Session Beer: How Low Can You Go?

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Session Beer Offers Less Alcohol, More Flavor

After years of craft breweries reaching into the stratosphere of alcohol by volume (ABV) there is a renewed effort to go the other way, and offer lower alcohol beer that don’t sacrifice on flavor—also known as session beer. While the majority of beers happily live in the 5-7 percent ABV range, the drumbeat has intensified from customers looking to imbibe several beers without winding up under the table.

“For me it’s being able to have one at lunch and not worry about it,” explains noted beer writer, author and TV show host Lew Bryson. Years ago, Bryson remembers being at a tapping event where barley wine was being poured and thinking that, “it tasted so damned good I looked at the glass and wished it was 3.7 percent so I could drink more all afternoon.”

Other cultures have their own version of session—table beer, worker beer—but for a long, dark time in this country lower ABV beers were considered “light” and often lacked flavor. Bryson and others looked back to the days following Prohibition’s repeal and note that beers back then were four percent or less, packed with flavors, and drinkers “loved it.” But, in modern times it is difficult to find something that lacks a boozy kick but not flavor.

So Bryson launched The Session Beer Project, for which he created a few guidelines. While not official, these have been largely adopted by the craft beer community:

  • 4.5 percent ABV or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced

To help spread the word and appreciation of the movement, Bryson designated April 7, 2012 as “Session Beer Day.” In the few short weeks since he put out the call, the beer community has rallied behind the cause, with many breweries and beer bars around the country planning tap takeover events.

A Consensus on Session—Not Yet

“To those who say you cannot name a style, I look to how fast Black IPA came full circle to become a term everyone knows and breweries are making,” said Claus Hagelman of Delaware’s 16 Mile Brewery. His brewery also recently released Responders Ale, a 4.1 percent blonde that they are calling an “American Session.”

That point brings up the sticky wicket in modern beer culture—the style definition—lest we relive the black IPA/Cascadian dark ale debate, which proves that a beer or style can take on certain regional spins that meet the needs of a demographic.

Michael Wright at Commons Brewery in Portland, Ore., said that while his beers do not meet the above definition of session, they rarely go over 6 percent with their beers, and most fall in the 4.5-5.5 percent range.

“In Portland, that’s relatively sessionable,” said Wright. “We want the beers to pair well with food, and align well with a long afternoon, or evening with good friends. To me that is the definition of session. The session is about the interaction you have with friends, family, and neighbors, not about the beer. That said, the beer cannot be a distraction, and therefore must be well executed.”

The Next Big Focus

While the finer points will be debated, there is a crop of new and established breweries that are embracing session as a business model or at least a focal point of their operations.

At Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing Co. they have a brand simply called “Session Ale” that continually rotates through styles. The brews range from 3.5-4.5 percent and have been everything from a Scottish ale to a gose.

The first four releases from the new Strike Brewing Co. in San Jose, Calif., were part of their “Session Series” and while they will go bigger, founder and CEO Jenny Lewis said they intend “to be at the cutting edge of the impending session beer explosion, giving the consumer an even larger selection of highly drinkable, flavorful beers.”

Across the country at the Newburgh Brewing Co., in Newburgh, N.Y., session beers have been worked into their philosophy and they plan to honor the traditional brewing of sessionable beers by crafting their own interpretations of classic styles. Their team explains: for hundreds of years beers were brewed with the word “sessionable” in mind. It meant that people could enjoy beer for long periods of time—whether it be with friends at the pub, farmers tending to fields or families at the table.

The Public House Brewing Co. in Rolla, Mo., carries the slogan: “A Friend, a Pint, a Session.” Last year the brewery won bronze in the English Mild category at the Great American Beer Festival for their 3.5 percent Bird & Baby Mild.

In a similar vein, NOLA Brewing’s English Mild Ale clocks in at 3.9 percent and is one of their flagship beers. Melanie Knepp the head of brewing operations says it’s made with chocolate and coffee malts to give it depth in flavors but also remains relatively light on the palate. It is a “fan favorite once folks get past its outward appearance as a ‘dark beer.’”

The Truth About Session Beers

Therein lies the great truth and excellent opportunity. As more and more consumers come to the world of craft beer, it is likely that session beers will play an important role in establishing a lasting relationship. Trading in the “lite” for something with flavor, a lower ABV beer can be a gateway to middle of the road beers and then their boozier big brothers. Soon, the quaffer who started on the flavorful 3.5 percent session beer is happily sipping a barrel aged quad somewhere in the teens. For those already in the know, session simply offers the opportunity for one more. And one more after that.

John Holl is the editor of All About Beer magazine and author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from Your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries. is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.