A Learning Session on Session Beers

A Learning Session on Session Beers

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We’ve hit the dog days of summer, and the session beer is the reigning king when it’s hot out. OK, that’s not exactly true, session beers have become popular all year long, just as stouts have become more numerous in the warmer times. However, the session beer owns summer to such an extent that some of them take on the moniker of “lawn mower” beer. But the two shouldn’t be confused; while all lawn mower beers are session beers, not all session beers are lawn mower beers.

There’s more to a session beer than just being crushable. True, session beers are lower alcohol beers (just how low is a matter we will discuss below), but they need not be very light styles whose major characteristic is that they go down easy. They can be big flavor beers that just happen to have lower alcohol (and therefore lower calories), which is one of the reasons they have become so popular. Young people today are looking for lower alcohol/lower calorie alternatives. In truth, session beers are a big enough subject that we really should sit down and talk about what they are, where they came from, and why they have that strange name.

What is a session beer? We are actually talking about lower alcohol beers when speak of session beers, but how low the ABV must go to be called a session is an issue that hasn’t been determined fully. If you hold to the historical tradition, about 3.8% is the demarcation between ordinary bitter and best bitter styles. So 3.8% ABV beers and below were considered session beers. However, that doesn’t include many styles and eliminates many options in brewing, so in some places, 4% is the cut off for session beer session.

The beer on the far left is the Sessie from Bier, just 4.5% but big flavor. image credit: Walter

The Session Beer Project in the United States (more on this below) aims for a 4.5% point, while most craft brewers are drinkers use a less a ≤5% definition. There are historical and brewing reasons for the different cut offs, but the most interesting is perhaps the biologic reason. As makes sense, the body can only detoxify so much alcohol in a period of time, and the rest is what makes you drunk.

Not unexpectedly, the governments of the world have gotten into the business of monitoring the processing of beer by different types of drinkers to come up with an average, and then use math to determine what a healthy amount of alcohol per day would look like. In the US, we use the “standard drink” metric, while in Britain is called “units of alcohol.” Each country has its own definition of moderate drinking, so it isn’t surprising that they come up with different math and different units.

The British use a stricter biologic definition, the amount of alcohol that a person can metabolize in an hour = 1 unit. An imperial pint of 4% ABV beer has about 2.3 British units of alcohol, so they define a moderate drinker as a consumer of 3-4 units per day, although that was recently reduced to just 2 units/day – less than one imperial pint of 4% beer!

In the US, the standard drink is basically equal to 12 oz. of 5% beer, so the moderate drinker is considered someone who drink two cans of beer a day. The new British recommendation and the US version aren’t that much different, but one could argue that the British is a bit more draconian because we are talking about 4% beers, on average.

England recently reduced the number of units of alcohol that define a moderate drinker. image credit: Institute of Alcohol Studies

How does this relate to the determination of what is and isn’t a session beer? Basically it goes to that portion of the alcohol that is left over after you process your hourly limit. A 4% beer of 12 oz. has 1.4 units of alcohol, so one unit is metabolized in an hour and 0.4 units remain after that hour. Drink a beer in the second hour and you have 0.8 units left over to make you tipsy. But the same drinking pattern for a 5% beer would leave you with 1.6 units of unprocessed alcohol after two drinks in two hours.

That’s double the amount of unprocessed alcohol after two hours, and it increases as you go forward in time, drinking one beer each hour. Since one of the reasons people drink session beers is to allow for a longer period of drinking without getting drunk, the difference between a 4% session and a 5% session is considerable. Therefore, using a biologic interpretation, session beers should really stay around the 4-4.5% ABV range.

I like that range as a demarcation for session beers for another reason. If you use a 5% cutoff, that would include almost all the (non-lite) mega-beers in the US. Budweiser, Coors, Michelob – these are all right there at 5%, and as such shouldn’t be included in session beers. Even Miller High Life goes off at 4.6%, so it’s eliminated from session beer contention as well. The lighter version of the macros might then be considered session beers, but the session beer definition has a second component – flavor and beer characteristics. After all, water is less than 4.5% alcohol, but you wouldn’t call it a session beer. Nope, session beers can’t be called light beers.

In the larger sense, session beers, or beers that are “sessionable,” can be ales or lagers, IPAs or bocks, but probably not a barley wine or wee heavy…..or at least I thought not. A short tour of Untappd tells me that people have called their beers session barley wines – they are still bigger, but low alcohol for barley wines, maybe 5.3-6%. The same was true for wee heavies; Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA made a Session Scotch Ale that came in at 4.8% ABV in 2013.

A session barleywine?? From Ecliptic brewing, it’s still 8%, so session may be a misnomer. image credit: Peaks & Pints

All styles, it would seem, can be adapted for a session version, or at least a relatively lower alcohol version of the style. Never let it be said that brewers won’t bend a definition to help them come up with a beer that might sell. Just to codify the idea of a session beer, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) defines a session category for every style, and they stick to a 3%-5% range. You can even get medals for session beers at GABF, but they’ll be judged against all session beers, not as a session beer of a particular style.

