Session beers lower the alcohol, keep the flavor

Published Jul. 19, 2012

With rising interest in craft beer comes rising alcohol content — or so it often seems.

Not long ago, the average beer pulled at random from your local liquor store shelf was likely to have an alcohol content somewhere around 5 percent by volume, give or take a fraction of a percent. As IPAs and Belgian-style ales take over as the go-to beers for many drinkers, that figure is now closer to 6 percent or 7 percent, maybe higher. While big beers are almost synonymous with the modern craft beer movement, a mini backlash of sorts is forming — a move toward beers that are not only not big but decidedly small.

The term "session beer" gets tossed around a lot, and most generally agree that it refers to beers on the lighter, more refreshing end of the spectrum. Origins of the term are unclear, though Beer Advocate offers one anecdote involving 20th-century British artillery production workers and government-approved four-hour drinking sessions throughout the day. The workers needed a beer that they could enjoy during these sessions and still be able return to work afterward.

Recently, there have been a few attempts to clarify the session beer designation, with specific stylistic guidelines and rules dictating what can, and cannot, be a session beer.

The Brewers Association — the organ­ization behind the Great American Beer Festival — added a session beer category in 2010, with guidelines specifying that beers in the category must be between 4 percent and 5.1 percent alcohol by volume. I would be surprised to see these guidelines stand as more and more breweries embrace session beers, with a handful of new brews weighing in well under that 4 percent mark.

Beer and whiskey writer Lew Bryson has proposed an alternate definition, outlined as part of his Session Beer Project, launched in 2007. Bryson defines session beers as containing "4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, and balanced enough for multiple pints." Followers of the project celebrate this definition every April 7 — known as Session Beer Day.

So why the sudden popularity of session beer? It could be that people are growing weary of increasingly extreme brews becoming the norm, or perhaps craft beer's popularity is moving the entire practice of drinking toward a more social model, rather than one based primarily on getting drunk. Another of the Session Beer Project's criteria is that a session beer must be "conducive to conversation." Personally, I think it's a combination of both, as well as pure, simple innovation on the part of the breweries producing these beers.

For example, a typical session beer of the past would invariably be a bitter, or maybe a mild lager. Today, session beers are brewed in a wide variety of styles, including flavorful, heavily hopped ales, stouts, sour beers and fruit-flavored lagers. These beers present a challenge that their more potent counterparts don't; while adding tons of malt and hops all but guarantees loads of flavor in big beers, session beers must rely on a careful balance rather than a brute force approach.

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Session beers are becoming more extreme, though in the opposite direction.

Eviltwin Brewing, a Danish company contracting through breweries in the United States and abroad, has released a light pale ale called Bikini Beer (lower alcohol = fewer calories) that clocks in at a mere 2.7 percent ABV. Cigar City recently debuted its One Percenter, a Berliner Weisse containing only 1 percent ABV. At least one brewery — Massachusetts' Notch Brewing — brews nothing but session beers, with its Pilsners, Saisons, Belgian-style beers, Stouts and even cask ales, all containing no more than 4.5 percent alcohol by volume.

While Session Beer Day may be months away, there's no reason you can't enjoy something nice on the lighter side of beer. Whether your aim is to maximize summertime refreshment, or you simply want to enjoy a six-pack with friends without getting sloppy, session beers are becoming easier to find everywhere, and they're getting surprisingly good.