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HOOD RIVER -- Appealing to the fun side of Northwest beer enthusiasts, Full Sail Brewing is launching a bold bid to expand its successful Session brand with a dark lager.
Session already stands out on the shelf or at the pub thanks to its 11-ounce bottle that makes older folks smile with fond memories of Olympia stubbies and makes younger drinkers feel as if they're not running with the herd.
"Beer is a fun product," says Full Sail founder and CEO Irene Firmat, "and people shouldn't be put off if they aren't up to a beer with a lot of bitterness and malt."
Intended to woo people who think dark beers are too big and bitter, the new Session Black premium dark lager is the Hood River brewery's birthday present to itself on the occasion of its 10th year as an independent, employee-owned company.
Full Sail brewers are bottling and shipping 20,000 cases of Session Black to distributors as fast as they can the new beer should be in stores, pubs and restaurants by July 4.
The new beer is the first expansion of the stand-alone Session brand. "When we introduced the Session brand in 2005, we sent out Session Lager in partial truckloads along with our Full Sail beer," Bob Lauron, Full Sail's vice president and director of sales, says over the rumble and clatter of hundreds of Session Black bottles trundling along the brewery's bottling line. "But retailers are so excited to have another Session beer on the shelf that we moved up the release date from fall to July and we're sending out trailers full of only Session Black."
After the pipeline is filled, though, it'll be all about sales figures to see if the brand extension pays off.
The brand's appeal is broad-based. It attracts drinkers with sophisticated palates who appreciate Session as an example of the kind of robust lagers brewed in the U.S. before Prohibition. Thanks to its packaging and pricing -- less than craft beers and on a par with Rolling Rock, Henry's and some imports -- Session is also a favorite among beer drinkers who are part of the Pabst Blue Ribbon backlash against what are perceived as snooty craft beers.
Though the PBR-word is never mentioned at the Hood River brewery, it's apparent enough to industry observers such as Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, which covers the nation's craft-brewing scene. "The idea of co-opting PBRs industrial lage rcachet with a craft beer in a stubby was an awesome stroke of marketing genius for Full Sail," Dalldorf says. "Deschutes has the best-selling dark craft beer with Black Butte Porter so why not piggyback on their success with a dark lager -- an established tradition in Europe."
The Session brand now accounts for nearly a third of Full Sail's production, Firmat says. The brewery should produce about 90,000 barrels (2.8 million gallons) of beer this year and is the third largest in Oregon, after Widmer Brothers and Deschutes.
Its Session brand sets it apart from other Oregon brewers, big or small, because Session was originally separate from Full Sail in style, look and packaging, and made little if any mention of the parent brewery.
"The new packaging does strengthen the Full Sail connection, but that divide definitely did exist," Firmat says. "That's the way we planned it because we were trying to break out of the boundaries of being a craft beer. If we'd put out Session Lager in traditional packaging and with the Full Sail logo, we would've had a much harder time drawing in new customers who might find craft beers too big and challenging."
Session is available only in bottles and only in 12-packs -- no kegs, quarts, or six-packs. "We're sticking to that," says Full Sail brewmaster John Harris. "If we put out Session in longnecks or had it available on tap, we'd be just another me-too beer. This way, it stands out."
A Budvar schwarzbier (black beer) sipped on a recent trip to Vienna was the inspiration for Session Black, says Jamie Emmerson, Full Sail's executive brewmaster. But a dark beer faces obstacles among beer drinkers used to pale-gold mass-market lagers, and who may equate dark beer with formidable, roasty porters and stouts. They'd be wrong because those are ales and Session Black is a lager. It's made with the same type of bottom-fermenting yeast as Budweiser, for example, and brewed at the same near-freezing temperatures.
The result is a beer that looks black indeed, but is far removed from the thick, malty, roasty beer that lager drinkers fear. "We worked hard to make it a super-drinkable, balanced beer," Firma says. "In this case, dark doesn't mean challenging or bitter."
Still, the brewery sales team plans to do lots of on-premise tastings to ease drinkers' fears of the dark. "I don't know," Lauron says, "if we'll be educating customers as much as just introducing them to a category and style that's approachable and very drinkable, but may not be perceived as such."
Besides, that Session bottle is cool enough that many Session drinkers never ask for a glass.
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-- John Foyston;