Session IPAs have been a big thing for several years now, mostly because IPAs themselves are so popular big thing, but historically, session beers tended to be balanced between malt and hop, fairly light on the tongue with a decent amount of carbonation and a clean finish – all the things that would allow one to drink a few, or a few more than a few, at a single sitting.

There are more session beers then you would probably guess – a whole lotta British beers are sessions, which isn’t that surprising as that is where the term was undoubtedly born. Heck Guinness is thought of as a big, rich beer, but it checks in at a very sessionable 4.2% ABV. Smithwicks (4.5), Doom Bar (4%), Fuller’s London Pride and Newcastle Nut Brown (4.7%); they all come in right there at or around the session limit.

History of Session Beers and that Name. There isn’t a cut and dried explanation of where the term “session beer” came from, but almost all people agree that it came from England. The earliest written piece specifically referencing “session beer” was from 1982 by Michael Jackson. But actual session beers are probably an invention of the 20th century. In the 19th century, probably the lowest ABV beers would have been in the 4.5% range, with many being significantly more than that, so the invention of the session beer was probably after 1900 but certainly before the craft beer craze hit the US.

The DORA had effects on all aspects of life in the UK, including drinking. image credit: slideplayer

It appears that two things came together to give birth to the session beer in the early 1900s, with WWI responsible for both of them. The first issue was that the government of Britain imposed limits on beer strength during WWI (called the Defence of the Realm Act) to reduce drunkenness amongst the workers. The second thing was that munitions workers in the war effort were putting in many, many hours and work, and yet still needed some time to drink.

The first item resulted in many beers that were under 4% ABV and many more that hovered are 4.5%, while the second item resulted in workers being limited to two drinking “sessions” each day, from 11am-3pm, and from 7pm-11pm. The combination of the two meant that the guys (and gals) working on the war effort could sit around at the pub for a good period of time, without getting falling down drunk. Falling down when you’re drunk isn’t good, but falling down when you’re drunk and building bombs……much worse.

It’s easy to see how the low alcohol beer that you drank during your session at the pub could come to be called “session beer,” yet there hasn’t been documented evidence of it in print. After the war, the sessions laws stayed on the books in England, and the aggressive taxing of alcohol ensured that the low alcohol beers stuck around too. Even though the term “session beer” wasn’t printed (apparently) until the 1980s, the terms “morning session” and “evening session” did sneak into the vernacular just after the First World War. In fact, it wasn’t until the Liquor Licensing Act of 1988 that the hours and tax laws for pubs were amended. But by that time, the session beer was a staple of the British pubs, even if it wasn’t often called session beer by name.

(Thanks to Martyn Cornwell’s Zythophile; Beer then and Now for the primer on session beer history in print.)

The Session Beer Project. After the craft beer craze got rolling in the United States, beers started getting bigger and bigger. If 7% was good, then 9% was better and 13% was nirvana. This led to a small but persistent backlash movement toward smaller beers. Several brewers and bar owners started to champion the low alcohol craft beers that had all the flavor, but not all the alcohol of their beefier cousins. High & Mighty’s Beer of the Gods and Full Sail Brewery’s Session Premium Lager were some of the earliest popular session beers in the US, but the ball really got rolling win 2010 with Founders’ All Day IPA – the session IPA being perhaps the iconic session beer here in the US.

One of the beers that got the US session movement going. image credit: High & Mighty Beer Co.

But there was a huge proponent of session beers in the US back in the 1990s. Lew Bryson was/is a beer writer in Philadelphia who noticed that some people were looking for low alcohol alternatives from their craft beer. He started the Session Beer Project beer blog in 2009, a full year before All Day IPA hit taps and three years before it was packaged. The blog hasn’t produced much since 2016, but perhaps that is because his work is done – session beers are a legitimate alternative and are offered by just about every craft brewery (I said just about). There is even a World Session Beer Day – April 7 each year. I haven’t heard as much about it as National IPA Day (1st Thursday in August) or International Stout Day (Nov. 1, now), but still, it exists.

Conclusion. This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about session beers. It seems that most people understand the concept of session beers without needing the in depth background of how they came about and how they were named – but, it’s me doing the writing and I am always looking to delve a bit deeper. The take home message is that session beers are about more than just low alcohol, their about raising the long, slow, social beer experience up. Craft beer is much more than how much high gravity beer you can guzzle down and how many expensive bottles of 14% barleywine you can hoard.

Walter and I don’t worry about session beers at specific times; we drink what sounds interesting or what we like, and if it the next beer is too big for the amount we’ve had, we’ll either stop or go for short pours. But neither do we eschew session beers either. They are just one more type of beer for us to like and learn about. We’re much more about flavor and texture than we are about alcohol, and this leads to a larger experience in the end.

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