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Session Beer – an amalgamation of years and years of thoughts

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OK, it’s time to tackle the session beer post.

Anyone that knows me (or has read my comments in beer cyberspace over the years), understands that this is a serious subject for me, and that I get really tired of the term ‘session beer’ being abused left, right and center in the USA. Here, I am going to attempt to bring the years and years of posts that became shunned on BA, plus all of the stuff that never made it to the web but simply resided in my head, together in one place and in a single stream of consciousness. This might go on a bit!

There’s a few reasons why this seems like the right time to get this post up. My ejection from BA has given me the motivation, then there is the question of the ever increasing popularity of the use of the term ‘session beer’ in the US, then there was Martyn Cornell’s recent post about the history of the term, and finally the short interview with Colin Valentine, Chairman of CAMRA in BeerAdvoacate magazine #52 where he addresses the term.

Let’s start by immediately stating my belief in a categoric fashion;

4.0% is the absolute maximum ABV for a beer to be accurately called a ‘session beer’

not 4.5%, not 5% and not 6%; only 4% and under. There, that’s out of the way and what follows will be my brain downloading itself to the internet!

The essence of the 4% argument is based in the traditional output of British breweries and the habit of drinking large volumes of beer in single sittings in pubs. The phrase ‘session beer’ grew out of these habits.

There are a colossal number of breweries in the UK that routinely produce(d) a small range of bitters that were distinguished from one another by their ABV. These ‘sets’, used to (and still do) fall into two or three categories; firstly the everyday, ‘quaffing beer’, secondly the ‘premium beer’ (sometimes called the ‘Best Bitter’) and (sometimes) thirdly, a beer that would have been considered ‘strong’.

The second and the third beers in these series would NEVER have been considered suitable for multiple servings and were not created by the brewers for ‘supping’ on a large scale or for an extended period of time, i.e. they were not supposed to be session beers. As a result, the ‘quaffing beer’ would be the only one that they (or their customers) would have used as a ‘session beer’. In every instance that I have been able to find, I have not found a range of three beers where the first in the series was traditionally ever in excess of 4% ABV. (It should be noted that in several instances we are only talking about two beers in a ‘set’ with the ESB (super premium) being a beer that was not always part of the portfolio).

The usual (and perhaps quintessential) example that one quotes as evidence of this is the Fuller’s range of bitters; Chiswick Bitter, London Pride and ESB. These beers represent the typical, three beer stable of bitters that had significantly different purposes in mind when they were brewed. Their ABV’s clock in at 3.5%, 4.1% (for the typical, UK cask version) and 5.5% (in the cask). In addition (and perhaps most tellingly), Fuller’s refers to these beers in the following manner;

  • Chiswick Bitter – “Fuller’s popular, session strength ale’.
  • London Pride – “Britain’s leading Premium Ale‘ (ala Michael Jackson’s quote below).
  • ESB – in 1971 as, “one of the strongest regularly brewed draught beers in the country”.

On page 6 of the 7th Edition of The Running Press Pocket Guide to Beer published in 2000, under the heading of ‘Strength’, Michael Jackson writes, “A typical Premium Beer…..might been between 4 and 5 percent by volume’. The word ‘premium’ is crucial here since it has particular significance and meaning. It refers to a beer that the brewer would consider to be unsuitable for large volume consumption, and as such would never be used as a ‘session beer’ – often, the second in the typical, bitter series but never the first.

On pages 11 and 12 of the same book, under the heading of ‘Bitter’ in the “Language of the label’ section, Jackson writes, ‘Basic Bitters usually have an alcohol content of 3.75-4 percent by volume; ‘Best’ or “Special” bitters come in at 4-4.75; the odd “Extra Special” at about 5.5. Again, the ‘Basic Bitter’ would be the only one that would consider a ‘session beer’ and would always be under 4%.

On page 91 of The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Beer, Roger Protz writes, ‘With the exception of a handful of specialist breweries……every brewery in England produces at least one bitter. Usually there are two, a lower strength ‘supping’ bitter of around 3.6%, and a stronger best bitter of 4.0 per cent or more”.

In Jeff Evans’ Good Bottled Beer Guide published by CAMRA, he describes two very distinct categories of beer; ‘Bitter’ and ‘Best Bitter’. In these definitions he goes a little further than I am prepared to do by stating that ‘Bitter’s’ are typically up to 4.1%, but also states that at 4.2% we are into the ‘Best Bitter’ realm. Again, that first group would have be the ‘session beers’ and the latter would not.

