Session Beer: The Future of Craft Brewing?

The concept of “session beers” has gained popularity in some circles as a potential new trend in the American craft brewing movement. What exactly is a session beer? Should you care? Is it poised to become a hot new trend? Greg and Nathan considered these questions and share their thoughts below. What do you think about session beers?

gregsmall From Greg………….

What do YOU mean when you think of session beer? Do you think it is silly to think about, do you think it is the next trend in craft beer, do you think about it at all? This spring as five Indiana brewers gathered for a roundtable on craft beer in Indiana, when asked about the next trend in beer, they unanimously declared ‘session beers’ to be the next trend. By that, most brewers mean lower alcohol beer, under 5%, but we likely need to consider what really IS session beer and would anyone care?

The average beer drinker in the U.S. drinks Bud Light (#1 beer), Coors Light, or Miller Light and certainly considers these to be ‘session beers’ as in you can drink several in a row. The British pub patron considers the Mild at 3-4% abv, and the Ordinary Bitter or Best Bitter up to about 4.7% abv all to be ‘session beers.’ (abv – alcohol by volume) The British pint being larger (20oz) than the American pint (16oz) the Brits often love to sip, or sometimes pound back, a few of these in a ‘session.’ I’ve been happy to participate.

Most Americans likely don’t consider Guinness to be a ‘session beer’ although the draft product comes in at about 4.3% abv making this beer lower in alcohol and with less calories than the Bud Light! So what do YOU mean by ‘session.’ Consider the possibilities: filling, a taste that is so pleasant you can drink several, low alcohol to keep you from being inebriated to quickly? Any of these definitions can fit. Which is why some people consider the topic of session beers to be a silly topic!

Writer and blogger Lew Bryson takes credit for starting the concept of making session beers more popular and defines session beers in the following way: 4.5% alcohol by volume or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough for multiple pints, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced. If I am going to put those in an order of importance I would start with flavor (I mean, sure we can find near-beer like Kaliber that I do not like at nearly 0% alcohol)! Balance for multiple pints and then abv would be next in line for my use. And I won’t stick to a rigid 4.5%. If I walk into a brew pub, get a sampler flight to share, then settle in for a pint I am likely to choose a tasty 4.9% beer over a 9.5% if I think I will be operating any heavy equipment (like maybe my car)! Oh and you can order a shirt here from Lew's Session Project

Can we get local session beer in Indiana? Yes! My picks for Central Indiana would be:

Flat 12, 12 penny Scottish Ale, 3.4% (Brewer Rob actually threw out the first mention on the brewer’s panel); Super Bravo 46 at 4.6% and 46 ibu
SunKing, Shake Up, 3.01%; Ring of Dingle Dry Irish Stout, 4.7%
Thr3e Wise Men, Two Lucy’s blackberry wheat, 4.5%
Bloomington Brewing Kirkwood Crème Ale, 4.9%
Cheating a bit: Upland Blackberry Lambic, at about 5%

So are session beers hard to find? Not really. It depends on when and where you look. For example, New Albanian Brewing Company featured session beers on Session Beer Day, April 7, and had the following list on tap:

NABC Community Dark … English Mild, 3.7% abv
NABC Get Off My Lawn … Session IPA, 4.2% abv
NABC Gold … Blonde Ale, 4.2% abv
NABC Grätzilla … Grätzer/Grodziskie, 3.3% abv
NABC Houndmouth …. Hoppy American Wheat, 4.5% abv
NABC Tafel … Belgian Table/Session Ale, 4% abv
Against the Grain, Louisville, Ludicrously Terse … English Bitter, 4.5% abv
Apocalypse Brew, Louisville, Works Hop Project: Simcoe … American Pale Ale, circa 4.5% abv
Country Boy, Lexington, KY, Nacho Bait … Jalapeňo Blonde, 4.5% abv
Flat12 12 Penny Scottish Ale … Scottish Export Ale, 3.4% abv
Founders All Day IPA … Session IPA, 4.7% abv
Stone Levitation Ale … Amber Ale, 4.4% abv

I personally really enjoy New Belgium’s Loft at 4.2% when it is available.

Now let’s be clear, if I look up the top rated beers on RateBeer or on Untapped or any other source we will NOT find low alcohol beers in the top 50 – unless we consider a lambic at 5%.

Let’s also be clear that if I am asked my favorite beers I won’t start the list with a Scottish 60 or a Mild.

Yet just yesterday I sat at the Bluegrass Brewing Company, Shelbyville Rd., Louisville, KY, and truly enjoyed one of my favorite beers – their ALT at 4.19%, a very flavorful, with nice hop bitterness beer that I enjoy many times when I am at a Bluegrass brewing location!

