To celebrate National Beer Day and the seasonal launch of its summer ale one Saturday earlier this month, Lift Bridge Brewing Co. hosted a party with a Hawaiian luau theme. The brew of the day: Mango Blonde, a light-bodied ale that’s symbolic of how craft brewers are now trying to grow.
Sweeter and with less alcohol, the Mango Blonde stands out in Lift Bridge’s array of offerings. The Stillwater brewery is best known for its hoppy Hop Dish India pale ale and Belgian-style ale Farm Girl Saison. More craft brewers are joining Lift Bridge in brewing “session” or “sessionable” beers that are more like the light beers mass-produced by the industry’s giant beverage companies.
“You don’t need to brew a strong, heavy beer all the time,” said Brad Glynn, Lift Bridge’s co-founder and chief operating officer.
Session beers are considered more desirable on occasions, such as a sports or outdoor event, when people may want to drink a lot without getting as intoxicated. Customers drinking more beer means more money for brewers. Session beers can also help small and independent craft brewers gain new customers.
“If you are going be out on your boat, on a beach or attending a music festival and are going to probably have more than one or two [craft beers], you don’t want to put yourself in a predicament,” said Andy LaRose, a craft beer industry specialist in the Minneapolis office of the Baker Tilly accounting and business advisory firm.
LaRose, a former marketer at Anheuser-Busch Cos., recommends that long-standing breweries offer some type of sessionable product, which is generally defined as any style of beer that is below 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), the same amount of alcohol as a Budweiser, one of the top-selling beers in the country.
“Let’s say you are going to have six people who are going to go to a taproom and maybe two of them are typical Budweiser drinkers,” LaRose said. “When they walk in there and they go, ‘I don’t drink craft beer,’ a sessionable product is the perfect opportunity for them to at least try something.”
Fulton Brewing in Minneapolis has several beers it brews year-round that have lower alcohol content including its popular Lonely Blonde American pale ale (4.8 percent) and Standard lager (4.5 percent).
Last May, the brewery debuted its Hopstar session IPA (4.9 percent) as part of a deliberate strategy to fill a gap with a strong-tasting beer that had less alcohol, said Fulton’s marketing director Tucker Gerrick.
“Session IPAs as a style have become more and more popular,” Gerrick said. “IPAs as a style are usually pretty alcoholic beers, and I think there has been a trend of lower-alcohol beers, all styles, becoming more popular.”
Finnegans, which opened its new brewery and taproom in downtown Minneapolis last month, knows all about session beers though it doesn’t use that title. Its flagship Finnegans Irish Ale is 4.75 percent alcohol by volume.
The Irish Ale, which makes up 70 to 80 percent of Finnegans’ production, was created to be “a traditional Irish-style beer that you can kind of sit back and drink all day,” said Ryan Mihm, head brewer for Finnegans.
“You can go to a pub and you can have three of them. … That was the original idea of it, it was to have a lower alcohol beer that you can, in theory, drink all day,” he said.
In St. Paul, Tin Whiskers Brewing Co. makes a Lingonberry Cream Ale that is 4.9 percent and in the summer it will come out with its Parity Pilsner (4.8 percent).
“From our perspective, session beers make a lot of sense,” Andy Bobst, Tin Whiskers marketing and taproom manager, said in an e-mail. “Many people like having two to three beers (or more) over the course of their evening, and those 7 percent or higher IPAs can start to add up pretty quick.”
Craft beer has gone through a renaissance with breweries popping up throughout Minnesota and the rest of the United States. The country was home to more than 6,300 breweries in 2017, compared to a decade before when it only had about 1,500, according to the Brewers Association, a trade association which represents American craft brewers. Minnesota had 112 craft breweries in 2016 compared to just 35 in 2011.
For all that growth, craft beer producers account for about one-fourth of Americans’ spending on beer. The industry remains dominated by the products of Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.
One of the challenges that craft brewers face with session beer is how to market it.
“Sometimes that word ‘session,’ craft drinkers think that’s a bad word,” LaRose said. “They feel like they are getting cheated. … People call them all-days or easy IPAs or daytime ales or go-to ales.”
Founders Brewing Co., based in Grand Rapids, Mich., isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, calling its flagship All Day IPA a “session ale” right on its bottles and cans. Last month, the brewery launched a new beer, Solid Gold (4.4 percent), a premium lager and “active play from Founders to go after a larger segment of beer drinkers outside the confines of craft,” according to a marketing announcement.
Minneapolis-based ad agency Solve helped create the marketing campaign to announce the launch.
“I think there’s a bit of maybe consumer fatigue in beer in the sense that we’ve gotten to the point where there are so many brands and so many breweries on the shelf and so many different kinds of beer that it can almost be kind of a little complex and overwhelming,” Trent McCurren, Founders vice president of marketing, said.
He called Solid Gold a solid beer and “return to simplicity.”