When I was first getting into craft beer a little more than six years ago, one did not hear the term “session beer” in casual barroom parlance. Those words would have had no meaning to me, and I imagine that many beer fans would have said the same at the time.
In reality, the things being discussed in the craft beer community back then always seemed to be rooted within the realm of the extreme. Who could come out with the burliest DIPA? How many different hop varieties could you feature in one beer? How many different adjuncts and flavorings could you cram into that imperial stout?
Six years later, trends in the American craft beer scene are intriguingly different. The rise of single-hopped pale ales and IPAs was a good indication of an increasingly educated customer base of drinkers who wanted to truly learn about minutia like hop varieties. And with an educated customer base comes an increased appreciation and respect for the product. Likewise, with that respect comes an admiration and reevaluation of beer aspects previously taken for granted—enter session beer. Today, these brews have become a cause célèbre of the beer literati, and another source of competition. It’s “how much flavor can you pack under 5% ABV?” rather than “How high can your ABV go?”
Rest assured, marketing copy plays a part. The mere fact that a beer such as Deschutes River Ale is labeled as a “session ale” rather than an “American blonde” or some other, more specific beer style tells us that the “session” term now means money. But in the case of this Deschutes beer introduced last year, it’s hard to nitpick because it’s delicious stuff.
The aroma is subtle but complex, with light lemon, orange and wildflower notes from the hops, and a malt character that seems mildly sweet, with wheat-like graininess and just a hint of vanilla extract. It’s very light, fresh and spring-appropriate, like a biscuit slathered in orange blossom honey.
With a taste, drinkers will get just a bit of lightly toasted malt and a flavor similar to shredded wheat biscuits. Light sweetness is complemented by mild flavors of citric, orangey hops. Bitterness is mild, but there’s just enough of it there to remind you that this is still craft beer. It goes down frighteningly easy.
At only 4% ABV, this is prototypically great session beer. The amount of flavor it packs into its small package is more than adequate and appreciably complex. You wouldn’t describe it as the most thrilling or in-your-face suite of flavors, but that’s not what it was ever intended to be, and it really can’t be judged as such. This is spring and summer beer, the perfect companion to the extra innings of a baseball game or an extended afternoon cook-out. Go ahead and indulge, marveling at the thought that this wonderful beer contains less alcohol per ounce than your unenlightened neighbor’s Bud Light.
Brewery: Deschutes Brewing Co.
City: Bend, OR
Style: American blonde ale
Availability: Year round, 12-ounce bottles