You may have encountered the term session beer before, as in, This would make a fine session beer – a statement usually proclaimed with a sense of nirvana, followed by a subtle smile of reaffirmation. You may have even experienced the feeling of discovering a session beer yourself, when, during the course of a night at the bar, you suddenly come across a particular beer that sticks with you for the rest of the evening.
But what exactly is a “session beer”?
The Drinking Session
A British expat and buddy of ours in California once suggested that a “session” referred to one of the two allowable drinking periods in England that were imposed on shell production workers during World War I. Typically the licensed sessions were 11am-3pm and 7pm-11pm, and apparently continued up until the Liquor Licensing Act 1988 was introduced. Workers would find a beer that they could adequately quaff within these restrictive 4-hour “sessions” that were laid down by the government without getting legless and return to work or not get arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Now he could be full of shite, but we’ve found some smatterings of info to back this up and it sounds like a fine origin of the term to us.
Sessionable beers of the time might have been a cask-conditioned offering, Mild or Bitter, at 3 to 4 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), but no higher. Poured into a UK pint glass (20ozs vs. the US 16oz pint), patrons might have had upwards of 8 pints during a session and still remain coherent, ergo the “session beer.” Sounds like a lot of beer, but it actually works out to be about 1 beer per hour if you take into consideration the rising ABV of today’s beers.
The Session Beer
Though the term session beer has more or less preserved its meaning over the years, it has yet to be truly defined by anyone. To boot, we get asked a dozen times a week. So let’s give it a stab.
Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication. (Yes, you can drink and enjoy beer without getting drunk.)
Let’s use it in a sentence!
“Whoa. This 4.5 percent ABV lager is so crisp, refreshing and drinkable, with just a touch of hops and malty sweetness. I could drink this all day long! Actually, I think I might!” exclaimed Todd. “Sounds like a perfect session beer! Next round is on me!” agreed Jason.
Why does a session beer have to be under 5 percent ABV? The average ABV of the 30,000-odd beers in our database is 5.9 percent, but as you approach the 6 percent mark, we’ve found that beer drinkers feel the impact of this extra 1 percent quite easily over the course of a drinking session. While body chemistry varies greatly from person to person, 5 percent ABV seems to be optimal for everyone. Remember: the point of a session beer is imbibing socially without getting loaded.
But dont be fooled; just because a beer is lower in ABV doesnt mean that its lower in flavor. All over the world, there are thousands – tens of thousands – of beers being made at 5 percent ABV or lower, in every conceivable style.