4.5% line, then there really isn't much there for you, relatively speaking. There are more 10%+ beers than 4.5%- beers. But still, there are options for those who want them.

I agree that one in five seems low for an area as beer-rich as Philadelphia. On the other hand, it does seem like every pub had at least one or two locals, which might be the more realistic stat. I'm not sure I'd want to give up a tap of Founders or Bell's for one more Victory or Dogfish tap, myself.

Great post!

Mark said...

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Mark said...

Hi Bryan;

Great article and analysis of the data. The only thing that I might argue with you on, is when you took out the brewpubs from the local lines equation, it sounds like you still did the analysis over the 183 total draft lines - wouldn't you have to deduct the brewpub's draft lines to come up with the right denominator to calculate the percentage? I know Victory has 20+ lines which would reduce your total lines to under 163. I am not positive how many Sly Fox has but I would think it is probably at least 10, which would further reduce your total lines to base the percentage on. Or am I reading hte numbers incorrectly?

All in all, a great analysis and I look forward to your article. I too agree that what is one man's session beer may be different from another's.


Bryan Kolesar said...

I'm pretty sure that I adjusted accordingly. When I looked at the underlying data, the total beers in the "non-brewpub" dataset and pie chart was reduced by 35 from 183 to 148 (21 at Victory, 14 at Sly Fox).

Thanks all for the comments; it's a debate that's sure to continue.


Lew Bryson said...

As I've said at Uncle Jack's blog...if there were a better name for "session beer," I'd use it. What I'm looking for are beers that are under 4.5%, preferably under 4%, that taste good. I'd like to see more of those beers available.

I don't really see a dearth of 5%ish beers, which your numbers back up -- though it does seem odd that the bulge is at 7.3%, doesn't it? -- while the 4.5% stuff is the smallest of numbers. I'd argue that even that is misleading, since we actually do pretty well in SEPA on the 4.5 and under selection, better than most other places.

So what? can call your "session" whatever you want: an hour with Uncle Jack, two beers after a run, four hours watching a game. You can call Weyerbacher Tiny your session beer if you want, Bryan: I can't stop you.

Don't want to, either. I just want to have more good 4.5% beers available to choose from. All I ever wanted. From the number of those popping up in the last year or so? I think it's working. Is that a problem?

Bryan Kolesar said...

Damn, that's twice now in the past week that I've been lumped in with Uncle Jack in the same sentence. First by a beer geek at the General Sutter who assumed that Jack and I only travel within the confines of the western Philly Suburbs and now you....

But, seriously...a problem? No way! I've always agreed with you about the need for diversity, including that of lower alcohol beers.

If I'm expressing any angst, it should probably be with the obsessing over exactly what the level of ABV should be and that some governing body, or brewers, or others should define what it is.

Is it 4%? Is it 6%? Is it 5% Is it 5.2467%? (if it's 5%, does it include 5% or is it only less than 5%?) It gets a little tiring to hear arguments over tenths of a percent when the person drinking them may vary by 100 pounds or more, by metabolic rates, by drinking experience (which, yes, I argue plays a role).

I'm arguing for the production of beers from 3% ABV to 13% ABV — no absolutes, just general guideline numbers ;-) — and letting the consumer figure out what they want to drink. Basically, it seems like you're saying this as well.

But, for me, I can easily drink 5%, 6%, 6.5% ABV beers one after another and call that my session beer.

One gentleman, on this topic, mentioned that he goes to Victory and drinks HopDevil all night long...his session. He doesn't drive home, but he can still carry coherent conversations, stand upright, and sign his tab by the end of the night.

I think most consumers are bright enough, given the choice AND the information (that's a big key and another point of my column), to decide which ABV they wish to drink and can tolerate.

If they're available across a spectrum of flavors and appeal is yet another question.

Lew Bryson said...

I think most consumers are bright enough, given the choice AND the information (that's a big key and another point of my column), to decide which ABV they wish to drink and can tolerate.

Giving drinkers -- especially me! -- that choice is really what I'm about with the 4.5% "limit." I've said it before; I don't consider 4.5% ironclad. I think of it more as the speed limit: if it's you really drive 45? But you do drive slower than if the limit's 55, right?

I'm trying to encourage brewers to brew lower ABV beers by engendering an atmosphere in which those beers will get some attention, some press, some love -- always assuming that they're good beers, of course.
That said, yeah, I've smacked some brewers for 5.5% "session beers." Think of it as a cop giving out a ticket for going 55 in a 45 zone...except I'm not a cop, and there's no real ticket. (Although God knows, these days it seems as if 5.5% beers could use a little love, too.)

The confusion, the debate, the argument stems from the linkage of "session beer" with "session," as I alluded to above. Neither of the terms means the same here as they do in the UK, and I'm okay with that. But as several UK commenters said to me early on, "you Yanks" got obsessed about the numbers, when it's not really about the numbers. It's about a beer most people can drink 4 or more pints of, that tastes good but isn't overwhelming or overbalanced, and has a reasonable price.

Can some people drink five pints of HopDevil in an evening and carry on a conversation? Maybe, sure! I've had four bottles of 9+% barleywine in two hours while on a chat session, and you'd never know it from my typing, but I wasn't walking a straight line. What's that prove?

On the other hand, I've had five pints of 'session beer' over two hours, blown a 0.02 BAC on a calibrated breathalyzer, and driven home without incident or problem. Living where I do, out in the far burbs, that's attractive...and that's the value of a serious session beer for me. Not to mention, losing the weight has seriously messed with my tolerance, and I'd just as soon stay safe!