Running for around ten days, the Session Beer Session celebrates the growing number of full flavoured beers that tip the scales under 4.7%, in some cases well under 4.7%.

The surge in popularity for these beers should come as no real surprise to alert readers of this blog. In November 2013, an unnamed Beer Writer of the Year 2014 correctly picked this trend just as he correctly picked the third placed horse for this year’s Melbourne Cup live on Radio New Zealand based solely on the horse’s name. [1] On this very blog almost a year ago, that humble beer scribe wrote:

“In terms of bold predictions about the Kiwi beer scene, overall beer volumes will drop and that will principally be driven by falls in low- to medium-strength mainstream beer sales. Lower-carbohydrate beers will continue to grow, but at a slower rate and will never rival the popularity of the style in the United States.  Full-flavoured mid-strength craft will be the significant new trend, particularly as the push back against high-octane pale ale hop bombs continue. Balance and sessionability could well be the new black.” 

If he was alive today, Paul the Oracle Octopus would probably have selected the food tray marked “nailed it bro” in relation to these predictions. [2] Colin the Handsome Yet Softly Spoken Scottish Malthouse Proprietor provided me with a long list of the beers to be served during the session. I think he was expecting more objections from this self-confessed lover of big, hoppy ales but I’m actually a fan of the session beer style, both from a taste and responsibility perspective. Besides, I just know he is going to make me write about Malthouse becoming Ciderhouse again soon. [3]

First on the list was Golden Eagle CitraDel (4.5%), a “very pale ale” made with West Yorkshire yeast, American Citra hops and New Zealand malt. It is a bit like the United Nations except useful and I don’t mind paying money for it. Showcasing my beloved Citra hops, it has a floral nose, a full body of zesty orange flavours, then a lingering bitterness to finish.

While my favourite Panhead beer is and probably will always be Supercharger, I have enjoyed many pints of Panhead Quickchange XPA (4.5%) in 2014. Nominally a “Xtra Pale Ale”, which is either a made up style or a reflection of poor literacy in Upper Hutt, this bouncy beer throws a nose of passionfruit and cut grass. In the glass there is a grainy sweetness with hints of caramel and honey, plenty of fruity hop character and a cleansing bitterness. It is so polite and well balanced that some have even called it “English style”, an epithet which most denizens of the Hutt would find vaguely offensive. [4]

I was pleasantly surprised by Tuatara Iti (3.3%), billed as the “little big hop APA.” It claimed to have “more hops, less alcohol” and actually delivered on that promise. Only later did I find out why I liked this beer – the t-shirt boldly states it is “specially brewed for people who are witty and attractive.” So, that explains that. I’m less impressed at some of the anti-hophead propaganda in the brewery blurb though:

“Here at Tuatara we understand that your enthusiasm for hops has mutated into a full-blown obsession. We also know that your king hit of the beloved cone often comes with alcohol levels that can turn an evening into a lifetime. ITI (te reo Maori for “small”) is what you’re looking for. It’s got the New World hop slam you crave from Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo and Cascade, but with a subdued malt background and a very diplomatic 3.3% alcohol. It’s the ideal session ale for the unreconstructed hophead.” [5]

It is a light amber beer with citrus (oranges) and floral notes followed by a quenching bitterness.

8 Wired Small Poppy (4.4%) is a lower alcohol, more sessionable and more responsible version of their famous Tall Poppy Red Ale (one of the best food beers I have ever enjoyed). It pours a deep red, throws a nose of fruit and pine needles, has a body with firm but subtle caramel underlying the tropical fruit salad hop notes, before a final surge of late bitterness.

I must declare that I buy 8 Wired Semiconductor (4.4%) on a regular basis, usually for day long viewing events such as cricket, wrestling or the Sharknado franchise. For these marathons, drinking my usual hop hurting bombs would be a poor lifestyle choice. Semiconductor is one of the lowest alcohol beers to ever make my coveted annual Top Ten list. Here is what I wrote:

“Semiconductor is here based solely on flavour. Beers like Emerson’s Bookbinder and Croucher Lowrider proved to many New Zealand drinkers that beers did not have to pack a lot of alcohol to have a lot of taste. Semiconductor has built on that legacy as a punchy, zesty yet responsible pale ale.”