In the USA there are a few people that no doubt understand the nature of the beast, but have nevertheless still decided to elevate the 4% number to dizzier heights. In his session beer project, Lew Bryson’s heart is in the right place with his compromise of 4.5%, but the problem I have with his angle is that the well-meaning pragmatism that he cites (based upon the fact that if he defined it correctly at 4.0% there would be virtually no beer to talk about in terms of them being session beers in America), does not justify a re-definition of the term. Given that the problem that Lew identifies is absolutely true, all that means is that there are virtual NO, widely distributed session beers in the USA. THAT’S OK! REALLY it is, but that does NOT justify taking the term ‘session beer’ and using  it to describe something that is not there; that does NOT make sense and I don’t understand the need to use and apply a term that is almost universally not applicable in the US. If you want to talk about lower ABV beer in the US, and you want a collective term for it, why misuse a well-established one that means something else? Would it make sense for an Englishman to start calling a black beer, brewed with roasted malts and an average ABV of 8% a ‘Hefeweizen’? Why use a term that describes only sub-4% beers to describe beers that are NOT sub-4%? It literally makes no sense.

Notch Brewing have also drawn the line at 4.5%, but have taken it further than Lew by using the terms “American Session Beer” and “American Session Ale”. This is much more to my liking, since it clearly distinguishes that the definition being used is ‘American’ in origin and therefore should not be confused with the original, authentic one. I can live with that as long as the ‘American’ aspect is emphasized to distinguish it from the real McCoy.

Another interesting thing to me is that even people than generally don’t want to take the same hard-line that I do about session beer, STILL seem to be pretty much universally in step with the idea that a session beer should really be capped at 4.0%. Andy Crouch, Martyn Cornell, Lew Bryson, Chris Lohring and many others concede this fact over and over again, even if they do not feel as motivated as me about its sanctity;

On Page 304 of his book, Great American Craft Beer, Andy Crouch defines “Session Beer” as “A beer with a relatively low alcohol-level, usually 3 to 4 percent alcohol by volume’.  On page 44 of the same book, Andy confirms the British definition, calling it a “truer acknowledgement of the powerful physiological effect of alcohol”, and goes on to describe (on page 45), that Stone’s Levitation (often referred to by many American’s as a ‘typical, session beer’), as a, “curious twist on the old session beer concept”.

Martyn Cornell (in the piece about the history of the term ‘session beer’ mentioned above) writes, “it’s (session beer) an important plank in British pub culture, the 4 per cent ABV or less drink that enables the British pub goer to down multiple pints during the evening without falling over.”

Lew Bryson writes that central to his definition is a beer that is “4.5% or less”, BUT precedes that statement with the words, “For our purposes”. I take that to mean that he is acknowledging the truth, but for the pragmatic reasons stated above he has decided to take a more flexible position than me!

Chris Lohring in BeerAdvocate magazine #39, writes; “From the British perspective, it’s always been a lower ABV offering, typically sub–4% ABV”. Given that the term was invented in the UK, that’s a further concession that 4% is the definitive word.

You might be surprised to learn that in reality (and from a purely pragmatic point of view), I suppose that I can bend a little and agree that 4.0 or 4.5% doesn’t *really* matter IF you are an educated, discerning beer drinker, with a sense of history and a solid knowledge base (even though I still think it is technically 100% INcorrect to refer to a 4+% beer as a ‘session beer’). If you do fall into the beer-educated group, then I suppose that you can use the term in a more liberal manner but at the same time have an appreciation of the REAL definition and its relevance. You can quite reasonable apply the term ‘sessionable’ too, BUT you need to be secure in the knowledge that a ‘sessionable beer’* is not necessarily a ‘session beer’. However, the problem that we have in the USA, is that such a high percentage of the new, ‘craft’ interested crowd, have no such basis of education, and the term ‘session beer’ is being used to describe beer that is not only ‘just’ over the 4% barrier at 4.5 and 5%, but has been climbing to ludicrous heights of 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10%+! That’s utter insanity, totally incompatible with ANY knowledgeable position on the subject, and has been based upon a misguided application of tolerance.

*I have been systematically attempting to use the term ‘sessionable’ less and less myself, since most people cannot make the distinction between IT and a ‘session beer’, which categorically are not necessarily one and the same thing.

