What is a Session Beer?
You may have heard people refer to a beer as “sessionable” or “a good session beer”. What do they mean by that? In short, a session beer, in the US, is a beer that is 4.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) or less and still has enough flavor to be interesting and enjoyable. Pretty vague, right?
It is actually a concept that has been around since 2 or more people have gotten together to enjoy a few beers over a period of a few hours. But the term hadn’t come into use as a way to describe beer until the 1980s. As are a lot of things in beer history, there is much debate over where the term “session” actually comes from. Some attribute it to the First World War when bars were allowed to be open only 2 times a day, the Lunch Session and Evening Session. Others say that it more likely comes from the British saying of “having a session down the pub” with friends. One of the earliest references to a “session beer” is from Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer (First Edition) where he refers to German Helles lagers as “every day session beers”.
No matter where it comes from, a session now means having several beers in a sitting over a few hours with friends. Because the length of time is important, you don’t want to be drinking a beer that’s really high in alcohol or you’ll have some trouble getting home afterwards. So you want a beer that’s low in ABV. Also you want a balanced beer that’s highly drinkable with a relatively dry finish so you can have several of them. So it follows that a “session beer” is a well balanced beer with low ABV that can be enjoyed over a lengthy period of time. A beer that would fit this category is referred to as “sessionable”.
In the early days of the rise of craft beer, many brewers were focused on producing big beers with big flavor and high ABV. Sure it was fun, but it made it hard to enjoy a few craft beers without worrying about walking straight afterwards. Now, many craft brewers produce some very excellent “session beers”. Of note, Notch Brewing from Ipswich, MA is focused on brewing only session beers and have shown that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor to produce a good low ABV beer.
As it says on the Notch website, “Beer enhances our good times together, session beer extends them.”