The brewers have used a blend of American and New Zealand hops, five malts and wheat to create an IPA “designed to be drunk by the gallon, if you are that thirsty.” [6]

The most commercially available beer on offer in the Session Beer Session is Coopers Pale Ale (4.5%). Malthouse was the first New Zealand bar to pour Coopers on tap way back in July 2010. The Pale Ale is probably my favourite of the Coopers range, ahead of the highly regarded Sparkling Ale and numerous award winning vintages. It is a just a very drinkable beer. It is unfiltered and the trademark sediment is important. Always drink this beer cloudy as the yeast adds a creaminess and depth of flavour.

At just 2.7%, Croucher Lowrider (2.7%) is the lowest alcohol beer in the Session Beer Session. The iconic Emerson’s Bookbinder paved the way for tasty low alcohol beers in the modern era, but Lowrider was the first (and many would say the best) to take that session philosophy and apply it to the burgeoning pale ale style. The brewers believed it was “time to buck the trend of stronger, high alcohol IPA’s and IIPA’s.”

Lowrider pour a burnished dark golden with a firm head. There is a juicy mango and grapefruit nose, followed by mandarin, grapefruit and firm malt sweetness in the glass. The beer finishes grassy, fruity and hoppy.

If I had to sum up Hallertau Minimus (3.8%) in one sentence (and I have in the past), I would say it is “a hoppy mid-strength beer which I am not ashamed to enjoy in public.” This is high praise indeed.

Hallertau Woo Brew (4.7%) has previously been seen mainly in Queenstown. It was created by Hallertau for celebrity chef Josh Emmet’s Queenstown eatery Madam Woo. It is a “super fruity golden ale” made with Canterbury malt, Motueka hops and a generous helping of locally grown coriander.

Finally, there is Yeastie Boys Minimatta (4%). In a world exclusive, I can now publish the exact transcript of the Yeastie Boys (Stu McKinlay and Sam Possenniskie) creating this tea-infused mid-strength offering. Here we go:

Stu (rocking tightly fitted trousers of the most verdant burgundy): “Sam, how can we outrage award winning beer writer Neil Miller this week?”
Sam (flicking back his gorgeous locks as the ladies – and some gentlemen – swoon): “Well, he really does not like our Gunnamatta. We could do something with that.”
Stu (who had somehow changed into figure hugging pomegranate pants): “The only way that beer would annoy him more is if it still had loads of tea but less alcohol.”
Sam (reclining on his gold framed chaise lounge with the sun glistening off his fringe): “We could call it Minimatta.”

And a beer was born.
In news that may have actually happened, the Yeastie Boys “slashed the booze, halved the tea, and doubled the puns to create a perfect sessionable balance.” They promise that “heirloom orange [7] and floral notes entice you in on the nose, and are followed by a clean malt profile carrying a hint of tropical fruit, before giving way to the fresh hop finish and lengthy floral tea notes on the palate.” For the record, Earl Grey Blue Flower is the keynote tea used.
Next time, we drink a forty ounce to Paul the Oracle Octopus – because I still miss your every day, my eight legged brother.

[1] It should be noted that my… I mean his… fellow panellist correctly picked the winning horse in this year’s Melbourne Cup based solely on its name. There is a reason it is called gambling, nation.
[2] The fact that Paul the Oracle Octopus is dead and Justin Bieber is alive is an affront to all right thinking people.
[3] My suspicions were first aroused when I received an invite to a Facebook event titled “Malthouse becomes Ciderhouse”.
[4] Apart from the Hutt Valley residents who are English obviously. They would probably say “Hooray, toodle pip, jolly good show” and throw another Welshman on the fire.
[5] While not impressed, there is really nothing I can disagree with on a factual basis in this statement. If anything, that makes it more annoying.
[6] Legally minded readers will of course be aware that offering to provide a “gallon” (or indeed a pint) of anything is technically illegal under Section 8(b) of the Weights and Measures Act 1987 which prohibits the use of “any weight or measure other than a weight or measure of the metric system”. Yep, quarter pounders break New Zealand law.

[7] Not to be confused with your run of the mill, common, garden variety oranges so prevalent in our modern society.
Neil Miller
Beer Writer of the Year 2014
Beer and Brewer Magazine
Cuisine Magazine
TheShout Magazine
New Zealand Liquor News Magazine

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