“For [beer] possesses the essential quality of gulpability. Beer is more gulpable than any other beverage and consequently it ministers to the desire to drink deeply. When one is really thirsty the nibbling, quibbling, sniffing, squinting technique of the wine connoisseur becomes merely idiotic. Then is the moment of the pint tankard of bitter.”–Anonymous, 1934
A good session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention. That’s one of the best things about session beers: you can think about something besides your next beer.
Talk with beer aficionados, or read what they say on beer rating websites or the thicket of beer blogs, and you will discover that they often want beers to be bigger. “If it was bigger” is a common comment, or a plaintive “I wish it were bigger.” Yet you have to wonder just how big they want it, after reading about the “drinkability” of 8 percent or 10 percent beers. Sure, they may have a refreshing flavor, but after two or three…or four, how can you tell from down there on the floor?
I can remember precisely the first time I wished a beer was smaller. It was the day before Easter, 1997, and I was at a draft barleywine event in Philadelphia where the prize beer was a cask-conditioned Young’s Old Nick. As I sipped the 7 percent ABV beer, reveling in the low carbonation and the layers of malt and apricot esters, I idly wished that it was about 3.2 percent; I could have drunk it all afternoon. As it was, I stopped at one sample; I had to drive home, and I wanted to remember what my friends in the room were saying (if only to mock them later…which I have).
Drinking all afternoon is part of the idea behind session beers, a loosely-defined concept that transcends style or brewery considerations. Session beers are beers for session drinking, long enjoyable hours spent with friends in conversation, perhaps while playing cards or shooting pool. It is most often thought of as an English notion, and the milds and bitters that are cask-conditioned favorites there are the most commonly referenced session beers.
Pinning it Down
Trying to fine down that “loosely-defined concept” would be a good topic, itself, for an afternoon session. Is it the low alcohol, an ABV number below which a beer is a session beer? Is it the style, restricted to the milds and bitters that the English classically call session beers? Or is it something more subjective, maybe less concrete?
American brewers and beer drinkers generally pin “session beer” to “low alcohol.” Typically, we try to put a number to it: blame homebrew judging or just the science and engineering types that tend to be brewers.
What’s the number? That’s open to the individual. BeerAdvocate has a list of members’ top-rated session beers, compiled from all the beers on the site that are 5.5 percent or lower. I used the same 5.5 percent number in the original definition of the Session Beer Project, a series of posts I did on my blog to raise awareness of session beer (with some success; see sidebar). But 5.5 percent is well on the high side for ‘sessioning’ if you want to stay clear-headed; I’ve since revised my definition downward to about 4.5 percent and under.
Scott Smith, the owner (brewer, salesman, driver, janitor…) at East End Brewing in Pittsburgh, works by the numbers on a series of beers he calls Session Ales. “I tend to primarily define it by alcohol content,” he said. “I work in a 3.5 to 4.5 percent range. But some of my Session Ales have been sub-3.5 percent, one was under 3 percent. You can say it’s mild in flavor, but that doesn’t follow. The sourdough version of the kvass went insanely sour—in a good way! It was off the scale.” I didn’t get any of that, but Smith’s Lichtenhainer—the under 3 percent beer, he mentioned, a puckeringly tart and smoky sour-mash wheat beer—certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of flavor.
Shut Up and Have Another
Still, while those numbers are solidly session-strength, beers that are not mild in flavor don’t cut it for most British beer drinkers, who have a century of experience with session beer. I talked to Martyn Cornell, who literally wrote the book on British beer styles (Amber, Gold and Black: The Story of Britain’s Great Beers , available as an e-book at www.thecornerpub.co.uk), about what makes a session beer. He doesn’t think its numbers.
“Strength doesn’t, I think, have that much to do with it,” Cornell said firmly. “What makes a good session beer is a combination of restraint, satisfaction and ‘moreishness.’ Just like the ideal companions on a good evening down the pub, a good session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying and pleasurable. And yet, though each glass satisfies, like each story in the night’s long craic, the good session beer will still leave you wishing for one more pint, to carry on the pleasure.”
An English brewer friend once put it a bit more succinctly. “A session beer,” he said, “is one you can drink all night with your mates—eight or nine pints—then get a curry, and still walk home without a problem.”
Maybe that’s where Bob Hanenberg, the owner of Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, ON, got his idea for a brewery dedicated to “full flavored beers with alcohol contents less than 5 percent for today’s population concerned about over indulgence.” That’s actually from the brewery mission statement, right at their website (www.grandriverbrewing.com).
Ask Hanenberg what a session beer is, and he falls back on the “all night” definition. “I don’t know an exact description,” he said. “Brits say it’s a beer you can drink in the pub all night, shoot the shit with your buddies all night, shoot darts and then walk home. Our Mill Race Mild is a perfect session beer.” It’s been a successful idea for Hanenberg. The brewery’s only 18 months old, but it’s been steadily growing.