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.

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