The Dependent Magazine is a Vancouver-based publication of daring and creative works of journalism and entertainment.
Want to get involved?
Send text, pictures, videos, and crude drawings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The term ‘session’ is not one we often hear in North America, though it’s widely used in the UK. The term refers to an extended drinking session (sesh): sitting around the table, bullshitting with friends, and drinking copious amounts of beer. British session ales often have a fairly low alcohol content (3-4.5%), so they can be packed away in quantity, and one doesn’t stumble (too much) home to the husband or wife. North American craft breweries in recent years have had much more malt to play with than older British breweries, leading to a culture of stronger beers, ranging from 4.5 to 12%. The session concept, though, is still important to Vancouverites. This is particularly true in summer, on a patio with friends.
Finding the right combination of patio and beer, though, can be a challenge in a city that is only beginning to understand the possibilities of beer. A pub that emphasizes uniqueness can mean that the types or cost of beer scares off the beer newbie. Serve too few beers of quality and a pub winds up with sour beer, dirty lines and a clientele that doesn’t care. Dirty beer lines are the sesh’s enemy. They allow bacteria to build up, and these are strongly present in your beer. These bacteria can impart off flavours into an otherwise good beer and wreak havoc with your digestive system the next day. A location that can balance presentation, selection and price is the ultimate sesh pub. Steamworks Brew Pub, open since 1995, is one of Vancouver’s most established and stable craft breweries, and seemed a good place to seek out the sesh.
We opened the evening with a pitcher of the Ipanema White, a classic Belgian witbier. A light and refreshing wheat ale variety, this white ale is often brewed with herbs and citrus. While Belgian brewers tend toward the use of lemon peel and coriander, here in North America many brewers prefer orange peel. It’s often fermented using distinctly fruity German or Belgian yeasts that complement the citrus and herbs. The liberal use of wheat also results in a cloudy, pale blonde colour that’s very pleasing to hold up to light. This refreshing summer beer is a great introduction to good ales for PBR or Canadian drinkers, without being overwhelming in terms of malt or hops. The Steamworks Ipanema is true to the style and was a good, light drink that suited everyone at the table.
My only complaint was that the head dropped quickly off the beer. After drinking less than a quarter of my glass I was left with a thin rim of foam. North Americans tend to avoid head, thinking that a good pour cultivates a minimal head on a beer. In fact, in many cases the exact opposite is true. A good head helps the beer impart its nose (much like breathing a wine), opening up many of the subtler hop notes, as well as malt bodies. While every beer asks for a different head to be poured, a pretty good rule of thumb is two fingers of head. This amount of head opens the beer without flattening it too much. Some beers will ask for (or give) more head, and some may require less, but this is a good middle road.
Next we tried the Signature Pale Ale. Pale ales are about as diverse a variety as they come, ranging from slightly malty, with a low hop flavour to intensely bitter and floral, with a strong malt body. They can straddle the line with IPAs. In some cases they are too intense for drinkers who aren’t hop fans. The Steamworks Pale Ale struck a balance between the extremes of the category, finding a safe middle ground in body and aroma. A nice copper colour in the pitcher, this beer kept its head well. The aroma was pleasing, with a malty-toffee nose that revealed the caramel and crystal malts used as a grain base. Unfortunately, upon tasting there was a significant (though not overwhelming) phenolic flavour (sometimes described as band-aid, or medicinal). This probably wasn’t a flaw of the brewing process, but actually the result of unclean lines, which was a real disappointment. This also brings up a golden rule in finding a good session pub: it pays to find a place with clean lines, both for drinking and for the day after.
As with any true session, our evening devolved after the third pitcher. We tried two more beers after this, though I can’t pretend to critique them with any depth. The first was an intense, enjoyable sour cherry ale, which was definitely not a session drink, weighing in at 9.6% alcohol. The second was a robust porter, with a heavy emphasis on black patent malt, which resulted in a rich coffee-like flavour, though I would have preferred a little more emphasis on chocolate notes. A highlight of this beer was our server’s insistence on having us try it with a shot of Van Gogh Espresso Vodka mixed in. The flavours were very complementary, though the drink was definitely not the kind of thing that keeps you from stumbling too much on the way home.
All in all, the session at Steamworks was a success and a true Vancouver-style sesh. We had access to a huge a range of beers. While the off-tasting pale showed that even at an established brew pub beer education is still lacking, most of the beers were quite good. The sour cherry ale was very good. Ultimately, the beers served that time-honoured tradition of bringing folks together to shoot the shit, and I didn’t stumble (too much) home to my girlfriend.
Read Matt Thomson’s take on local beer every Friday here at The Dependent.