The essence of the problem here (and my profound annoyance) is that a slight concession on 4% has led to wholesale abuse of the term by the uneducated, to the point where in America it has often been rendered meaningless. Call it the ‘thin end of the wedge’, or the ‘slippery slope’, or a victim of ‘give them an inch and they will take a mile’, but whatever moniker you want to place on it the the systematic disregard for the term, it DOES create a problematic, muddying of the water that breeds colossal ignorance. Just take a look at a couple of examples of the insanity that I’m talking about;

  • The Backcountry Pizza and Tap House in CO provides the following list of the beers that they sell. The word ‘session’ is mentioned five times. The first three references are to beers that are 5.8, 4.7 and 5.1% respectively (i.e. not a SINGLE session beer amongst them, and only one under 5%) and then it goes onto use the word twice more. Once in reference to a 4.9% beer (again, not a session beer), and then in the jaw-dropping phrase, “A little too heavy for a session-beer” to describe Pauwel Kwak, a beer that is 8.4%!! “A LITTLE TOO HEAVY”???? Ya think?!?! (Please don’t think that I am picking on a single,  obscure establishment to make a point, this nonsense can be found in scores of places but this is a particularly nice example of abuse).
  • Bryce Eddings, who “has been studying beer, its history and brewing methods for twenty years”, and  “has been brewing his own beer since 1999″, and when,  “he isn’t writing about beer, lecturing about beer or presenting beer tastings he can usually be found enjoying a cold one at his Missouri home near the Mississippi river”, writes on About.com, “Light hops and low alcohol makes this (Fuller’s ESB) a good session beer”! Good grief, pure ignorance! (BTW – Mr. Eddings confusion seems complete, as in the same piece he also writes, “The name might stand for Extra Special Bitter though no one really agrees on what ESB means” – errr….really).

The use of the 5% value by a BeerAdvocate, and common references to 4.5% by RateBeer, are more serious errors IMO. These misstatements do not undo all of the great work that these sites have done, but they do serve to spread misinformation about beer – not a part of either sites’ mission statement, and one that I believe they should both revisit.

OK, I actually haven’t finished this post yet, but for now that will do. It’s not a complete collection of my thoughts but any more at this stage would make this even more cumbersome than it already is!


57 Comments

  1. Pingback: Beer Review: Kona Brewing Co., Koko Brown | dingsbeerblog

  2. Sorry Ding; I thought I had stumbled upon a good source for information. I respect your opinions, but clearly you have a little bit of an axe to grind beyond just the term ‘session’ beer. To reply with ‘American’ exportation of democracy is a little to sophomoric for me. Thanks for the useful information.

    • Sorry Jim, you’ve lost me. I think the term ‘session beer’ has a default group of people associated with it, and therefore doesn’t need a qualifier. I was looking for something similar with a default that is ‘American’, and I think that I found it.

  3. British Session Beer = 4.0% ABV or below with flavor and body
    American Session Beer = 4.5% ABV or below with flavor and body

    I don’t know how either definition can be described without the effect of alcohol on the drinker. And yes I believe the example I described earlier regarding the importance and relevance of the average weight with impact of ABV is totally germane to both British (then) and American (now) definitions. To me it’s just a benchmark

    • There’s really no need for the word ‘British’, it’s redundant. That would be like saying ‘American’ exportation of democracy.

  4. Exactly, Ding. In only one of the cites in your OP — a commercial piece from Fuller — is this sub-4.0% beer referred to as “session.” Jackson’s doesn’t, Protz’s doesn’t. And much as I love both of them…Protz and Jackson have both made errors. We all have. If you’re going to be THIS CERTAIN…you need something more solid to back you up, and as I’ve said, you’ve consistently failed to do so.

    • So, let me get this clear, are you seriously suggesting that my knowledge of how beer is used by drinkers in the UK, the countless stables of bitters traditionally brewed by brewers in the UK, and the direct quotes from Jackson and Protz, when taken together, are insufficient evidence for a 4% cap on beers that should be called ‘session beers’? And/or, that ‘your’ (self-admittedly, totally arbitrary) 4.5% should be taken as equally valid????

      • I am saying that it is insufficient for the concrete certainty you assign to this, yes. As a point for discussion? Fine, no worries.

        But is my arbitrary 4.5% “equally valid”? Of course not, I’ve never made that claim; if anything, I’ve openly admitted that it’s arbitrary, and a waymark.

        But look, does “IPA” mean the same in the UK and the US? No, but I’ve never heard you get worked into a lather over that. I’ve gotten worked into a lather over the way “Lager” has been degraded in the UK to mean “thin gassy flavorless alcohol delivery,” but I haven’t insisted that they change it to include pilsner, and bock, and Dortmunder, and schwarzbier. What we call “cask ale” over here isn’t all to CAMRA specs (not at all, really); but Alex Hall hasn’t gone off wailing about it, he made a career out of bringing it up to snuff, and it’s working.

        Now, you think I’m doing a disservice to “session beer” by not adhering to what YOU say is the absolute definition of it…and yet your definition doesn’t address the lower-alcohol beer traditions of other countries, like Germany and the Czech Republic, and Belgium, and France. I’m looking at all that, and more to the point, I’m trying to get something done, rather than just arguing with people…and it’s working. And I’m going to keep at it. I don’t really see either of us changing our minds. Do you?

