Four or five years ago, when “craft beer” was a phrase tossed around only by industry insiders and the geekiest beer geeks, the many upstart breweries fighting their way into the beer world had something to prove.
Mostly, they needed to prove they were nothing like the BudMillerCoors beer establishment, and they did so by making beer that was as different from bland macro-lagers as can be—brash, insanely hoppy IPAs and double IPAs; barrel-aged, imperial renditions of just about every style of beer out there; funky sour and “wild” brews; and beers with ingredients ranging from cucumber to prickly pear to smoked pigs’ heads (seriously—look for Right Brain Brewery’s Mangalitsa Pig Porter next time you’re in Michigan).
While there are still scores of “challenging” beers crowding the shelves, many craft brewers and drinkers seem to have tired of the big-beer arms race, shed their compensating attitudes (you know, the guy with the really big truck and the small … well, never mind) and decided to brew more beers you can just sit back and enjoy a lot of.
Enter “session beers.” If you know what a “session” is—according to Merriam-Webster, “a period devoted to a particular activity”— then you probably get the gist of these beers, but Derek Ridge, manager of the beer department at Hazel’s Beverage World in Boulder, offers a concise explanation.
“They’re lower in alcohol,” Ridge says. “You can drink four, five, six and not feel too out of it. You can kind of keep your wits about you, I guess you’d say, but you can enjoy the beer.”
Exactly. And self-proclaimed session beers have been showing up in droves this year, with powerhouse brewers like Stone, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, Boulevard and Firestone Walker all entering the fray with new, lower-alcohol offerings. Ridge says customers’ reception to these beers has been enthusiastic.
“We’re selling a lot of them, at least at the moment,” he says. “The Stone (Go-To IPA) is doing really well, the Firestone (Easy Jack) does great. That one was on fire in here. They’re definitely selling.”
So far, you might think that “session beer” describes the aforementioned BudMillerCoors bland macro-lagers, but the craft beer world seems to have appropriated the term for itself. As such, it should mean more than just “low alcohol.” A craft session beer—like any good craft beer—should have real, well-developed flavor, and lots of it, while remaining light and refreshing enough to be quaffed with impunity.
Churning out low-alcohol but super-flavorful beers might sound like a tough proposition, but its old hat for brewers in the UK, where the idea of a drinking session is centuries old. It’s common practice in British pubs for patrons to spend their whole evening downing pints of cask ale in the range of 2.5 to 4.5 percent ABV or so, generally sticking with the same beer all night. These traditional bitters, milds and the like have ample, complex flavor, but won’t knock you off your barstool, especially if you throw a curry or some fish and chips in the mix.
So why are US brewers and drinkers just now catching on to this wonderful, age-old idea, you ask? Obviously, lower-alcohol beers have been around for decades in the States. According to Ridge, the only thing that’s changed for many brewers is their marketing.
“It’s just kind of a rebranding,” he says. “Brewers can just put ‘session’ on the side of the package and kind of tweak their recipes—anything to pique people’s interest. They definitely sell, though.”
André Dimattia, beer program manager at Lakewood’s Mile High Wine and Spirits, agrees that the “session” label often doesn’t tell consumers anything important about the beer.
“Many customers are a bit confused with the term, and with good reason, given the odd naming for something that is simply a lighter beer,” Dimattia says. “I’m personally not a fan of the term, as it is too vague and broad, with the variations being wide between brands. When did the standard IPA become something we couldn’t ‘session’?”
Indeed, many new “session IPAs” would have been called “pale ales” or maybe “summer ales” a year or two ago, and with no generally agreed-upon guidelines on how low in ABV a session beer should be, some self-proclaimed examples are clocking in at upwards of 5 percent ABV—a pretty standard alcohol content, even for craft beer.
Not all session beers deliver on the flavor side of things, either, often sacrificing hop-malt balance, body and mouthfeel in the name of lower alcohol.
“Many of the new offerings don’t have the body to match the bitterness of the hops. Some feel like a hopped-up seltzer drink,” Dimattia says. “Beer should be about the flavor and the engagement that comes in tow, not about how it will hit you after one pint.”
So while there are plenty of kinks to work out with the nomenclature, marketing and quality of session beers, the proliferation of new, lower-alcohol beers on store shelves and draft lists signals at least a bit of a shifting focus on drinkability over extremity in the craft beer world. And when playing outside or spending entire weekends on the porch this summer, that’s reason enough to raise a pint—or three—of one of these new quaffable, quenching craft beers.
Aaron Butzen is a Certified Cicerone and packaging lead at Avery Brewing Company. Find him on the web at www.craftbeersolutions.com and www.vittlesandbrews.com.
3 session beers to try:
Stone Go To IPA (4.5% ABV): A hazy, tropical, resinous and otherwise lupulin-infused beer that delivers on the promise of hops, albeit without a ton of malty complexity. Tough to put down!
Firestone Walker Easy Jack (4.5% ABV): Firestone is known for its balanced and beautiful beers, and Easy Jack is no exception, its new-school, fruity hoppiness tempered by a caramel-malt backbone.
Odell Loose Leaf American Session Ale (4.5% ABV): Refreshing and refreshingly not trying to be an IPA, Loose Leaf offers a kiss of hops over a light, blonde ale base—a recipe that this year propelled the beer from a seasonal one-off to a year-round offering.