I love a great Session Beer. Many of my contemporaries love a good session beer too but sadly this is not a concept that is understood by all.
I find myself in many self-described craft beer bars. (It’s an occupational hazard. What can I say?) On occasion I find a bartender that is totally in sync with my desire for a complex, moderately hopped, session ale. Most often I find that my request is perplexing but still, in most cases, the bartender dutifully attempts to honor my request.
They bring sampler glasses of a few of their recommendations and in an attempt to be kind and out of respect for their efforts and enthusiasm I choose the lesser of the presented evils. The idea of a session beer is a foreign concept here.
Defining Session Beer
So what is a Session Beer? A Session Beer is a Beer that is relatively low in alcohol (around 5% and under), balanced, subtly hopped, and ideally suited for enjoying over a period of hours. A “session” is an extended stay at the pub or perhaps at home with friends or dare I say, alone?
The style Mild Ale is making a bit of a comeback. These beers are typically around 4.5% abv with moderate hopping. The secret is that it takes a good brewer to make a beer like this. (I know as once upon a time I was a commercial brewer.) A good Mild is like a great quartet. Every player and every instrument plays a vital roll. If one is out of tune it’s a failure. A high proof beer with loads of hops is like a full orchestra with crashing symbols and booming bass where many flaws can hide.
Many beer lovers happen to be lovers of sport and they will find themselves in a bar, with friends, to catch the game. While the game times have been extended in order to insert more ads (often for beer) you can easily find yourself at the bar for four hours.
If you’re drinking the 7.5% strength flavor of the day for the duration you could find yourself in a world of hurt. If you have two beers per hour you will have consumed eight and if you are more thirsty than that…
According to a story I read in a popular lifestyle magazine, I learned that session beer is “dumb.” The assertion made by the writer is, why would you want to drink less flavorful beer for more hours? He later goes on to compare his favorite harvest ale (7.5% abv) to Bud Light! There are cases of “not getting it” and then willful confusion. Those of us clamoring for more session beers are not craving Bud Light nor is this the only beer style offering a moderate degree of alcohol.
The writer of this story, as well as many of the well-meaning bartenders I encounter are simply products of their experiences. American Millennial beer enthusiasts have been brought up in an era of high strength and heavily hopped beers. It’s all they know.
This is why when a session beer hunter, that has been drinking great beer for more than three decades, asks a bartender for a subtly hopped beer we often get a pint that should be served with a toothpick. When I puzzlingly ask the bartender if they really find this beer to be mildly hopped they simply respond, “yes.”
The fact is that beer, beer styles, and how beer is being consumed and discussed has changed. The craft beer movement 2.0 (I consider the first movement to have occurred in the 1980s) has brought a lot of good things to those of us who crave quality beverages. On the other side of the coin there has been a growing movement rooted in the more is better theory. Subsequently we have more alcohol and more IBUs (International Bittering Units scale that essentially measures the level of hops in a given beer).
Today we have more brewers than ever before and a rapidly growing number of beer styles. In 1995 The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) identified 33 styles that they recognized in their annual competition of American beers. In 2014 the GABF’s style guide identified 90 categories with as many sub categories (180 in total).
The bulging number of styles has many contributing factors that chiefly include the innovative nature of the brewers, the re-emergence of some old and nearly forgotten styles, and a great many styles created that carry the “American-Style” prefix. In 1995 the GABF had a single category for the popular India Pale Ale (IPA) style. By 2005 the American-Style prefix could be found for the IPA, as well as 18 additional categories in the style guide.
In 1995 IPA was defined as having an alcohol strength between 5–7.5% abv and IBU levels at 40 – 60. In 2014 the American-Style IPA was defined at a whopping 50-70 IBU and ABV 6.3-7.6% abv). So what was a moderately hopped and potent IPA in 1995 is now a minimum for the style.
Consider the numbers on some popular beers found in most any American craft beer bar:
- AleSmith IPA, IBU – 73, ABV – 7.25%
- Stone IPA, IBU – 77, ABV – 6.9%
- Firestone Union Jack, IBU – 70, ABV – 7.5%
If these beers were to time-machine back to 1995 they have to be entered into the Barley Wine or “Specialty/Extreme” beer categories. Today’s mainstream beers are yesterday’s extreme beers.
An Olive Branch (no olive ale please…) from a Dedicated Session Beer Fan
A word to my beer loving contemporaries and those who seek flavor and moderation, be patient with the Millennial beer loving bartenders when seeking session beers. It’s likely that they simply don’t have a point of reference.
A word to the Millennial beer geeks, we session beer seekers are simply looking for classic styles of beers that satisfy the palate while never dulling our senses. If you’re a little curious, join us for a session.