Session Beers Undefined

Beloved Beatle Ringo Starr famously sang, “What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Well, what if I said the words, “session beer”, would you immediately stop reading this? Wait! Stay with me, because I’ve got a couple of questions.

The Undisputed (sort of) History of Session Beer

The idea of a “session” beer came in early 20th century England when factory workers were given only a few hours in the middle of a workday to slug down as many beers as they could, before wobbling back to work and losing an appendage. The beer was lighter or moderate in alcohol which I guess seemed like a great idea at the time but thankfully, we’ve evolved.

So-called session beers have been the bane of a lot of beer drinkers for several years and the mere mention of it drives people to serious debates. An argument against them is, “Why in the world would I want to drink something with less alcohol, and flavor too?” Some reason that they will just drink less of their regular beer while not sacrificing taste or buzz. First of all, I’d bet they haven’t tried enough of the lower ABV beers – especially recently – because many craft breweries are doing a wonderful job packing bold flavor into small craft beer. But no matter how we feel about session beers, I suggest that we get used to them because they are here to stay.

Most every brewery has at least one of them so there must be something relevant about these session beers. Lagunitas Brewing calls them “fractional” beers. Founders’ largest selling beer is “All Day IPA” and you can find all sorts of names for them, “Slow Ride”, “Nooner”, “Go To IPA”, “Citra Session” and one even unabashedly called “Session”. But there was something about session beers that you wouldn’t find until maybe recently. A solid definition.

Defining Session Beer

Beer Advocate attempted to define session beers several years ago by insisting they be flavorful and drinkable, as well as drawing the ceiling line at 5% ABV. “The Session Project”, who advocates on behalf of session beers, wants it limited to 4.5%. Some folks say that it should be 4.0%

Recognizing the rising popularity of session beers, the Brewers Association recently addressed this by defining and creating a new “Session India Pale Ale” style. Basically the beer is to have, 1) light to moderate fruity esters, 2) medium to high hop aroma, and 3) low to medium maltiness. Most important in the definition is that the beer is to be between 3.7%-5.0% ABV.


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Many Questions Remain

This is where I have a serious problem. Why must we define it? It’s like giving beard- grooming guidelines to brewers. To me, it’s more of a “feel”.

Here are my issues: 1) the style guidelines and definition for session beers are only in the form of IPA’s and, 2) they’ve created strict high and low ABV standards. What about the other black and brown and red and sour, lower alcohol beers that could also be called sessions? And historically, were those original session beers from England, IPA’s? No!

And why must we have ABV limitations? Just because someone says it is so, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

“Going back to the “feel” of it, let me ask you-at what temperature exactly is it when it’s warm outside?”

For the sake of argument and to be confusing and arbitrary, let’s set the session ABV limit at 5.0%. Now, does that include 5.0% or is the limit actually 4.9%? And if you draw the line by saying 5.0% is a session beer then that means 5.1% and above is not. I’m not willing to do that and I would be willing to bet that a lot of breweries aren’t either.

Going back to the “feel” of it, let me ask you-at what temperature exactly is it when it’s warm outside? Or what temperature is it when it’s cool? (or even “cool” in the 60’s vernacular?). Wouldn’t you say that it “feels” warm or cool? Certainly those words are defined but only vaguely because “moderate” seems to be the key word in them. It is very difficult to pin down.

Ok, for whatever reason, you want to put strict ranges on a session beer. Well here is how I would do it. Jim Brown is generally regarded as the greatest NFL running back that ever played (sorry Chicago) and he wore number 32. Johnny Bench was my favorite baseball and he wore number 5, so those are my numbers. 3.2% is the low number and 5.0% is the limit.

You have some favorite numbers too? Use them. There, you did it! It’s a simple as that. I wouldn’t have guessed that pulling random numbers out of thin air was so freaking liberating.

Now, the ABV number is obviously at the heart of the argument but what if you drink a lot of beer in the 8-9% range, then what is moderate to you? Or what about the other things that influence one’s intoxication level: food intake, a person’s weight, level of activity, etc. Perhaps then it’s higher than 5.0%.

For The Sake of God, Man

Why can’t we just leave it alone and not have a definition about what a Session Beer is or is not? Do we need to have a rigid number that limits it and disqualifies it when the number just a tick higher? Talk about being non-inclusive. I would much rather follow a watermark in the sand than draw a line in it. And I don’t know about you, but frankly, I don’t believe anything that doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page.

To me, it is the people or the person you are drinking with, or your experience while drinking your beer over a certain period of time. Enjoying a delicious beer is about feel and that is what a “session” beer is. It’s about “feel”! So please, I beg you, let’s not define it. At least that’s how I feel.

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Hailing from Dayton, Ohio, I have spent most of my adult life in Indianapolis, In., where my wife and I have raised two great kids. As a police detective for many years, I have written about a lot things but none of the events were fun or enjoyable. I wanted to change that and write about something that was: craft beer and its community. I also love all sports so feel free to chat with me about either topic. Cheers! Rick

2 Comments

  1. Mark

    June 9, 2015 at 9:56 AM

    I agree. But can we also agree that calling something a “Session DOUBLE IPA” (which clocks in usually around 8-9%) is really just a marketing ploy? Can’t we just go back to calling it what it is- a good ol’ IPA? Because I mean really…

  2. Colin Cummings

    December 29, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    Brewing societies and associations don’t define terms in order to limit brewers, but to give us all some common language to use for discussion. If an IPA was simply “a really hoppy beer” rather than a style with limited parameters for color, ABV, starting and finishing gravities etc., then we would have interpretations of IPA all over the map. Same goes with “session” which I think is in desparate need of a definition. Frankly I’m impressed when a brewer can make a flavorful beer that is only 4% ABV and I could care less about the buzz, I just love great beer. So yes – define “session” and it should probably be limited to beers that are LESS THAN 5% ABV.

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