        • If you and Alex do not feel the same passion about ‘lager’ and ‘cask’ respectively as I do about ‘session’, then I cannot ask you to be ‘mad’ – you either feel it or you don’t. Also, your CLASSIC American stance of wanting to ‘do’ something is predictable and something that I am NOT interested in – I like pointing out that I’m right about this, and all other ‘over 4 percenters’ are wrong. I believe I am on very solid ground.

          I also don’t feel the need to promote or encourage just ‘any old’ lower ABV beer in the USA, either. In fact, if I want low ABV beer, the USA is last place on earth that I’m expecting (or seeking) it. I ONLY feel the need to promote the correct use of the term ‘session beer’. For me, this isn’t about changing hearts and minds so that more 4.5% beer gets brewed in the USA, it solely about educating people in correct use of nomenclature. Your ABV limit clearly exhibits your lack of motivation on that front, and my guess is that you want a greater volume of low ABV beer to be available and don’t much care exactly what gets called what. That’s fine, that’s your choice, but we share ZERO common ground in that regard. As an Englishman, I’d have to be a grade one dumb-ass to attempt to fight the whole of American culture to attempt the promotion of subtlety, nuance and grace, I just want you to stop misusing OUR words.

          • In that case, all I can say is good luck with that. Believe me, if there were another handy or clever term available, I’d happily use it. But “lower alcohol beer” has no ring to it (not to mention: “lower” than what?), and nothing else has come to hand. It’s like trying to replace “beer geek.”

            • >…’Believe me, if there were another handy or clever term available, I’d happily use it’.

              OK, that’s interesting. So you admit that you are not using the tern ‘session beer’ correctly, rather you are simply using it out of your own convenience. You see, this is the frustration for me, ESPECIALLY when its people like you that actually know better.

  5. I think that’s what we call a asteistic compliment. Yes I am an optimist. It was 20 years ago when craft brewing made a resurgence. It was 10 years ago when Michael Jackson said American craft brewers were responsible for resurrecting many lost beer styles and creating many new ones. Maybe I’ll coin a new term — American Session beers.

    • >…’Maybe I’ll coin a new term — American Session beers’

      Which I have already mentioned in the OP.

  6. Good point. Just ‘beer’ for thought; I’m not lobbying for any change of definition. As far as how ‘session’ is beginning to be used here in the states, the relevance is to having a few well-crafted beers over a protracted social session and still be able to maintain intelligent thought and conversation, is more the point for my article. And more so, the lack of these beers

    Surprisingly when I posed the questions to the beer writing and beer brewing communities last week, many concur with Lew, you and me, as well as others, as to the need for more well-crafted 3.2, 4.0 or 4.5 beers. If brewers are now more motivated to test their skills by brewing ‘milder’ ales and lagers of 4.5% or below; then possibly the next step in the shift will be toward the 4.0 or below definition.

    Cheers.

    • “If brewers are now more motivated to test their skills by brewing ‘milder’ ales and lagers of 4.5% or below; then possibly the next step in the shift will be toward the 4.0 or below definition.”

      I’m on board with that, Jim. Always have been.

    • >…’then possibly the next step in the shift will be toward the 4.0 or below definition.’

      LOL! Your (American) optimism is both a great strength and a terrible weakness!

      • With the growing acceptance we’ve seen for lower alcohol beers already, in just five years? With the naturally competitive attitude of American craft brewers? (“I can put more flavor in a 4% beer than HE can!”) Give me five more years, Ding, and I’ll bet you and I will be in much closer congruence on the numbers. That’s the beauty of an arbitrary number; you can arbitrarily change it.

        The people who are calling 7% beers ‘session beers’ are jackasses; you and I are in disagreement on some things, but not on that. The rest of it is a matter time.

        • But Lew, 4% is NOT arbitrary and a ‘congruence’ is not something that interests me, or indeed something that would be better or correct (unless the congruence occurs at 4% or less).

          • I was referring to 4.5% as ‘arbitrary,’ which I’ve always admitted. It’s more a goal than anything else, and I’m clearly talking about moving it closer to 4.0% as the offerings change. Whether that interests you or not is not my goal, just something I mention.

            But for all your sound and fury, you’ve never yet come up with solid legal or industry support for 4.0%, Ding. If you have, I haven’t seen it here. Tradition? Even your own brewers don’t all agree on 4.0%. That sounds…just as arbitrary.

