The subject of session beer is hotting up in the USA, so I am providing this handy guide to people on both sides of the Pond as to why “session beer” is critical to define.
But before we go any further…
Note for U.S. beer nerds
British Session Beers pack an awesome punch of flavor in sub-4% beers by cask conditioning. Unless you have spent a significant amount of time drinking cask-conditioned, sub-4% beers, you cannot grok why British beer nerds hold them in such high esteem. Please also see the note on percentages below to understand why “session beer” has been generally defined in the UK as sub-4% ABV.
Note for British beer nerds
American macro beer long ago standardized with 5% ABV for their main beers, and 4.2% being the “light” beer. These are deeply boring beers designed to not intrude in any way on the consumer’s brain, resulting in mass consumption. You know this intellectually, but you don’t grok it – for U.S. drinkers, 4.2% and under is “alcoholic seltzer water”, and U.S. beer nerds generally do not understand how tasty and more-ish a 3.5% ABV cask beer can be.
About ABV percentages
At low ABV ranges, small changes in the beer ABV have a disproportionate effect.
5% ABV is 20% more alcohol than 4% ABV
4% ABV is 33% more alcohol than 3% ABV
5% ABV is 43% more alcohol than 3.5% ABV
Also, the higher the ABV the more alcohol there is in the glass and thus the less water there is in the glass. This affects how your body reacts to the intake of the beer.
A “session” in the British sense can easily include 6 to 8 Imperial pints (that’s 20 fl oz per pint) consumed over multiple hours, usually the course of an evening. A session is a very social event, usually involving a friend or three and dinner either at the pub or on the way home. During a session the focus is on your companions, not the beer, hence the larger volume consumption and the desire for a lower alcohol level.
So now you see why that extra 33% alcohol, which makes itself felt after just a few beers, let alone after 8, isn’t sought after for British cask-conditioned beers. Instead, hundreds of years of brewing history enable British brewers to pack all that flavor into a 4% beer.
The current state of the U.S. “session” beer
There is a controversy in the U.S. about what is the dividing line between “session”, “sessionable”, and “don’t even think of sessioning”. Some commenters say “a session beer is the beer I drink during a session, even if that is an Imperial IPA”. I can’t even compose a response to this – I mean, have you ever tried to drink 5 pints of a 13% ABV beer? Your liver will not thank you.
Others say that “session” in the U.S. sense incorporates up to 6%, or that “sessionable” is anything up to 5.5% ABV. Again, look at the proportions in the percentages table above, do a little math and see whether you can agree with those commenters.
Lew Bryson at the Session Beer Project proposes 4.5% as the dividing line for session beers. While such a comment would ignite a flamestorm in Britain, I think that for U.S. purposes this is an acceptable dividing line. Session beer is not about getting hammered, or double/imperial anything – it’s about a nice, tasty beer that allows you to drink sociably with friends, but which does not encourage you to get drunk.
I think that the future of craft beer is already moving away from the arms race of ever higher ABV. I think that the future will be lower alcohol, full in flavour, and a lot of fun to drink with friends. Those of you who live near Fairhope Brewery or Brew Stooges can already sample this future – Fairhope’s Everyday Ale and Brew Stooges’ Mo Better Bitter are good examples of low ABV flavour packed beer.
Check out your local brewery’s offerings. Go on, go have a pint.