Session Beers Mean Easy Drinkin’

Paul Blow

I’m just back from a short trip to the Midwest, where for several days it got ungodly hot and humid. Even though I grew up in Texas, I’m a wimpy San Franciscan now who likes his 65-degree highs and cool nights under a heap of blankets year-round. So what do I do in Chicago’s stultifying early-summer heat with neither a breeze nor AC for relief? I sit on the porch and drink ice-cold beer. Lots of it.

The problem is, drinking lots of beer isn’t as easy as it once was. In recent years, beer has gotten both stronger (higher in alcohol) and more flavorful. You can only drink one or two intense, hoppy beers such as IPAs before suffering from both tipsiness and palate fatigue. They also don’t really pair well with food. One antidote to this problem is Kölsch, which I wrote about recently. Another is session beer. In fact, the support for session beer is so enthusiastic that it’s at the point of transcending being just a brew and turning into a movement.

The definition of a session beer is loose. The website BeerAdvocate defines it as “any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV [alcohol by volume], featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish—a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.” Lew Bryson, managing editor of Malt Advocate magazine and a leading writer on beer and whiskey (he also blogs at the Session Beer Project), says it shouldn’t go higher than 4.5 percent alcohol.

Beyond that, the definition is fluid. There’s no stylistic requirement—that is, a session beer could be a dark stout or a pilsner—only a qualitative one that Bryson told me is outlined simply by the questions, “Can you easily have another, and do you want another and another?” A great session beer, he said, “is one that you can drink five of over a couple of hours and still blow a .04 on a Breathalyzer, as I did just the other night.”

So what are some great session beers? The fact is that there just aren’t many, as it’s extremely difficult to make low-alcohol, high-flavor beers. First let’s look at some that don’t make the cut. Does Budweiser qualify? Not for me. Session beers need to have some flavor, and I’m pretty bored by the time I get to the second half of a can of Bud. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? Well, it’s 5.6 percent ABV, so it’s too strong. And it’s pretty bitter. I can have two, but probably not more, before my mouth needs a rest. Full Sail brewery in Oregon even makes a beer called Session Lager, which, unfortunately, at 5.1 percent is too strong to meet either Bryson’s or BeerAdvocate’s definition.

Bryson mentioned that the English coined the term and have a knack for producing low-alcohol but flavorful beers. He singled out Bluebird Bitter from Coniston brewery. Only 3.6 percent ABV, and it’s crisp, clean, and fresh with lots of flavor. Guinness, Bryson noted, is another classic example. I love Summertime from Goose Island in Chicago (styled after a Kölsch, no less). Shiner Bock, the beer I grew up around in Austin, Texas, is a good example, though cutting it close on the flavor threshold. And jumping on the sparsely populated bandwagon just over a month ago was Notch, a new beer out of Boston. I’ve yet to try this brew but am eager to.

Coincidentally, many beer bloggers have dedicated their joint blogging efforts to discuss session beers this month. Follow the action here. And as those sessions on the porch become ever more essential this summer, don’t forget to stock the proper beer.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.