SO… do I think craft beer drinkers will surge to sessionable, lighter alcohol beers like they have embraced Imperial everything and super hopped beers? No. Do I think many of us will be reasonable by enjoying flavorful, lower alcohol, session beer some of the time, absolutely. Would YOU rather have a nice Mild, Scottish 60, or lighter Alt than Mich Ultra? I think so!

session_beer_day                  session_beer_month


nathansmall From Nathan………….

The one thing almost as certain as death and taxes is the inevitable backlash that follows a break from tradition. So the ascent of double/imperial/palate-wrecking beers that have become so popular in the modern American craft beer movement was ripe for the picking. Led in no small part by a few beer bloggers, this backlash manifested itself into a celebration of “session beers” to save us all from the fate of waking up face down in the neighbor’s yard due to the consumption of <gasp> two IPAs. Session Beer Day was celebrated on April 6th, and apparently that wasn’t enough so May became Session Beer Month in California. And if 32 days of beer bloggers telling you what to drink isn’t enough, you can celebrate year round by flaunting your Session Beer Project panties with the slogan “Thanks, I’ll Have Another” scribbled across the crotch. Nice. Anyway, the whole idea has gained enough momentum for some in the craft brewing community to suggest that session beers are the next big thing in craft brewing.

What exactly is a session beer? Good question - the beauty of getting in early on something is the chance to define your own parameters. Here is what generally seems to be agreed upon:

1) Light, but still flavorful. Sounds good.
2) Alcohol by volume of 4-5% or lower. Still good.
3) Must be balanced. OK, but what about Session IPAs…
4) Does not distract from conversation. Uh-oh.

Defining some of these artificial limitations, which in some cases have little to do with the actual beer, is the problem I have with session beer as the future of craft brewing. The issue of balance would likely rule out the emerging session IPA offerings. And does this suggest it’s somehow undesirable to discuss the beer sitting in front of us? Despite the low ABV, it was certainly difficult not to discuss the barrel aged English Mild we shared at the last group tasting. Besides, have you ever actually tried conversing with a beer geek about something other than beer? It’s not a pleasant scene. Just kidding about that (maybe), but the point is I enjoy talking about beer. It’s not some type of inconvenient distraction to have something interesting in my glass.

There is arguably a certain lost art to making a flavorful session beer in American craft brewing. This is certainly the result of modern craft brewing’s obsession with pushing the overall limits of flavor, but also a reflection of how many brewers have approached their lighter offerings as safe gateway beers to appeal to mainstream drinkers. So rather than the luscious malt flavor of a Scottish 70, English Mild, or lighter Brown Porter; we’re more likely to find a Blonde Ale or Cream Ale in the American craft beer aisle. It’s a good business model, somebody is obviously drinking those beers. It just isn’t me. So in this respect there is plenty of room for growth that craft brewers can explore within the guidelines of session beers.

But the future of craft brewing? That would imply that experienced craft drinkers are so tired of extreme beers they are willing to place artificial limitations on their future options. There are so many new styles and experiences to explore across the broad spectrum of recognized beer styles. I am a self-described “hophead”, and still love those beers, yet one of my current obsessions is finding (and homebrewing) good examples of a Biere de Garde. German Bocks would never be confused as session beers, and these wonderful styles are not heavily represented in American craft brewing. And brewers should also continue to pursue recipes that don’t fit nicely into any established guideline – craft brewing is where innovation occurs.

Craft drinkers are looking for exciting new experiences in their choice of beverage. This can just as easily come from a Berliner Weisse or a 15% Triple IPA. But we already have plenty of options for beers that aren’t remarkable enough to warrant their own conversation. We don’t need more of those, they drove us to become craft beer drinkers in the first place.


GregK said...

My apology to Upland for not mentioning Campside IPA - which I consumed just after we posted this blog. And my apology to all other Local brewers who did not get mentioned - but hey, now it is up to you consumers to decide if you like session beers, which ones, and go find them!

The New Albanian said...

Nathan: Not being confrontational here, but in pondering the veracity of the phrase "future of craft beer," it might be helpful to move a bit beyond your own rather obvious predispositions. Just saying.

Matt said...

I certainly do not think it will be the future of craft beer. I would love to see a Notch style brewery open up here though and do nothing but sub 4.5% beers. I draw my line at 4.5%.

The best we can hope for in America is that true session beers become a niche product within a niche product.

If we could get American brewers to stop treating cask condition beer like an experimental randal and put a proper ESB or mild on cask life would be good.

I would also think as the price of beer continues to escalate someone could produce a low ABV and tasty beer with less fermentables and would could have a sub 10$ sixer in Indianapolis. Wishful thinking on my part.

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