            • I’m glad you acknowledge ‘your’ 4.5% as totally arbitrary, but when you say,

              >….’But for all your sound and fury, you’ve never yet come up with solid legal or industry support for 4.0%, Ding. If you have, I haven’t seen it here. Tradition?’

              Lew. Really? Really? Have you not read the post you are currently commenting on? Michael Jackson’s quotes from his books? Roger Protz’s quote?

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    • Lew – thanks for the heads-up, and I will do PRECISELY, that (well, an email). I trust that you are not pointing to this error as anything other than what it is – i.e., an error.

      • Nice response! But of course I was pointing it out as a hole in your presentation that in good old Blighty, 4.0% is the universally recognized ceiling for session beer. Empirical evidence…so to speak.

        • But Lew, there is no ‘hole’ since overwhelmingly the evidence and history supports my position, and as I said in my email to David Grant, I think he has made a mistake in this case.

          • Ding – I’m writing an article for the upcoming Great Lakes Brewing News on “Session” beers; but not so much about what defines a ‘session’, yet more about why aren’t there more solid >5 beers available. And a sidebar as to why do most beers have to be 10% ABV to make the BA and RB Top 50 (10.4% and 9.5% averages respectively for 2011)?

            Your research listed above is very well presented but I am probably going to use Lew Bryson’s et al. definition of 4.5% ABV. I understand your correlation to the British standards for Bitters as a basis, but when did the Brits establish those ABVs as standards? Were they predicated on how much the average British man could consume based upon body weight at the time? In the past 100+ years the average weight of a 5’10” tall British man (25-50 y.o.) has risen from ~170 lb. to 180 lb. (http://tiny.cc/crm3t)

            So using this information and plugging it into some of the BAC calculators available, 3 pints of 4.0 beer consumed within an hour would result in a .066 BAC in the 170 lb. man where as the same would result in a .061 BAC for today’s average male adult of 180 lb. — .005 or 1/2 percent is significant. Maybe today’s Session beer is defined with a slightly higher ABV.

            Just some thoughts. Keep up the good work.

            • Hi Jim – I appreciate the comments, thanks for taking the time. I have no idea if the original motivating factor for 4% was body weight (could be linked to taxation or a whole host of other factors), but even if it were, the breweries that know what they are doing in 2012 still only use the term for 4% and under beer despite the rising girth of the population. I see no need for misuse or incorrect re-definitions, especially since America has (virtually) no session beer anyway. Why bother to misuse a term that you don’t need?

              BTW – if you are writing an article that encompasses beers in the 4.1-5.0% range, you are not writing about ‘session beer’ at all, and I strongly suggest that the title of the piece does NOT refer to the term.

    • Here’s the email;

      Hi Dominic

      I am writing after reading the piece about ‘Brewer’s Scoop’ and The Burnley Express, online. Congratulations to the newspaper, the people of Burnley, and to Moorhouse’s, on such an appropriate gesture to mark the auspicious occasion. I am jealous, and wish I could get my hands on some Brewer’s Scoop; knowing Moorhouses’s as I do, my guess is that it is delicious.

      I am a exiled Englishman who has lived in the USA for approx. 11 years. I’ll spare you the gory details of being torn away from British beer and pub culture, but in a nutshell it has been a devastating wrench. Arguably the biggest difficulty has been coming to terms with the fact there is virtually no, low ABV, carefully cellared and presented real ale available on a consistent, easily accessible basis in the USA – it strikes a STARK contrast when compared to being able to stroll leisurely to umpteen pubs and drink pint after pint of beautifully crafted, session beer. In that regard, I have become a bit of an evangelist for real ale and low ABV beer in the US, with much of my ‘preaching’ coming via my blog at http://www.dingsbeerblog.com.

      One central plank of my educational crusade has been to consistently point out that the term ‘session beer’ is being abused the USA left, right and center. Again in a nutshell, it’s quite common for people to misuse the term and routinely apply it to beers of 5, 6, 7% (and higher) ABV – ludicrous, I know. Anyway, I have maintained that there is no way that any beer should be referred to as a session beer if it is over 4%. This hardline stance has brought me quite a reputation in US beer geek circles, and not all positive!

      This of course brings me to the article. I think it is a profound mistake to call a beer of 4.2% a ‘session beer’. I won’t re-write the whole of my thought process here as to why I think that here, but if you have 5 minutes to spare you should take a quick look at the amalgamation of my thoughts on the matter, here; http://www.dingsbeerblog.com/?p=632 That short piece attempts to encapsulate and justify my ‘4% position’.

