What is a session beer?
Today has been a worthwhile and constructive day. I have been taking part in a discussion on defining what actually constitutes a ‘session beer’, with ideas floating around Twitter and the likes of Double Word Score.
There seems to be some disagreement over whether the definition should be set by the strength of the beer, or by something more fluid. Get it? Fluid? Hah. My material is gold, I tell you.Ahem.
Anyway, like any lazy writer, I thought I’d see what Wikipedia has to say on matters:
Session drinking is drinking in large quantities over a single period of time, or session, without the intention of getting heavily intoxicated. Unlike binge drinking, the focus is on the social aspects of the occasion. A session beer, such as a session bitter, is a beer that has a moderate or low alcohol content – in the UK this would be around 4% e.g. Carling, or a bitter which is generally weaker than lager abv, while in the USA session beers may go as high as 5%.
This kind of marries with my British perspective – anything under 4%, and the opinion of the fine Builder of Coalitions, who would like more scope to include stronger beers in the definition.
It seems nigh on impossible to nail the etymology of ‘session beer’ or ‘session drinking’, but I think there is a fairly sound argument that it is British in origin. The First World War saw licensing hours curbed considerably in the UK, in order to stop the workers being drunk all the time. All-day drinking was out. So was drinking before work. Instead, pubs would be open for clearly defined ‘sessions’.
My understanding is that stronger beers were targeted too. That meant there was a need to produce beers that would satisfy the thirst and the demand of your average worker, without getting them so drunk that they were incapable.
There is also the British drinking culture, which is built around sociability, buying rounds, and, to judge from any city centre on a Saturday night, drinking your own body weight.
Traditional British beer is best when it is quaffed. It is not there to be sipped and savoured. It is there to be drunk swiftly, in time for the next round. This means a beer of around the 4% mark is necessary. It is enough to loosen anyone up, but not enough to knock them out. This keeps the evening convivial, and ensures the pub takes money all night.
British beers, at least in the last 100 years or so, have generally been brewed at around that level. I think most drinkers would consider this an average strength. It is the strength of a half-pint of beer quoted for an ‘alcoholic unit’ for health purposes. It, therefore, makes sense for anything at this strength, or less, to be a ‘session beer’. It is an average strength, or weak, beer suitable for a sustained period of boozing.
While I don’t see 4% as a barrier, I think it is a good guideline. Depending on a drinker’s constitution, I’m sure stronger beers would fit the bill too.
For me, the ‘session beer’ is more than this though. I think the idea of a beer you could drink at lunchtime without it impairing your afternoon is a key one. So is the idea of a beer you could drink with friends without having to bail out of the round because you feel ill. It is a sociable beer.
And being a sociable beer, I think it should be easy-drinking too. It is no good having a session beer that is too challenging, or too much of an acquired taste. Saying that, I love mild more than any other beer, and while it is generally less than 4%, it is not to everyone’s taste.
Well, I’m off for a beer myself now. Hopefully one that won’t make me fall over tonight, or fall ill tomorrow. I look forward to seeing how this debate progresses!
Nice post, and a great history of where “session” was originated. It really puts the concept into perspective. Are you familiar with Lew Bryson and The Session Beer Project? http://sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com/
He and I have had great discussions in regards to session beer.
And although I’m only in the US now, you might be interested in following what I’m up to; trying to launch beers that are all 4.5% abv and lower:
Let’s definitely keep in touch! Cheers!
Hi Chris, welcome!
Thanks for the links – I’ve had a quick look and they seem like really interesting projects. I’ll explore further later!
That’s a rather reasonable take on the subject. However, I’m not sure why a higher gravity beer cannot be sessionable. Say we hit the bar and over the course of a few hours, you down four or so beers near 4% ABV and I sip on two beer in the 8-9% range. We’re looking at about the same amount of alcohol even though it’s obviously not equal amounts of liquid. I would argue that the advantage in the session goes to me.
1. Since you are drinking more beers, you are hitting the can at least twice as often during the session than I. In fact, I may never once interrupt conversation with a trip to the restroom.
2. When one consumes more, they spend more. Typically, a session beer might run in the ballpark of $3.50 for a pint (usually tonic, not imperial). My barley wine is probably is probably $4.50-$5.00 a glass. You’ve just spent $14 and I have given the bartender $10 at the most.
