There has been a notable recent proclivity of brewers to make session beers: beers that are relatively low in alcohol so that several can be consumed at one sitting.
This may be a reaction to the tendency toward higher and more extreme alcohol beers of the last decade. Drinkers can only drink a few of these extreme brews at a single sitting or find themselves staring at the ceiling. Some of these are only brewed as specialty beers and not part of a regular lineup.
There are two competing explanations for the term session beers, called various names in other cultures including table beers and worker beers. One relates to the British experience during and after World War I when pubs were only open for two sessions each day to conserve energy and grains, once at lunchtime and once in the evening. With the hours curtailed, workmen had to drink quickly, requiring reduced alcohol levels to keep the laborers sober when returning to work.
The other explanation relates to the former British lifestyle of people congregating in pubs and drinking lighter beers throughout the evening. These beers were intended to be consumed for hours at a single session while allowing conversation and without making the discussion about the characteristics of the beer. Lew Bryson, a well known beer and whiskey writer and a one-man advocate for session beers, avers that such beers should be below 4.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough to allow for multiple pints, conducive to conversation, and reasonably priced. The latter is so that consumers won’t pay the same price for low alcohol beers as for high alcohol beers.
At this time there is no agreement on the upper alcohol bound for session beers. However, the Brewers Association defines a Session Beer for the Great American Beer Festival entries as a lower alcohol version of a classic beer style, balancing the style’s character with the lower alcohol content, with that content being at or below 5 percent ABV.
Legendary British beer writer Michael Jackson was the first to use the actual term session beer in 1982 about a German beer and again in 1988 referencing a British beer. Many of the British beer styles, including Bitters and Milds, have low alcohol levels. Other styles that historically have low alcohol levels include Berliner Weisse, Gose, types of Stout such as a Dry Stout, and some American Pale Ales.
As more and more consumers try craft beer, trading in light for something with flavor, these can be the gateway to their bigger brewed brothers and sisters.
Gold Leaf Lager (4.5 percent ABV), brewed by Devils Backbone Brewing in Lexington, Va., is a Helles beer and a multiple gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival. It has a sweet malt nose with a touch of citric hops. The light sweet front continues in the middle, joined by a touch of citrus. The sweet malt grows in the finish to moderate and melds in the aftertaste with melon notes. Easy to drink and very refreshing. Ratings: 7.5/8.
Go To IPA (4.5 percent ABV) is made by Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif. This flavorful IPA has a citric and pine nose. The light malt and slightly bitter hop front leads to a modest pine middle with a touch of grapefruit. The pine grows and comes to the front in the balanced finish and continues in the aftertaste. Ratings: 8/8.5.
Highway 128 (4.2 percent ABV) is a Gose-style beer produced by Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville, Calif. Highway 128 has an intriguing bouquet of earthiness and lemon. The light tart lemon front grows to medium in the middle. The finish adds a hint of the style’s traditional salt character. In the aftertaste the salt and lemon are more prominent as the tartness fades. Ratings:8.5/8.5.
Coffee Milk Stout (4.2 percent ABV) also is made by Stone Brewing. It has a beguiling nose of roast, coffee and lactose presaging a light sweet and coffee front. The middle adds a moderate roast together with a light bitterness. The roast is more apparent in the finish joined by a hint of chocolate. These all continue into the light chocolate, bitter, coffee and roast aftertaste and linger. More like a stout than a milk stout. Ratings: 7.5/7.