      Anyway, many thanks for your valuable time, and I would encourage a re-think on using the term ‘session beer’ to describe ANY beer over 4% ABV – I think it’s a mistake. It might seem like a trivial thing, but there’s a WHOLE nation of beer folk in the US who are misusing the term in a haphazard and oafish manner, and little things like this can really make a difference.

      Wishing I could raise a glass of Brewer’s Scoop with you, cheers

      Adrian Dingle
      Atlanta, GA, USA.

      cc. David Grant, Moorhouse’s

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  9. Pingback: What is a Session Beer? Who the F$%k Cares!? | beerbecue

  10. If my friends and I each drink a bottle of 13% beer over the course of an evening – something weaker than a typical Shiraz – is that not a session?

    None of us get pished. Banter is had. Carriages are called.

    Session beer isn’t an ABV; it’s a state of mind…

    • So how do you address my comments about a range of bitters produced by Fuller’s etc. in the post?

  11. I don’t know. I had an aged Great Divide Old Ruffian, and it was pretty sessionable. I don’t think ABV should have much to do with it. Ill agree that fresh Old Ruffian isn’t, but age it and wow.

    • I don’t think that you understand what a session beer is! ABV IS the definition of session beer, NOT how much any given individual can consume.

    • Of course, you would first have to define sessionable and what if any relationship it has to the meaning of session beer. Since session beer is a low ABV beer, I’m not sure what Old Ruffian has to do with it. As it turns out sessionable has been reverse defined from the term session beer and then session beer has been reverse defined again from that, so that people try to use session beer as a term for beers they like to drink, not for beers that are, in fact, session beers.

  12. In the U.S.A would you ask a woman if you could knock her up?
    In Britain?

    knock up
    1. Slang To make pregnant.
    2. Chiefly British To wake up or summon, as by knocking at the door.
    3. Chiefly British To wear out; exhaust.

    Same words, different meanings. It is the same with session beer. Here in America we don’t drink during a session then return to work, like in England in the pubs. We normally drink in bars in the evening after work. Therefore in America a beer does not have to be under 4% to be a session beer!!!

    • You don’t have any session beer, here, so why abuse the term? If we in Britain starting using the term ‘Prohibition’ to mean a period in each 24 hours where the pub was closed, that would be ‘our’ definition of prohibition and it would be equally as idiotic as misusing the term ‘session beer’ in the USA. Stop it, you sound dumb,

  13. Pingback: No wonder I STILL can’t find any session beer in the USA (and, please re-run the numbers Ken) | dingsbeerblog.com

  14. An interesting article. Dan’s point needs answering though. Session beer is defined by strength. It’s not dependent on the quantity in a glass, after all I can and often do drink session beers in half pint measures! A standard Scotch is a small volume too.

    Many beers which began as cask brews are beefed up for the bottle as bottling has a distinct dumbing down effect on flavour. Some elements simply disappear and it’s enlightening to compare a bottled beer with its well kept cask equivalent.

    Many old established breweries label their session beers as “Best” even though they are the weakest beer in the range! Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, Ruddle’s Best, Kimberley Best are examples.

  15. I’m glad to see your thoughts all in one place. I see what you’re coming from, but I have a few critiques:

    First, I feel you use the word “traditional” too narrowly. From what I’ve read (from folks you yourself cite such as Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson), “session beer” didn’t even exist as a concept until the mid-20th century. Beer and beermaking went through many changes before then and have gone through many since – *especially* in the USA, in fact probably more so here than anywhere else. So I’m curious as to why you feel it so important to draw the line precisely there in terms of what a “session beer” ought to be.

    Second, I’ve read through your post carefully, and many of your BA posts in the past year or so, and I’m sorry to say but I just don’t see a non-circular argument for why the cutoff for session beer has to be exactly 4.0%.

    All that said, I actually think yours and arguments like it are actually making a difference. There seems to be greater recognition in the American beer scene, even compared to two years ago, that more is not always better when it comes to alcohol levels. And don’t forget that Goose Island Honker’s Ale, which though not a session beer by the “official” definition is a nice traditional English-style low-strength bitter, remains one of the top-selling American craft beers.

    Finally, one point that seems to be overlooked – serving size. 16oz of 5.0% beer contains exactly as much alcohol as 20oz of 4.0% beer. That is something that I feel is not taken into consideration enough in these arguments.

  16. Nice post, I love to read this from a English persons point of view, versus my American one.

    While I was exposed to good/great beer way back in Portsmith, in 1971. Sadly as a Typical American and Navy man, when on shore leave we just wanted to get away from that dang ship and drink and all that jazz.

