Hop-Ed: The Session Beer

Photo by Peter Anderson (Flickr).
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

Beer vernacular is a pain. Stout? Easy. IPL? Uhh, whatever you say. But now terms like “imperial,” “wild” and “session” are popping up at most bars, and most are too vague for their own good. Session beers, however, are simple to grasp, so I’ve dedicated this week’s Hop-Ed to decoding this beer buzzword.

BeerAdvocate defines session beer as “any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV…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.”

In short, drink more and regret less.

Your typical beer hovers around 5 percent ABV, so a session beer strives to be in the range of 4-4.5 percent. Session beers are most commonly IPAs, since IPAs tend to scare people away due to their high alcohol content and bitterness. (Harpoon Brewery’s “Take 5” is a popular session beer in Boston). This is also because brewing something like a “session imperial Russian stout” would be contradictory and, well, dumb.

It helps to understand where “session” comes from. BeerAdvocate suggests that the term may have some historical connotations in England, referring to small stretches of time workers had to drink during World War I. Nowadays, brewers and beer communities refer to sessions as simply gatherings over drinks. A quick drink after work with your co-workers is a session. A blind date over drinks is a session. How you choose to navigate these encounters is up to you, but these low-ABV beers allow you to stay attentive and enjoy a drink without committing your entire night to drunken galavanting.

Ballast Point Brewing Company's "Even Keel" session IPA. Photo by Four Brewers.

Ballast Point Brewing Company’s “Even Keel” session IPA. Photo by Four Brewers.

By that definition, staples like Guinness and Bud Light are technically session beers. I don’t see any problem with that. It makes sense — drinkers tend to flock to session beers for their increased drinkability — but now brewers flaunt “session” in their beer names like it’s a term reserved exclusively for craft beers, likely because most domestic beers have pitiful ABV’s anyway.

Regardless, the idea of a session is gaining popularity. Banner Brewery near Springfield, Massachusetts specializes exclusively in session beers. Public House Brewing in Central Missouri more-or-less does as well. There isn’t much info available on how many breweries are making session beers, but a quick BeerAdvocate database search showed that close to 1,000 session craft beers are currently in production across the U.S.

But some condemn sessions beers for their lack of flavor, for resembling water, or for languishing in the subterranean depths of alcohol content. Yeah, a full-bodied IPA is going to have more flavor than a session one. Yeah, some flavor loss is required to get the ABV that low. Session beers are designed to compliment the setting and environment, not your taste preferences. You’re likely drinking one because you need to keep your wits about you.

More importantly, the session ABV cutoff exists because of how our bodies process alcohol. It turns out we get much more of a buzz from 5 percent ABV beers and above than anything below that threshold, further supporting the benefits of a session (though the ABV line is blurring). If you want to delve more into the scientific reasons of why that is, Draft magazine ran an informative piece on the subject.

Drinkers who order session beers aren’t babies. On the contrary, they’re smart for knowing when it’s socially appropriate to compromise a little bit of flavor. They’re smart for not letting excessive drinking get in the way of professional responsibilities. So order that low-ABV beer with pride, champ, because you’re probably one of the only people in that bar making good decisions.

Want more Hop-Ed? Last week’s post.

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