“Thank you sir, may I have another?” This classic quote from 1978's Animal House may not have been referring to beer, however it could easily be applied to it when referring specifically to a session beer. The origin of the term is often in question, but these days a session beer is commonly accepted as a beer 4-5% or lower in alcohol content, that’s full flavored, balanced and while still allowing you to have several of in a single sitting and not be over imbibed by the end of your evening.
The term has more frequently been used in the last 30 years or so, but may have its origins dating back to World War I when bars were only allowed to be open during a morning and afternoon shift. Many of the beers served were English Bitters as they were low enough in alcohol for workers to have a few and be coherent enough to go back to work.
Regardless of its exact origin, the meaning is agreed upon amongst most people. However, what if we were to question this accepted definition? With the craft beer explosion in the United States also spreading worldwide, I believe we should take a look at the landscape of beer in the 21st century and re-think session beers. Well known Philly beer writer, Lee Bryson, has attempted to address the issue of session beers with his blog entitled simply ‘The Session Beer Project'. Bryson gives the sometimes forgotten session beer a little more love in this world of big beers. His definition includes a maximum ABV of 4.5%, with flavor staying well balanced. Meanwhile, sites like BeerAdvocate assign session beers a content of 5% or less.
Consider this though, the average ABV of most beers these days is over 6%. This is not to say, of course, that we don’t consume full flavored low ABV beers. Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin, Texas produces several 4% or lower beers that are incredible. Also note that most craft connoisseurs actually drink less beer, as a result of higher ABV's, than those who don’t care what fills there glass and are only looking for one result.
Is it possible that the increased tolerance to the higher alcohol could actual raise the alcohol content for the session beer category? I know, don't say it. That's beer blasphemy to even consider the thought of a session beer being something over 6%. Don't get me wrong, I get it, but if you take into consideration beers that maybe high in alcohol, yet offer that crisp, dry finish of a session beer, you often don't notice the alcohol content and easily reach for more. In the last few years it seems like I encounter more and more people who are able to casually have several higher ABV beers and still be very coherent by the end of the evening.
So what is a “session-able” beer then? For me, it's around the 5.5-6% mark. But I also recognize that we're not living in early 1900's England anymore, the definition maybe evolving into something that is individual to each person. Paraphrasing fellow writer Paul Hightower, who said it well the other day, “Session beers are like many things in life, we often won't know it until we see it”.
Up and Coming
The San Antonio area will soon be home to a new craft brewery. 5 Stones Craft Brewery will open in Cibolio, Texas just outside of San Antonio. The 7bbl nano-brewery will focus on 4-5 limited releases each season for the first few years, deviating from the norm by not having any year-round offerings. “We want to focus on small, creative batches that will set us apart from others” said founder Seth Weatherly. Weatherly went on to say that they recently received their Federal TTB approval (Alchohol Tobacco and Trade Bureau) and should have TABC approval in a few weeks (Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission).
Look for 5 Stones to start turning out brews in late March to early April.