    So I have always agreed with yea, but most of us “yanks” just do not think much about beer. I feel I am a tad different since I tried beer (American adjunct lagers) in 1964 and hated every American version I had, sadly Texas did not have any of the Great NE beers in Town. So My experiences had to come later. But for me hops is not something I am a big fan of, so all those bitters, did not do it for me. So while I tried every beer in sight, dark is my thing (porters/stouts)

    Anyway my point is I enjoyed good beer for years, but until I read my first MJ book, I did not really “THINK” about beer much, other than why is my glass empty and when can I get another one quickly. Its funny to me. Beer was something to get a buzz, and to make those dry chips/pretzels/whatever they gave you to make you drink more go down well.

    I actually enjoyed new beers more when I knew practically nothing. So while My gateway beer was Bass on cask, but I found I liked the heavier dark ales the best, so as one that was a heavy whiskey drinker, anything less than 6% ABV just did not give me the bang for the pound(buck) as they say.

    Anyway, I love your rants, and I love that you found a voice on here versus BA, which I have grown to hate/loath, sadly it had great promise.

    anyway just my 2 cents.

    Cheers!

    PS: As you know on BA forums the one thing Americans hate more than anything is being told what something means to them. Its infantile but sadly it’s just something you get in a culture that does not value education much.

  17. Ding,

    First off, good to read your thoughts in more than 140 characters.

    I’m glad you mentioned my acknowledgement to Brit session beer at 4.0% and lower. Most beers I have brewed to this point (with Notch, and formerly with Tremont), stick to the ABV that is within that style’s history and intent. I’m not a style freak, but I am a fan of consistent reference points for the consumer. I have this thing with education, if we are not consistent, we will confuse.

    So when I brewed Notch Session Pils, it was 4.0% – right around the traditional ABV of the Czech Lager knows as 10. Because the US uses (insert joke here) the English language, I use “Session” Pils for the description, as this beer is certainly the Czech session beer.

    Most of my beers’ ABV are driven by the history and authenticity of the style – Mild (3.7%); 70 shilling (4.1%); Best Bitter (4.0%) and Saison (3.8% – workers saison, not the bourgeoisie saisons of today), and soon Berliner Weisse (3.5%). I call them session because they all serve the same purpose – be it pub beers for a session, or workers beer for hydration – beer that allowed you to keep your wits, or take longer while trying to lose them.

    So, we come to my one beer we disagree on – Notch Session Ale. American Session Ale. As you note, I use American because it is certainly not British – in flavor profile or ABV. So why 4.5%? For the same reason the English have a delineation between “Premium” and “Session” in England.

    In the US, 5% ABV has been the “standard” measure for a 12 oz serving of beer. This is well defined by the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#standDrink). So, if 5% is “standard”, session is certainly lower than standard, and 4.5% is a good starting point. In the UK, the separation between standard and session is 0.1% – I thought the US consumer could use a little more spacing in ABV, and took the lead of Lew Bryson on this.

    Also, the average ABV of craft is 6%, but this is by offering, not by volume consumed. I would guess the average ABV consumed would be right around 5.5%. And to me, that is higher than the standard. Call me a dinosaur.

    In the UK, there is an expectation on session beer’s ABV, it is part of the culture. In the US, there is an expectation of “standard”, and we (well, some of us) are trying to define what is lower than standard. And “Session” as a name works to define this, people get it, and the UK comparison is an easy and fun story to tell. The 4.5% is not Brit session beer, but based on what constitutes a standard “drink” in the US, it certainly is lower than normal.

    Too much detail here for most, but hopefully this sheds a little more insight.

    Best,

    Chris
    Notch Brewing

    • Chris – firstly, many thanks for taking the time to post such a measured and intelligent response. You make a lot of sense. You are apparently one of the people that I referred to in the OP as one who understands (even if you don’t take the hard-line) where I am coming from.

      As I also said in the OP, I don’t really have a problem with Notch Session Ale as such, since it uses the moniker ‘American’, although I suspect that in the real world it will usually be referred to simply as (the less helpful) ‘Notch Session’. If and when people DO use the shortened version (i.e. without the ‘American’ part of the name as a qualifier), AND when they come to the discussion without the benefit of knowledge and historical context, then (unfortunately) it will promote ignorance IMO. Of course, I fully understand that this is not your intention so please do not take that as a criticism as such. Good stuff, thanks again.

  18. Now if I only could find good session beer in my area (SE Mass). I took a roadtrip north a few years ago to get Harbor Lighthouse Ale. Just wish they, or anybody else would distribute (or, maybe brew!) a good session around here.

    Ding, have you ever been to NERAX up here? Generally the only other time I can sample decent session beer.

    • NERAX is on my list, but I hear mixed things, both about the beer and the small venue. What gives?

