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Session Beer: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

Author // Jeff Wharton

Many of you have noticed the “bigger is better” mentality that seems to have gripped craft beer over the past years. The newest double IPA? Got to have it! A limited release imperial stout? Where do I have to be and how early do I have to be there to get my two bottles?! These are the brews that have garnered the hype. The problem is, they just have too much alcohol sometimes!

The Tap at Haverhill Berliner Weiss - A 3% session beer

Sure, it’s great to sit around on a chilly evening and sip on a big, boozy stout while you contemplate your thoughts or just relax...hell, we’ve been known to polish off a bomber of 12% beer each in a night just hanging out. But that’s not most nights. Most nights, we want craft beer to be a social lubricant, or even less. Oftentimes, beer is just the reason to come together with friends or something to drink while hanging out. When you say, “hey, you want to go grab a beer?” you might as well be saying “hey, let’s get together and catch up...while we’re doing so, we’ll drink some beers.” In this situation, it’s tough to throw back multiple 10% double IPA’s as you’ll find that the conversation quickly degrades. While you don’t need a ton of alcohol you do, however, need to enjoy the beer you’re drinking while doing any of this. The answer? Session beer.

So what is session beer? That seems to be the problem! The case for session beer is well defined but, in the United States, it seems the criteria is still a bit loose. You have people all over the spectrum espousing that session beer is anywhere from 4% alcohol by volume (abv) to “I can drink a six pack of 8% IPA and not be drunk, so that’s session beer!” While we think it’s more important to push the idea of lower-alcohol beer than to push a strict definition, brewers need something to aim for. It’s tougher to get a movement going with a rough idea than with a line of demarcation. If we want more session beer, then we need something that is definitely and without question “session beer.” So, with that said, we’re officially throwing our lot in with the 4.5% abv line as set by Lew Bryson at The Session Beer Project and Chris Lohring at Notch Session.

Mayflower Summer Rye - A 3.7% session beer

Let’s start (can we “start” this far into an article?) by saying we know this isn’t a traditional definition. Historically session beer is a British thing and the British set the line at 4% abv. That said, they have a beer culture that is much lower alcohol throughout a brewer’s complete line-up. With that in mind, we don’t necessarily think it makes sense to take much more than the concept of “lower alcohol beer” along with the term “session beer” (which is a great term; easily identifiable and catchy sounding). Also, while American craft brewing is heavily influenced by the British, we also pull from the Germans and the Belgians, among many others. So we’re going to do what we do best on this side of the pond...meld a bunch of cultures then do our own thing! Every country has their own word for “session beer.” Since we speak English, and the English speak English, we’re going to use the same word with just a slightly tweaked definition as we’ve so often done in the past...sorry chaps.

Now, finally, on to why we think it should be 4.5% and not 5%...or 6%...or 8% (which is just ridiculous, to be honest...sorry if you disagree, but you’re simply wrong). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a standard alcoholic drink has 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol and a “standard beer” is 12oz. This means that the standard abv for a beer is 5%. It would only make sense, then, that to have a “session beer” it needs to be lower in alcohol than a “standard beer.” 4.5% is a nice, round number less than the “standard beer’s” 5%. Therefore, we argue that session beer is 4.5% abv or lower, with no bottom limit. (We add in that part about the bottom limit because the Brewers Association has, in a stunningly odd move, said that session beer cannot be less than 4% abv. In our books, a lower limit on session beer is simply preposterous. It defies the very concept!)

Notch Session Pils - A 3.9% session pilsner

We’d like to close out by saying that, in reality, this is about a need in American Craft Beer for more lower alcohol beer. We’re pushing more for a greater number of lower alcohol beers in the U.S. than we are specifically pushing for a specific percent alcohol by volume definition. Every cause needs a line in the sand and a name, though, and session beer is a good name and 4.5% is a good line. In the same way that “extreme beer” has become a bit of a dated term so we hope is the same demise one day for “session beer.”

It’s a similar hope to why we started Drink Craft Beer in the first place. We want craft beer to be so popular that we can walk into any bar, not any craft beer bar, and find a couple good brews on tap. We don’t want to have to look for a craft beer bar and we don’t want to have to look for session beer. We just want to be able to walk into a bar and get a beer, sometimes low alcohol beer and sometimes high alcohol beer...but always a good beer. Until then we’ll keep pushing for craft beer and, until we see more lower alcohol beer, we’ll keep pushing for session beer!