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Full Sail Session vs. Domestic Beers

A few weeks ago, P—- made fun of me for ordering a bottle of Session brand beer at Captain Ankeny’s, one of downtown Portland’s best Wednesday night deals ($1 cheese pizza, $2.50 microbrews). “Session?” he chided, “why spend two bucks on that when you can get a pint of good stuff for fifty cents more?”

Fifty cents or no, I enjoyed my pizza and my Session. But the point he raised is a valid one: if you pour a Session out of its dark brown stubby bottle, you may be surprised to see a hue more reminiscent of Foster’s than Full Sail. It’s a golden lager, not an ale, and certainly not heavy on either hops or malt flavors.

Is this just a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss?” Are we being led astray by marketing, by the clever ruse of Full Sail Brewing, who now are trying to parlay their well-built brand into high-margin success by selling us swill at a premium?

This calls for a blind taste test. Three glasses, labelled underneath with the beer type, with equal volumes (~ 4 oz) of Session (bottle), Bud (can), and MGD (can). Mixed in a dark kitchen and scrambled around so I honestly didn’t know which was which when I took them into the living room.

Appearance:

Beer #1: Lightest of the three by a hair over #2. Head seemed to come down the quickest with the least residual foam on the sides. Steady but modest effervescence, with a few bubbles adhering to the glass.

Beer #2: A bit darker than #1, but still a light color; this is more like gold with a bit of copper in it than shiny 24k stuff. The head has gone down but left an even cylindrical section of foam still stuck to the sides of the glass. Effervescence is continuous at about the same rate as #1 but with no bubbles adhering to the bottom.

Beer #3: Significantly darker than the other two (actually, about as dark as both put together — when #1 and #2 are next to one another, they make about as dark an image as #3 alone). Still not “dark” by any means. The head has gone down leaving an uneven “mountain range” ringing the glass. Bubbles are slower and bigger; there are many large bubbles adhering to the bottom.

Smell:

Beer #1: Smells like cheap beer. Kind of a sharp odor, with a sweetness.

Beer #2: Smells like cheap beer, but a little more vegetable smell, and a smell like wet old clothes.

Beer #3: Smells like honey with a bit of spice. I am getting a feeling that a bias toward #3 may be setting in.

First taste:

Beer #1: Mild taste, a bit of sweetness, almost no hops.

Beer #2: Sweeter, still quite mild. Almost no hops. I think there’s a bit of a chemical aftertaste.

Beer #3: Sweeter still, with more alcohol / carbonation to attack the palate (I’m not skilled enough to discern the two). There is a slight bitter, asparagus-like aftertaste.

Second taste:

Beer #1: This time, felt the carbonation / alcohol a bit more (mouth sensitized?). The sugar is the dominant taste, though it is very dilute, like a little bit of honey dissolved in water. I think now that this is sweeter (in terms of sweetness, not in terms of sugar content) than #2.

Beer #2: Getting a bit more bitterness (hops?) out of it. The sugars are there — you can taste them — but they don’t manifest as sweetness so much as in added body. The aftertaste is not so much a taste as a feel — the residual taste, strictly speaking, is sugary, but there’s a kind of oily, chemical feel.

Beer #3: More alcohol, lots more hops, and a return to the honey-sweet type of sugar flavor (tempered by those hops, though). The aftertaste is the most pronounced of the three; however, it’s more of a lingering bitterness / acidity, rather than #2’s weird chemical residue.

Recommendation:

Beer #1: OK. Not great. Would drink it if it were free.

Beer #2: Sort of OK. Would drink it if it were free and I were trying to be polite. Would choose pretty much any microbrew or import over #2.

Beer #3: A little more interesting. “OK plus.” Would stand up next to mass-produced imports, or perhaps almost up to Sam Adams. Doesn’t seem like it would stand up to a real microbrew or a Muenchener bier.

Results (could you guess?):

Beer #1: Bud

Beer #2: MGD

Beer #3: Session

Conclusion:

My methodology may be questioned, but the results seem pretty firm. Session is different from the major domestics. It’s probably also not as good as a “real” microbrew, if, like me, you enjoy strong or novel flavors (various forms of hops shenanigans, strong IPAs, infusions, Rauchbiers, steam beers, bocks, etc.). I didn’t bother comparing it to a domestic “ultrapremium,” though that might be a more valid comparison. At the price we’re seeing locally ($10/12), Session is a relatively good buy.

Date: 2006-08-18 Reviewer: rlucas Reviewed: Full Sail Brewing's "Session" beer Summary: Compared Session to Budweiser (Bud) and Miller Genuine Draft (MGD) Result: Session wins on hops, sugar, and alcohol.  MGD has a bad aftertaste. Conclusion: Session is not just a marketing ploy, but an OK value beer.  

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