      • I honestly can’t say what it’s like on other nights, as I usually go on the 1st night, Wednesday. The lines can be long, if you don’t buy tickets in advance (which I usually do), but by the time 8pm rolls around the line is gone. The hall is not huge, the VFW in Somerville, but I had no problem mingling and sampling.
        I have, also, heard that it gets a little crowded on weekends, but it seems that the venue will not be moving next year.

        As for the selection, not every cask is up every night. Some are saved for other nights during the week, some are not ready to be served by the end of the event. And I’ve been able to try some selections I otherwise do not have access to, In recent years I’ve enjoyed Dark Star’s Over The Moon and Eastwood And Sanders First Light.

        Maybe others who go to NERAX later in the week can let you know what goes on.

  19. Pingback: ABV’s & session beer; sanity and insanity | dingsbeerblog.com

  20. Probably a stupid question, but could the ABV difference on Bluebird or something like it be as simple as using the ABW in the UK and ABV in the export markets?

    • I suppose so, but without actually knowing the facts for Bluebird I still seriously doubt it. ABV is the way alcohol content is reported in the UK and the US, plus for many beers (like London Pride for example), brewers often ‘up’ the ABV for the bottle.

  21. Pingback: NOT a post about the ABV of session beer, but….. | dingsbeerblog.com

  22. Pingback: New York Ale Project’s take on Session Beer, featuring…. | dingsbeerblog.com

  23. Interesting post! I am very happy about the burgeoning interest in session beer in the US. Of course, posts like this will only lead to more conversation and then to more US session beer, which I assume you will be dismayed by. ;) The real problem in my view, is not the abv% but the flavor profile. Even low alcohol beers by most craft brewers are still so dominating and distracting on the palette, you couldn’t possibly expect most people to drink them in a session ie 21Amendment Bitter American

    There are some holes in your argument if I understand them correctly 1) this only defines session beer in the UK. Surely the current idiosychrisies of British Brewing do not govern what is considered “session beer” in other parts of the world. Chris Lohring of Notch has pointed out that the drinking session exists prevalently in Germany, Czech Republic, and probably many other places, so England’s peculiarities are not endemic. Just like US pale ale is different than English pale ale, the definitions of session beer are different too.

    2) Your logic on the cut off on abv is circular: the abv limit of “session beer” is determined by the abv of low gravity bitters but versions of said bitters which violate the abv limit are dismissed as non-session (ie it does not really make sense for Bluebird Bitter to be a session beer and for Bluebird Bitter to also not be a session beer). Hence, the 4% cut off point appears to be completely arbitrary, which is fine, but it is still as arbitrary as 4.5% or 5%.

    • I don’t mind more ‘session beer’ and more conversation about session beer in the US, as long as we are ACTUALLY talking about beers at 4% or under!

      I think you make an excellent point about the flavor profile of lower ABV beers in the US, everything is just so aggressive. That’s a conundrum that American brewers have yet to solve, but it’s not surprising since America isn’t exactly the epicenter of subtlety! For the record, ‘Bitter American’ is not a session beer, anyway, so any conversation about IT in this context is moot!

      As for you other two points I would say the following;

      1. I already acknowledged in the OP that I was (more) comfortable with the use of the word “American” in front of the term ‘session beer’, but for me that emphasis HAS to be placed on the lead word to distinguish it from the original. I also doubt (but don’t know) that the Germans or the Czechs use the term at all – it many instances, they simply had lots of lower ABV beer that they drank a lot of. Either way, they should not be using the term incorrectly, either.

      2. It ABSOLUTELY makes sense for Bluebird to be a session beer in one instance and a non-session beer in another, since, despite the same name, as soon as the ABV changes it becomes a significantly different beer. There is nothing “arbitrary” about the 4% cut-off which is what I tried (but obviously failed) to explain in the OP!

  24. One thing that may not help this debate is that there are British brewers out there producing multiple bitters, that are all reported in BA as having ABVs higher than 4.0% on BA but under 4.0% on their own websites. Coniston Brewing and Purity Brewing are two examples. Coniston’s Bluebird Bitter is 3.6% on their website and 4.2% on Beeradvocate.com. Meanwhile, Purity’s Pure Gold is 3.8% on the site and 4.3% on Beeradvocate.com.

    • Quite often, (as in the case of London Pride for example), there can be varying ABV’s for various packaging and various markets. Either way, my argument would STILL be that if a beer is under 4% in one situation it IS a session beer, but as soon as it exceeds 4%, regardless of the reason(s) why, it ceases to be such. So assuming that Bluebird (for example) is a beer that has different ABV’s in different markets (which I have no idea if it does), all that means is that in one situation it is a session beer, and in another it is isn’t.

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