AH, THE SESSION BEER.
What’s in a name? Why are certain beers given this title? And how is it now these proverbial lightweights are more than holding their own against the heavy-hitters of the beer world?
The history of session beers predates the term by at least a couple centuries, as English pub ales and Belgian table beers, among others, were commonly brewed to relatively low strength. The American craft beer industry has forged its own path, however, after coming into existence in 1976.
By the early 2000s, imperial ales and strong lagers were all the rage. It was an arms race of sorts to see which brewery could make beers with the highest alcohol content. There’s much debate as to who inspired the shift back toward lighter, more drinkable beers. But the trend is undeniable, as most American craft breweries now feature one or more options below the 5% ABV session-beer threshold.
THERE’S AN INTERESTING STORY BEHIND THE NOMENCLATURE FOR WHAT WE NOW KNOW AS SESSION BEERS.
To modern day sensibilities, some may find the tradition to be a bad idea, or conversely kind of awesome. In WWI-era England, workers in munitions plants were allotted two 4-hour periods during their workday – written into law as “sessions” by the British government – in which drinking on the job was allowed. This dictated a need for lighter beers than the popular Porters and Stouts, so a few could be consumed without getting completely pickled.
The workers were appeased by these “session beers” that were lighter yet packed with flavor, with low alcohol content in the 3-4% ABV range. These were typically cask-conditioned ales, with style choices of Bitter or Mild, and served in 20-ounce imperial pint glasses. It has been written that workers were able to have several beers during their 4-hour sessions, while remaining coherent enough to do their jobs.
Aside: For those of you unfamiliar with English beer styles, you may be wondering about “Bitter” and “Mild.” Bitter is a broad term used for moderately-hopped pale ales in the UK, whereas Mild describes a darker beer that’s more malt-forward.
SESSION BEERS TODAY CAN BE ANY STYLE, AS LONG AS THEY STAY UNDER A CERTAIN ALCOHOL LEVEL, WHICH IS USUALLY AGREED TO BE 5% ABV.
The popularity of the session beer lies in its superb drinkability, allowing multiple pints to be consumed in a reasonable timeframe without becoming overly intoxicated or overwhelming your palate with too much of one flavor characteristic.
The most common sessionable craft beer style in America is the Session IPA. (See our Astral Booty Beer Session IPA, 4.5% ABV, for a quite refreshing example!) You may have also noticed a recent resurgence in lower strength craft lagers. (See our ENO Pilsner, which comes in at a sessionable 4.9% ABV.) After you’ve tried those two delicious examples, be on the lookout for a new Small Batch session beer to arrive in our tasting rooms this week!
Note: Please drink responsibly, even with session beers, as they can still push your blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit!