SHOULD THE DEFINITION OF SESSION BEERS BE CHANGED?

A session at the Sixpack house

When we started this blog a year-and-a-half ago, one of the first priorities was to come up with a catchy slogan. Failing that, we settled on “The Session Drinkers Blog” which worked well enough until we realized that roughly 98% of the beers we drank and wrote about were above the 5% marker that defines session beers. The slogan gradually became the more fitting “They’re ALL Session Beers”, alluding to our tendency to order multiple rounds of our favorite brews, regardless of style or alcohol-by-volume. The issue of session beers was recently raised again by Edinburghian Honorary Alehead BeerCast Rich, who asked our own Brother Barley for his take on recent UK legislation that will incur a “Strong Beer Tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV.

All this got me thinking- has the definition of a session beer in America become obsolete amidst the current craft beer revolution? Beer Advocate noted in its explanation of session beers back in 2005 that the average ABV of the 30,000 beers in their database was 5.9%, and I would venture to guess that this figure has gone up substantially in the past six years. Also of note is the method of serving in the USA, as most beer bars serve 16 oz pints instead of the 20 oz “Imperial” British pints found commonly across the pond- not to mention the fact that many drinkers prefer to have sessions in a home setting with friends around a barbecue or big screen TV, generally pouring and imbibing from 12 oz bottles.

If the Brits want to keep their 5% session beer, that’s fine with me (after all, I’m nothing if not a cultural relativist). But I propose the creation of a new classification that reflects a more realistic picture of session beer drinking in this country- I’m thinking “American-Style Session Beer” although I’m open for suggestions.

So, is this a good idea? And if so, what is the maximum ABV that you still consider a beer sessionable? I’d like to nominate 7.5%, as I frequently will consume a sixer of 7.2% Founders Centennial IPA over an afternoon of football and grilled cow, and I’m tired of asswipes making comments when I describe the beer as sessionable, which it is for me, otherwise I wouldn’t drink six of them.

Please cast your vote for the new ABV of the American-Style Session Beer, and leave suggestions for the name in the comments.

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27 comments

  1. Baba Brewy · · Reply

    The way I explain “session” ales to my non brew-noggin friends is: a “session” ale is one where you can have two and be able to drive home, or have a handful (5 or 6 chased with water) and still be able to do basic math, make good decisions and explain to your significant other why you were out and feel fine come the mornin’. The thought of a 7%+ “session” ale is ridiculous, as after a “session” of 6 of these I’d be in deep s**t and likely have stolen property and/ or have peed in public.

  2. HopPursuit · · Reply

    When I think of a session beer, I think of a beer I can drink for a long “session” or all day. This could be an all day picnic, tailgating, or a long night out with friends. For me, anything much over 5% is just bad news. In fact, I specifically brewed a 4.5% blonde ale this summer for those long Saturdays.

    When we start getting into 6 and 7% ABV beers, I know more than 3 or 4 and it is bed time for me!

  3. @Baba I guess it is relative to each individual, I can drive just fine after two 7% beers and lie like Nixon after six. Not that great at math in any state.

    @HopPursuit You can drink more than 3 or 4 7% beers… you’re just not applying yourself properly.

  4. For my money, I still consider 5% to be a pretty good line of demarcation for session beers. Not that I live by that, but I’d probably be a happier, healthier man if I did.

  5. Beerford, thank you for your comment and its six disclaimers.

  6. I’m concerned more with drinkability rather than alcohol content. Since I live less than a mile from 25 drinking establishments and my home bar is 6 blocks away, I need only consider whether I would be happy to drink 3-4 of the same beer. I can think of any number of solid Northwest IPAs that make a great session beer….double IPAs are probably a little much for a session beer since my session size is 22 oz., but a solid IPA goes a long way.

  7. I really didn’t phrase that well. I should have said, “generally consider,” and, “somewhat happier, and maybe even slightly healthier.”

  8. @slouch, @HopPursuit , yes, we must apply ourselves in all aspects of beerdom. But let us not confuse sessioning beer with pounding beers. At 7.5 I could certainly go the djstance with time, but with perhaps less total volume. But in the back yard with some (dare I say American PIBITH) and dead animal on the fire, bring it on!

  9. At the risk of being stripped of my honorary Alehead title, I’d argue that a session beer has to be under 4%. It’s all about volume over time – fair play to the guys who can pound through a six-pack of 7% IPA – but if you’re out on a ‘gentleman’s evening’ then historically you’d be after 4-6 imperial pints of something 3.8%-4.5%. However, I think that’s changing – in fact, I’m going to write an article on it this week.

    Slouch – if I tried to drive after two 7% beers, I’d be headfirst into the nearest lamp post before I’d changed into second gear – you guys must have iron constitutions…or do SUV’s drive themselves these days? ūüėČ

    As ever, Martin Cornell has covered session beers brilliantly – http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/how-old-is-the-term-session-beer/ – from a historical perspective. You can get tied up in the semantics of bitters, best bitters, premium ales – but as the other comments have suggested, the strength of a session beer is pretty much up to the drinker, and is however many they can handle before making a tit of themselves…

  10. @BeerCast Rich: You could never lose your honorary Alehead title, so long as you forgive me for booting in your flat when I crash on your couch visiting BrewDog sometime in the next 18 months. Deal? Deal.

  11. Some poll: where’s the choice for “Under 5%, so I can drink more”? Scared it might do too well?

  12. No, if anything it would probably split the “This is stupid, why should we change it” vote, the category that won handily in this poll. Which is fine, I can understand the argument for wanting to be able to drink more and hang out longer with friends in the pub. But lowering it would only further highlight the problem that most people can’t find these low ABV craft beers at their drinking establishments. For example, here’s today’s craft ale list at Bocktown, one of the nearest craft beer bars to me:

    Ithaca Cascazilla 7%
    Furthermore Oscura 5.3%
    Sierra Nevada Ovila Saison 7.5%
    Rust Belt Coke Oven Stout 5%
    Green Flash Imperial IPA 9.4%
    Stone IPA 6.9%
    New Holland Ichabod Pumpkin Ale 5.5%
    Avery White Rascal 5.6%
    Erie Mad Anthoney Ale 5.5%
    Victory Storm King 9.1%
    Nebraska Summertime Rye 5.6%
    Bells Best Brown Ale 5.8%
    Atwater Bloktoberfest 6.3%

    That’s right, a grand total of zero ales below 5% at a place with one of the best craft selections around. Does that mean that no one will have drinking sessions at Bocktown? Sure they will, but they’re stuck choosing from a range of beers between the 5-6% range. Maybe they’ll have to drink one fewer pint than if a 4.5% beer was available, but there will still be session drinking going on. I honestly have no emotional attachment to this idea, other than the suspicion that our terminology should reflect reality. There are some brewers who are working on filling these niches like the guys at Civil Life in St Louis, but until a brewery pops up in my neighborhood that chooses to focus on interesting, flavorful 4.5% beers I will be doing my sessioning with beers at higher strengths.

    1. Love Bocktown — Hey, Chris! — but you should check things on the other side of the state. Yards Brawler, Philly Kenzinger, Victory Uncle Teddy’s/Donnybrook/Milltown, Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout/Chesco Bitter…all tasty, all 4.5% or less, and I can find one or more in most bars in the 5 county area. I’m headed up to Boston this weekend (my son’s birthday), and I’ll find The Notch all over town: a brand of nothing but <4.5% beers that are delish (they had a 3.8% saison this summer that was great). And need I remind: East End Fat Gary's and the Session series?
      Choice is good, things are changing — no, sorry, make that things are EXPANDING. I want MORE choice, not less: sometimes I want session, sometimes I want headbangers.

  13. Guess I’ll have to take your word for it and keep the faith- cultural phenomenon tend to hit Philly a few years before they reach Pittsburgh. Hopefully that means we’ll soon be seeing a better selection of tasty session ales here (and maybe Russian River distribution while they’re at it).

    Thanks for commenting- really like your site and your stance on the abolition of the PLCB.

    Cheers!

  14. Just to put Slouch’s Bocktown beer list into perspective – here’s the cask list a couple of days ago at my local, Cloisters…

    3B’s Bee Thrifty 3.4%
    Hoggleys Pump Fiction 4.5%
    Blackwater Cubism 4.3%
    Frog island Fire Bellied Toad 5.0%
    Blue Monkey BG Sips 4.0%
    Stewart Brewing Holy Grale 4.4%
    Highland Scapa Special 4.2%
    Stewart Brewing Pentland IPA 4.1%

    Although in the spirit of full disclosure they do run stronger beer, that day was a particularly sessionable one…plenty for Lew to get his teeth into there!

  15. Personally, I would really like to have access to a list of session brews on tap (or cask) like that one, Rich. Let me ask you this–are those 3.4 or 4% beers less epensive than the stronger ones? That’s one of the issues I run into with session drinking here—a lot of the time, the weaker stuff costs the exact same as stronger beer at the bar, and that doesn’t give me a ton of incentive to choose the more sessionable drinks.

    1. Only problem with that (tip of the hat to BC Rich), is that in the US there’s no discount on taxes on the lower ABV beers; we tax by volume. People — particularly homebrewers — will tell you that the costs are lower for making a 4.0% beer than a 7.5% beer; they’re right, but even on a brewpub-size batch, it comes to about a nickel a glass. Most of the costs aren’t hops and malt and water and yeast, and on almost all of them, the session beer costs just as much as the big boy: brewers’ wages/benefits, cooling/boiling, refrigeration, filtering, packaging, transportation, taxes (as already mentioned) and registration, markup, advertising…All the same. A session beer might mature more quickly, but again, that’s going to be minimal when it comes to price per glass.

      A nickel a glass isn’t something that a pub’s going to make a difference on; and probably the brewer won’t either. There are other reasons session beers might be priced lower — volume sales, liability considerations — but take ABV-based taxes out of them, and you’ve got precious little reason to charge less.

      That’s when you have to ask…why do you think the lower ABV beer should cost less? You’re still getting full measure, it’s flavorful (at least, the ones I drink are), it’s well-made and well-served…so what is it you’re paying the money for? Is it the experience, the flavor, the enjoyment? Or are you paying per buzz-unit? This is one of the things I really like about session beer; it makes me think about why I drink beer.

  16. Everything’s priced accordingly Kid – which is common practice here. I guess it goes back to the taxing on output versus taxing on strength point we were talking about in the US/UK post.

    So a 3.4% pint would set you back £3.10 or so, a 5%er over £3.50. There are other factors in play too Рdistribution costs etc (Stewart are the local brewery so are slightly cheaper).

    If a 4% session ale and a 7% IPA are the same, you’re exactly right that it removes one of the main advantages of drinking them.

  17. By that kind of thinking though, Lew, it raises the question of “why should there be beers that aren’t sessions beers?” You make it sound as if all beers of all strengths should be treated the same, cost the same, and be expected to bring the same level of enjoyment/pure amount of taste.

    I would argue that an ordinary bitter simply doesn’t have the same volume of flavor as say, an IPA. The comparison I would make is something like a pizza–a plain cheese pizza is still “a pizza,” and is still enjoyable, but if it has four of my favorite toppings on it, I’m going to like it more and I’m going to expect to pay more for it. Having low-alcohol session beers priced around the same as a bigger brew makes me feel as if I’ve just walked into this hypothetical pizza parlor and they’re serving cheese-only pies for the same price as the loaded ones. It makes me say “Sure, I like cheese, but why am I going to order it when I can get one with all this other stuff on it for the same price?”

    It ALSO makes me say “Couldn’t they offer the cheese-only pie at a lower rate?” Then, if I was trying to say, save money, I could happily accept the “lesser” of the two choices, knowing it was the less expensive of the two.

    1. Only thing is, KCJ…it’s not a “kind of thinking,” it’s fact; at least, the cost part is. The amount of extra hops and malt to make a pint of fairly standard 7% beer is teensy compared to that needed for a 4% beer, when you’re making 10 barrels at a time. Your pizza comparison doesn’t wash: there’s a real difference in price when you throw pepperoni, onions, prosciutto, and artichokes on there.

