To ‘Session’ or Not to ‘Session,’ That is the Question

by Stephen Beaumont

A short time ago, while catching up with the English beer writer, Pete Brown, who was in the midst of a mini-tour of North America promoting his new book, Miracle Brew, the topic of conversation turned to so-called ‘session beers.’ The notion that those of us on this side of the Atlantic were having such a struggle arriving at a definition of the ‘session beer’ amused Pete to no end, since, as he put it, the English – from whom we have borrowed the term, it deserves noting – have never felt the need to define the concept because a session beer was any beer you drank during a session.

Which, of course, makes a world of sense. And also got me to thinking.

We can be quite definition-obsessed in North America. Very little in our lives, particularly our beer lives, is so simple and straight-forward that we seem to feel it cannot be improved upon with a stringent definition. (Which is how we got to the frankly ludicrous position of having over 100 beer styles defined by the Brewers Association of the United States, but that’s a matter best left for another rant.) To many of us, session beer is just another thing to define.

A session beer has to be a beer of less than 4.5% alcohol, right? Unless it’s actually of 4% or less, or perhaps 5% or less. Certainly it can’t be above 5%, unless it is a beer from the Session line of Full Sail Brewing.

And so it goes, with no end to the debate in sight.

(A digression: People don’t just want to define the session beer, they are adamant, even passionate about where those parameters should lie. If you don’t believe me, try posting something about the maximum strength of a session beer on a beer drinkers forum or Facebook and see where it gets you.)

When you get down to it, though, it strikes me that we may be trying to define the wrong thing. Instead of looking at what makes a session beer, perhaps we should be looking at what constitutes a session.

For me, a ‘session’ is really any time spent with friends while consuming beer, likely at least an hour in length and usually considerably longer, the goal of which is to have fun, converse and ultimately exit in an at least semi-sober state. The beers I drink, then, should be chosen to reflect those goals, in particular the last one.

But here is where it gets interesting, because the assumption of most ‘session beer’ definers is that pints will be knocked back with reckless abandon, thus necessitating a lower strength in order to stave off drunkenness. Yet different beers are meant to be enjoyed in different ways, and it is thus my contention that pretty much any beer can be a session beer.

I will be the first to admit that pints of 3.5% bitter or 4.1% pilsner tend to get gulped rather than studiously savoured. But I am equally of the mind that 8% tripels and 10% Imperial stouts are designed to be sipped, and so consumed much more slowly than the aforementioned bitter and pilsner.

So say I’m in a session and my friend is necking pints of 3.5% alcohol standard bitter. Should she knock back two Imperial pints per hour, she will be consuming very close to 40 ml of pure alcohol, or about 100 ml if she drinks 5 pints over the course of two or three hours. Should I be savouring a lovely 8% alcohol tripel at the rate of one bottle every 45 minutes, on the other hand, I will be consuming slightly less than 36.5 ml per hour, or just under 82 ml of alcohol for the three bottles I might enjoy, almost one-fifth less alcohol than my ‘session beer’ drinking friend.

The point of which being that it is less what you drink that makes a session beer than it is how you drink it. And again, if you don’t buy my reasoning, go ask some Belgians. They’ve been ‘sessioning’ 7% and 9% ales for generations.

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Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

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