Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).
This Saturday, April 7th, is Session Beer Day. Conceived by legendary beer/whisky writer Lew Bryson, Session Beer Day aims to celebrate the now-resurgent Session beer category—Ales and Lagers whose ABV (alcohol by volume) is 4.5% or less. Bryson has long been a staunch advocate for Session beer, and a defender of the 4.5% line. Today we’re going to look at the difference between “Session” and “sessionable”, and suggest some beers for you to celebrate the day with.
Session beers are so named because one should be able to enjoy more than one or two over a period of time without becoming intoxicated. In early 20th Century Britain, Session Bitters were commonly made at or around 4% ABV. With the emergence of the American craft beer scene, more intense Ales and Lagers started to rule the day, with many clocking in from 6-9% ABV. From there we’ve seen “superbeers” rating anywhere from 15-25% (and in a handful of cases even higher) become almost commonplace. The range of choice and complex flavors has been magical for beer fans, but over the past ten years it’s become difficult if not impossible to have a beer or two at craft beer bars without facing concerns of how to get home. The craft marketplace has spoken over the past 2-3 years, demanding easier going beers that retain the complexity and care shown by the bigger beers we’ve all come to know and love.
This being a topic in the craft beer world, it has of course come with its own set of controversies. The website Beer Advocate has set their Session ceiling at 5% ABV. The Brewers Association defines their Session Beer category for the Great American Beer Fest as anything between 4-5.1%. Lew Bryson has held firm to the 4.5% line and his dedication to it has won many supporters over, me included. Bryson derides the common usage of the word “sessionable” in beer descriptions, as it is often used to seemingly excuse a beer that simply isn’t quite as strong as other beers, but not low enough in ABV to realistically be had during a session. I admit to having perhaps too freely used the word myself over the years; most often to assuage concerns that a customer may have had about a beer being too strong, but occasionally I believe I was grading on a curve that simply wasn’t realistic for most beer drinkers. Ten years ago, when my daily drinker was Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA (9% ABV), a beer such as Troeg’s Hopback Amber (6% ABV) would have seemed a reasonable session option; with time and experience tasting through the whole breadth of Ales and Lagers from all over the world my expectations have changed, and I now look for and expect Session beers that live up to their style.
The argument gets convoluted, it seems, when some interpret writers like Bryson as somehow considering stronger beers to be “bad”. There’s an odd defensiveness in these challenges to the definition of Session: no one is trying to force all beer below an ABV line, the Session movement is simply trying to establish and promote a style of beer. I myself am going to be deliberately hypocritical in hosting a beer tasting at Arrowine this Saturday during Session Beer Day featuring stronger beers for no other reason than because the new arrivals this week happened to be stronger. Those looking to get into the spirit of Session Beer Day, however, should check out some of these great options:
Bell’s Oarsman Ale (4% ABV): My session beer of choice. Oarsman is a Wheat Ale with a sour mash that gives it great tart citrusy notes and the slightest bit of sour. Super-refreshing and always enjoyable. If I can help it, there is always some Oarsman in my fridge.
21st Amendment Bitter American (4.5% ABV): The gang at 21st Amendment has given a huge boost to the Session community by taking their once-seasonal Bitter American Ale year-round. Essentially an English Special Bitter, the Bitter American uses American hops and is dry-hopped to give the drinker a truly hoppy Ale without the sometimes overbearing alcohol level that hoppy beers can have.
St. Peter’s Organic English Ale (4.5% ABV): For years, this grassy classic British Pale was my go-to for a couple of pints after work. Beyond being insanely enjoyable, the St. Pete’s beers come in cool old school looking medicine bottles. Cures what Ales you (sorry — had to).
Schlafly Summer Lager (4.5% ABV): This is a relatively new beer for our area, having just arrived in the past couple of weeks. Summer Lager is pure German-style Helles, with rich pale malts and a smooth feel on the palate. Summer Lager also comes in 12-packs, making it a strong contender for “BBQ beer of the summer” status.
Stone Levitation Ale (4.4% ABV): Stone, masters of the mighty hop, outdo themselves with this fantastic hoppy Amber. Even though it’s been available for the better part of four years in this area, Levitation is still a bit under-the-radar. If you can, give it a shot; it’s become the Session beer for many a hophead.
Guinness Draught (4.2% ABV): You didn’t think I’d actually forget about this, did you? The Session Beer, Guinness Draught is enjoyed by millions daily who may never know what a Session Beer is or is supposed to be, all the while happily throwing down pint after pint of the classic. Guinness’ low alcohol and creamy, roasty malts make it everything a Session should be; tasty, complex and easy-going. Guinness is indeed The Magic Beverage.
Happy Session Beer Day, everyone — make sure to enjoy a pint or four with good friends! Until next time.
Nick Anderson keeps a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger. Sign up for Arrowine’s money saving email offers and free wine and beer tastings at www.arrowine.com/mailing-list-signup.aspx.