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Beer styles: a lesson on sessions

A homebrewed 3.5% ABV English dark bitter.
A homebrewed 3.5% ABV English dark bitter.
by Tyler Burgei

Go ahead and indulge.  It's tasty.  It's hearty.  And, perhaps unexepectedly so, it's low in alcohol.  What is it?  Why, it's a session beer of course!

Over the last few years, the craze in craft brewing has been the idea of bigger = better.  More malted barley, more hops, more wild yeast, more barrel-aging, more alcohol...basically, more big flavors.  Lately, however, the craft brewers are sensing a demand from beer geeks everywhere for a more widely available session beer.

What is a session beer?  First, let's start with the root word.  A "session," by loose definition, is an elongated amount of time (usually several hours) during which peers engage in conversation and imbibe with alcohol serving as the social lubricant.  Therefore, due to the long time spent during a "session," it serves to reason that a session beer should be low in alcohol.

Think about it.  While spending hours with a few friends, sitting around in a pub, naturally bringing your pint to your lips (if for no other reason than to have something to do with your hands), one can consume a lot of beer without realizing.  If drinking super-hopped double IPA's or barrel-aged imperial stouts, one would not only abuse their palate with the imbalanced, bold flavors, but they would become overly intoxicated.

The answer...session beer: a low alcohol, subtly-flavored, balanced brew, perfect for "quaffing" (consuming in large quantities).  How low is "low" alcohol, though?  Here's where the debate begins.  Avid semantics gurus insist that, by definition, session beer cannot exceed 4% alcohol by volume (ABV).  If above 4%, it simply is not a session beer.  However, due to everyone's difference in tolerance, others claim that a beer can be over 4% ABV and still be considered "sessionable."

So what are some examples of session beers?  Most are English-style ales, usually copper-hued (although they can be darker), with malty bread and fruit characteristics and a touch of hop bitterness.  All around, they are well-balanced and inoffensively full-bodied.  Typical styles include Ordinary Bitter, Pale Mild, and Dark Mild.  Other European styles, such as Berliner weissbier, lambic, and some stouts could technically qualify as session brews, but these are not typical examples of what one would normally think of when consuming large amounts of beer.

Session beers should be flavorful but not overwhelmingly so, full-bodied but not filling, relatively low in carbonation, and downright easy to drink.  Typically, they are served in pint glasses (16 ounces) or imperial pint glasses (20 ounces) anywhere between 40 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  They can be consumed in large quantities, but they also pair nicely with almost any food dish, be it lunch or dinner.

Below 4%, above 4%, dark or light, cask or can, with chips or a meal, in a pub or back yard...any way you decide to enjoy session beers, just remember that they are meant to be consumed while in the joyful company of others.  Cheers!

Read more about a couple other kinds of beer:

Barrel-aged beers

Winter beers


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