3. “Traditional British beer is best when it is quaffed. It is not there to be sipped and savoured.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. While I would like to discuss the complexities of the beer on hand, you would gulp the remainder of your second, immediately raising a finger for another. I look at beer drinking as more of a Zen-like experience, meant to be savored in the moment.
4. What do binge drinkers really drink? A hefty Russian Imperial Stout with notes of coffee, chocolate, and cherries as it sits at 10% ABV and 70 IBU’s or the bros downing a case of rather sessionable Bud Lite and it’s sub-4% 10 IBU status? I’d argue that the more sophisticated, more civilized drink is the high gravity beer.
Now, when you want a beer to have at lunch, in the middle of the work day, a 4% ale or lager is probably the way to go. That to me is a different kind of beer all together.
I am not in complete disagreement with your take on session beers, but I think what constitutes a sessionable beer is much broader that a beer we can drink copious amounts of over an evening. There is a blog post on its way…
All really interesting points.
I have no problem whatsoever with savouring a stronger beer. I think there is as much a place for that as there is for downing a few weaker beers over the course of a night.
However, I perceive a ‘session’ to be tied in drinking more, and that ‘session beer’ is a beer that allows this without the night ending in beer-y carnage. A ‘session’, for me, means going out with friends and sharing rounds.
The type of drinking you describe seems a very different animal. I see nothing zen-like about session drinking – it is far less civilised! Without getting too blogged down in semantics, your model of drinking perhaps needs a different term.
“What do binge drinkers really drink? A hefty Russian Imperial Stout with notes of coffee, chocolate, and cherries as it sits at 10% ABV and 70 IBU’s or the bros downing a case of rather sessionable Bud Lite and it’s sub-4% 10 IBU status? I’d argue that the more sophisticated, more civilized drink is the high gravity beer.”
While there is something in that, do you guys have cheap strong lagers catering for the real drunks/homeless? There is a real problem in the UK with this (http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/content/articles/2008/05/01/london_superstrength_alcohol_s13_w10_feature.shtml) as this kind of binge drinking obviously leads to some pretty serious health and social problems. It is probably why the strong BrewDog beers have attracted such controversy – not that someone on the street could afford their beers.
It is also perhaps why us Brits have a certain suspicion of stronger beer. There is a culture of drinking in volume, and so stronger beers don’t sit well with this. Savouring a beer is quite a rare form of drinking.
What’s the difference between a session beer and a binge beer? Could one become the other?
I would assume that people binge mostly session beers, not their actual intent. In fact, I’m not really sure any beer should be part of a binge. Session it up with your blokes or sip on a big DIPA, just don’t drink for the sake of getting drunk.
I agree that a binge is unhealthy, but can a session become a binge? Are they really the same thing, with just semantic differences?
No. A session is generally under control. A binge gets out of control at some point. Binges often start as sessions, but not always.
I remember a binge I had once. I met up with these fellow bloggers after I had caused one of them to lose a job. We had some beers and food at a brewery. The session maybe could have ended there, but the bloggers wanted to head off to another fine establishment who specialized in shots of Chartreuse chased by a fruity Belgian beer of some kind. Long story short, the bloggers had to drag me down the street to their car. It was determined that my evening was over at that point.
That’s an example of a session turning into a binge. Fun? Yes. Should I do it very often? Nope.
I remember that night. I guess my question is, at what point did the session become a binge?
My reply is at the bottom of the page.
Y’know, just to confuse matters.
I don’t remember. It was a short time after the Chartreuse.
I like the regional subjectivity your definition allows…I’m not sure about an actual percentage cutoff, although legislators out here really try to regulate full strength vs. lower strength beer–you can only get partial strength beers in grocery stores and have to go to an actual liquor store to get full strength, so there might be something like a government-mandated definition of a “session beer.”
I might disagree with the requirement that session drinking needs to be sociable. Maybe I’m an exception, but my favorite hobby is a semi-difficult crossword puzzle and a few high quality beers. It’s not a social event, and the goal isn’t to get drunk. It’s just a merging of two of my favorite things.
“legislators out here really try to regulate full strength vs. lower strength beer–you can only get partial strength beers in grocery stores and have to go to an actual liquor store to get full strength, so there might be something like a government-mandated definition of a “session beer.””
