We don’t have much on the site yet under the “Beer 101” category, so I figure I’ll throw in some info to wet your whistles. At Aleheads, we spend a great deal of time discussing the more robust end of the beer spectrum, whether it’s talking about the principles of Double IPA’s or the cellaring techniques for Imperial Stouts. Big hops, big flavors, and big alcohol is what usually gets us excited and willing to spend time away from our family and friends to discuss such topics at length. After all, the more time you spend talking about beer the less your family and (Uninitiated) friends want to spend around you. The truth hurts sometimes, but we push on. Today I’d like to take a step back and look at a concept that everyone knows about, but maybe doesn’t know why. Let’s look at the “Session Beer”, shall we?
When people (Yes, beer geeks are people too) talk about a true session beer, they’re generally speaking of a beer that’s a tad lower in alcohol (Say less than 6% ABV) and something that they can belly up to a bar and not be afraid to take down 4 or 5 pints. The range I usually use for alcohol is 4-6%, which incorporates everything from the dreaded macros to some of the most common styles that anyone would recognize like pales ales, stouts, and many German- style lagers. Most people in the know will put the cutoff at 5% or even 4%, and I really have no problem with that, I just like expanding the spectrum a bit. The history of real session beers probably dates back to England and allowed for workers to grab a few pints in between shifts and still remain capable of working those 18 hour days. A nice English Bitter or Mild lends itself to this prolonged drinking as the alcohol stays low and the flavors aren’t overly complex. By the way, I use the word “Probably” to describe the history because there are several different accounts of where the session beer originated. Today, you’ll see thousands of Brits drinking Bitters for hours on end in the local pub so I’d say they could claim all the history they want. There’s better research out there on the history of the session beer so do yourself a favor and look it up. I’m not here to talk about the past.
I hate to use the word “Simple” to describe a beer, but quite often, that’s what you’re looking for in a session beer. This in no way means that it’s not a well crafted beer, but the flavor profile will generally be more subtle than some of the more robust offerings out there. Anchor Steam is the perfect example of a session beer to me. Not overly complex, lighter in style, average alcohol, but extremely well made. That’s a beer that will follow you home, get you through an afternoon of college hoops, yet still allow you to function for the rest of the evening (And even take down some higher octane brews later on if you so choose). In one of my recent tastings I described Long Trail’s Double Bag Alt as a session beer even though it’s over 7% ABV. To me, I could drink Double Bags all day long, but this beer certainly doesn’t fit the general definition. I’m okay with that though as “Session” is as much a term for the occurrence as it is for the type of beer consumed. I certainly wouldn’t consider Bud Light to be a session beer, even though it fits part of the definition, because I simply wouldn’t want to enjoy several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening. Like most things in the beer world, session beers are extremely subjective. Historically speaking, it’s not subjective at all, but this is my post and I’ll add whatever I want.
To get a little discussion going, I’m going to list 5 of my favorite session beers and the reason why I placed them on the list. If you’re the guy/gal reading this post, why not add some of your own thoughts? Yup, I’m talking to you, come on now. Give it a try!
Guinness & Smithwick’s – I put these two together for the simple reason that they are session beers for a bar setting only. The bottled (Or draught can) versions just aren’t the same (I’m only talking about Guinness on tap, not the delicious bottles of Extra Stout). Both clock in at under 4.5% ABV and both can be consumed over long periods of time. Creamy head on each, light feel, the perfect couple of pints to get you through a few hours at the pub. Clearly, the two beers have absolutely nothing to do with each other in terms of taste or style, but they’re both owned by the same folks so let’s just keep them together.
Anchor Steam – Sure, at 4.9% ABV it’s pushing the limit a bit (Even off the charts by some definitions, not mine though). This beer has been around forever (1971), it’s always consistent, and you know what you’re getting into. I don’t suggest that anyone should be drinking straight from the bottle, but I’ve been known to do just that with several of these back-to-back-to-back………
Samuel Smith Tadcaster Bitter – Bitters and Milds are the quintessential session beers. This one clocks in at 3.8% ABV so it’s just perfect for a long session and even great for a quick pint after work. They also do the Old Brewery Bitter, but I like the Tadcaster a touch more.
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen – I had to put something on from Sierra. Hefe’s generally represent a good session beer, but some do top out close to the 6% threshold so it’s a tough class to get into this discussion. This one comes in at 4.8% ABV and it’s extremely drinkable, especially when the weather warms up and you need a good “Outside” beer.