What is a session beer?

by Steve

Drained pint of beerToday 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!

Image by Michael Fajardo via Flickr