That sounds a lot like Sweden, which I think has a similiar arrangement. There is no such divide here – and in fact the strongest beers are sometimes the cheapest (see link in my comment above). Beer is heavily taxed in the UK, though. There are growing calls to tax according to ABV to encourage more ‘responsible drinking’ and make weaker beers more popular. There has been a creep in ABV in recent years, which has arguably had consequences on social disorder, drunken fights on the streets etc etc.
“I might disagree with the requirement that session drinking needs to be sociable. Maybe I’m an exception, but my favorite hobby is a semi-difficult crossword puzzle and a few high quality beers. It’s not a social event, and the goal isn’t to get drunk. It’s just a merging of two of my favorite things.”
Nice. I certainly enjoy a quiet, relaxing drink on my own from time to time. I can’t decide if I would label it a ‘session’ though. But as the goal isn’t really to get drunk, it certainly seems to be in the ‘session’ sphere.
I really had no idea that this topic would lead in so many directions. The cultural lesson is fun as well. One of these days, I’ll finish my post on the subject.
[…] take the argument in another direction, I responded to Steve’s own post on the session beer in this […]
I’d say there is a difference between a session and a binge, albeit one open to interpretation.
By it’s very nature, session drinking focuses on lower-alcohol beer to ensure it doesn’t enter binge territory. However, if we were to follow the medical guidelines to the letter, anything more than two session beers is unhealthy, and a bottle of 10% ABV alone would be pushing it. So…arguably most drinking could be considered binge drinking of some degree or other.
The end goal of binge drinking is to get horribly drunk. The end goal of session drinking is to not get horribly drunk. We don’t always reach our goals.
If a drinking session fails to live up to the name of a “session” and becomes a binge, does that make the concept of a “session beer” really just a wish fulfillment on the part of craft beer/lower ABV enthusiasts in that it provides the illusion that there’s a difference between us (connoisseurs) and them (rowdy riffraff)?
I don’t know. I mean, looking at the average ABV of craft beers, I’d say they are anti-session.
In the historical sense, I think session beers have a practical purpose. Perhaps they are still relevant as people try to live healthier lives without giving up the finer things in life?
I’m still ironing this theory out, but another virtue of session beers is that you can try a greater variety of beer in one evening. Say a pub/bar has eight different beers available on cask. It would be a shame to just cradle one all night, because of its strength, when there is so much choice.
I don’t know if it is the same in the US, but in the UK it is generally easier to come across unusual beers by cask in pubs than it is to pick up a bottle for home drinking. I could easily walk into a couple of pubs near me that have three or four interesting guest ‘session’ beers I may never see again. The fact that they are likely to be around the 4-5% mark means I can try at least some of them in one sitting.
I like the idea of lower ABV for health as opposed to calories or carbohydrates, I guess. Some of the healthy beers in the US are pretty much undrinkable.
Cask beer is sort of a novelty here–almost every brewery here has a cask, but it’s not the most popular brew. Cask seems more popular here than in the Midwest, though. Nitrogen infusion is also pretty popular.
I don’t know that beers in the 4% ABV range really offer that much variety in flavor, but I see your point. Honestly, my ideal session is three beers, all ranging between 6% and 10% ABV. There’s way more variety in three beers that fit within these confines than 4 or 5 at 4%, IMHO.
Casks are growing in popularity here, but they’re not very common. I went out this week for a special cask of Schlafly’s APA, dry-hopped with Simcoe hops. Glorious Simcoe hops…That beer is generally considered a session beer despite its 5.9% ABV. It was really good…cloudy orange, almost syrupy, flat, grapefruity.
I think beers in the 4% range can offer a world of flavour and variety, there are many styles that can work within that parameter – but I may touch upon this when I get around to replying to your post. I think the cask/bottle divide is an interesting one. I might touch upon that too once I have my train of thought sorted out!
That sounds like a lovely beer. A lot of lighter session beers taste grapefruity to my uneducated palate.
I sunk some cask Doom Bar this lunchtime. It is a beer growing in popularity over here, the dark side of golden, pretty bitter and hoppy, but with a hint of sweetness. A good, solid Best Bitter. Well, that’s how it tasted to me. And 4%, so perfect for a lunchtime pint.
[…] Try A Craft Beer Review Anyway’) Posted on August 6, 2010 by Steve So, all that beer talk gave me quite the thirst. And boy did I go to town satisfying it last night. It was a friend’s […]