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What is a Session Beer? — What Makes Beer “Sessionable”?

Beer drinkers hear the term “Session Beer” all the time, but what exactly is a Session Beer? What does this beer term say about the beer you are drinking?

What is a Session Beer? — What Makes Beer “Sessionable”?

In today’s booming craft beer era, we are now seeing countless beers in the double-digit-ABV range, with many stretching upward of 20% ABV or more. A mere bottle of some of those boozy beers and you would be done for the day! Thus, a need for lighter offerings and the re-emergence of the Session Beer.


What is a Session Beer?

In short, a Session Beer is a beer that contains no more than 5% ABV and features a balance between hop and malt characters and finishes crisp and clean. Session Beers are known to have a “high drinkability”.


What does ABV stand for?

ABV stands for “alcohol by volume,” a measure of literally how much alcohol (i.e., ethanol) is in any given beverage.

Click here for other beer terms you need to know.


The History of Session Ales:

Like many modern beer drinking trends, the idea of “session” beer starts with the British. It is said the earliest beer-drinking sessions started during World War I, when English factory workers were allowed to imbibe on the job during two daily sessions.

When were workers allowed to drink Session Ales?

According to Beer Advocate, there was one midday drinking session (11am – 3pm) and one evening drinking session (7pm – 11pm). During these two sessions, artillery shell production workers were allowed to drink low-ABV offerings. The thinking being this was that they could still focus on work and not get too disorderly, while being a whole lot happier on the factory line. Back then, the beer of choice would have been an under-4% English Mild or Bitter Ale, served in an imperial pint glass (20 ounces), and consumed at the rate of about one per hour, hardly enough to have anyone stumbling home at the end of the day.


What is the purpose of a Session Beer?

Why is it called “Session Beer”?

The purpose of a Session Beer is to allow the beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period, or session, without reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.


What is considered a Session Beer?

In the U.K., a Session Beer has always been strictly capped at 4% ABV. In America, where “bigger is better,” even when it comes to easy-drinking, Session Beer is typically allowed to reach up to 5%. That’s no surprise; until recently, finding beers under 4%, even in “lite” offerings, was fairly tricky. Many folks believe that 5% cap is purely arbitrary – just something started by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines a “standard” beer as 12 ounces of something averaging 4.5%.

Lew Bryson, a noted beer and spirits writer who founded The Session Beer Project in 2009, believes the absolute maximum for a session beer should be 4.5%, an argument he has fought for years. Bryson takes his definition a step further, though. He also thinks that, in order to be considered a Session Beer, an ale or lager shouldn’t be too complex or intriguing in flavour – if you’re spending more time analyzing the oddball beer itself than having fun with your friends over a few pints, then the beer isn’t a session offering, Bryson claims.


What is the difference between an IPA and a Session IPA?

With the popularity of India Pale Ales rising, many brewers have chosen to add Session IPAs to their beer menus. But what is the difference between a regular IPA and a Session India Pale Ale?

Most beer enthusiasts know that an India Pale Ale is a beer style that is known for being extremely hoppy. IPAs generally have a higher-than-average ABV%. A Session IPA is similar to a regular IPA but with a low alcohol percentage.


Common Misconceptions About Session Beers:

Does colour indicate if a beer is session-able?

A neophyte sees the bartender slowly pulling a pint of frothy, creamy, ink-black Guinness and natural assumes it is a “heavy” beer they probably want to avoid if they want to get home in one piece. Amazingly, though, that’s hardly the case – the famed Irish Stout is a mere 4.2% ABV and, for most people, surprisingly sessionable.

Yes, color has absolutely nothing to do with the “lightness” or “heaviness” of any beer offerings. Though many folks assume the color of a beer is the easiest way to detect its ABV, flavour, complexity, richness, and even calorie count, that’s hardly the case. There are light-colored Belgian tripels that hit 10% in alcohol, while numerous dry stouts teeter under 4%.

The color of a beer is created by the color of its malts – nothing more, nothing less. People aren’t entirely wrong to judge a beer by its color, though, as many stouts are indeed rich and super boozy, while most of the yellowish pilsners and lagers we all love are indeed sessionable. One thing that is generally true, though, is that the higher a beer’s ABV, the higher the calories.

So don’t think it helps your diet to have just one of those 10% tripels. While Guinness might not be the “meal in a glass” many people have long claimed it is – at just 125 calories – that tripel, at a whopping 400 calories, certainly is!


Modern Session Ales, Lagers, IPAs, & Sours:

Like most classic beer styles, the modern American craft beer movement of the past two decades has completely revitalized, modernized, and even bastardized what a session beer can be.

Think session lagers and pilsners have to be fizzy, yellow, and watery? Not true, as many of today’s craft lagers and pilsners use a flavourful all-grain base (corporate “lite” lagers/pilsners generally use cheap corn or rice) and are often even dry-hopped for added flavour and complexity.

Think session beers can’t be too hoppy? Try a session IPA, the paradoxical style that has arisen with abundance in the last few years. These beers are generally thin and lacking a firm malt backbone, but they still act as a satisfying bitterness “fix” for a hop head who has stuff to do later in the day.

Think session ales have to be balanced? Then you’ve yet to try this new breed of “kettle sours” – quickly produced wild ales that have often been dosed with bacteria such as Lactobacilius to create their intriguing flavours. Sour sessionables include once-classic German styles like the Gose and Berliner Weisse, which are now being exposed to a new audience. Today’s Americanized versions are often bracingly tart and may even contain fruit as well. Whatever the case, if you can handle the acidity, you can drink a whole bunch of them as they often reside around 3% ABV!


Session Beers to Try When You Don’t Want to Get Drunk:

Blindman River Session Ale (4.4%) – Blindman Brewing
Session Golden Ale (4%) – Epic Brewing Company
Summer Session Ale (4.2%) – Lake Of Bays Brewing Company
Two Tides India Session Ale (4.6%) – Two Tides India Session Ale
Wals Session Citra (3.9%) – Wals Cervejaria


Now that you know all about Session Beers, check out these links to learn more about beer:

What’s the Difference Between Beer & Cider?
What is Malt Liquor?
Does Beer Expire? How to Prevent “Skunky Beer”
What is #DrinkLocal & Why is it Important?

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