      And don’t put me in the “all beer’s the same” box. Not what I’m saying at all. But I DO challenge the notion that bigger beers are automatically better, more flavorful, and — therefore — “worth” more. I challenge the idea that you’re going to always want the four ingredient pie: we often get the local pizza place’s tomato pie: a delish spicy crust with just tomatoes and good olive oil on it. Or the clam pie at Pepi’s in New Haven, CT: thin crust, garlic, fresh-shucked clams, and a quick dust of spices: simple, quick, NOT layered four-deep in stuff…and brilliant. Sometimes that’s just what I want…should I pay less for it because it has “less stuff” on it? It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s hard to make — you need a coal-fired oven that’s hot as hell — and you can’t get it hardly anywhere else…should it be cheap?

      Come to that, an IPA has a “volume” of flavor because there’s a bunch of hops in it. A good session beer can have a “volume” of flavor because the brewer has a clue on what to do with yeast and spice; I’ve had sub-4% saisons that were absolutely rocking. Should they cost less than the IPA?

      Put another way…if I serve you a Notch Pils, and it tastes great (and it does!), and you love it, and you enjoy it, and you didn’t know it was “only” 4%…would you feel cheated? See, I’m talking about GOOD session beers here. After all, you could get a damned Bud Select; but I don’t think that’s what any of us are talking about.

      Mostly what I think when people say session beer should cost less is that they think they’re paying too much for beer as it is, and they’re looking for a good-tasting alternative that costs less. Hey, aren’t we all?

  18. Damn, Lew. Your hot pizza talk is making me hungry. And it’s hard to argue with what you’re saying, although I have no doubt Kid Carboy will try.

    Unfortunately (for me at least) your “pay per buzz-unit” is admittedly a big part of why I order strong beer, especially in bars. A big reason goes to my station in life: a full-time job, a time-consuming beer writing hobby, a wife and four-year old girl = precious little opportunity to get my session on. I hardly ever get a chance to hit my favorite beer bars anyway, and when I do I’m always looking at the clock. If I hung out everyday for hours after work at the pub with a variety of top-quality 4% ales of my choosing, my outlook would likely be very different.

    Tragically, we can’t all lead the life of leisure afforded to an international man of mystery like you.

    1. Wait, so you ARE buying the beer to get your buzz on? Because if I only have time for one or two, I’m usually going for the most interesting, or the one I haven’t had yet, or the old favorite…not the one that’s going to spank me. I’m not against the buzz (http://stage.zobha.com/Articles/26_420_The_beauty_of_the_beer_buzz.html), but it’s a thing that happens while I’m drinking, not a goal I’m aimed at.

      Besides, there’s always spirits if you really want to save time.

      Seriously, I’m NOT trying to paint people who go for the big beers as drunks. I do it sometimes for the reasons noted above, and hell, a lot of them DO taste good (though after finally getting a taste of Brew Dog’s Sink The Bismarck, I’m not so sure about the wisdom of ‘extreme’). But I don’t just drink session beers because they’re low in alcohol; I drink session beers that are low in alcohol and TASTE GOOD.

  19. Yes, I drink to get drunk Lew. Is that what you want me to say??? *sobs uncontrollably*

    Luckily the high ABV beers are what I generally classify as “most interesting” and “old favorites” (if there’s a high ABV offering from a trusted brewer that I haven’t tried yet then forget it, that’s what I’m ordering for sure). If you look at my Bocktown menu above and I only had the chance to stop for one beer, it’d probably be the Green Flash Imperial IPA which is a bitterly bracing standby; although I’ve heard good things about Nebrasksa and that Summertime Rye sounds intriguing…

    Who knows? I’ll try them all if I have time. All this personal introspection is exhausting and making me thirsty.

  20. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    It’s actually kind of ironic that I was trying to champion the stronger beers here, because as of late it’s been more and more session stuff that I’ve been drinking. You should see my father, where it’s IPA/DIPA or bust.

    To be fair, though, if I’m going to a beer bar, the single biggest factor in what I order on draft isn’t going to be either price OR strength–like you suggested, it’s almost always going to be novelty. I find I can almost never bring myself to order something I’ve already had before if there are interesting-sounding things on tap that I haven’t had.

    1. Cheers to that, KCJ. I go for new stuff…or if I’m driving, I’ll go for known quality session. Of course, if I’m in Belgium, all bets are off…

  21. Belgium…that’s the land where rain falls up, and hamburgers eat people, yes?

  22. […] my favorite is from¬†Aleheads, who essentially conclude that all beer is generally “sessionable”. Although, this begs […]

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