Musicians have their “jam sessions” at which they
demonstrate their improvisational skills to a live
audience, and singers have their “recording sessions” so
their talents can be preserved for anyone to listen to at
any time. Various organizations have “am” and “pm”
sessions to accommodate as many people as possible
to whatever it is they are doing, and elected
representatives have their “legislative sessions”, which
usually result in further erosion of liberties for formerly
free Americans. We beer lovers have our own sessions
which serve no purpose other than advancement of our
own pleasure and enjoyment. I refer, of course, to the
drinking of “session beer”, without too much concern
for “hop character”, “nose”, drinking vessel or any of
the other variables usually connected with the beer geek’
s evaluation of the beer in hand.
The usual reason for where the term session beers
came from is that during World War One in England
pubs were only allowed to open from 11:00 am to 3:00
pm and again from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm at which time
the dreaded “Time Gentlemen” was announced by the
publican. The resulting two short sessions therefore
created a need for beers that could be quaffed rapidly.
Rapid consumption of beers that were too strong would
result in rapid intoxication, so English pubs regularly
served milds and bitters which were no more than three
or four per cent alcohol, allowing for the consumption of
many pints without getting sloshed.
Today’s session beers are usually defined as 5% or less
and noted beer writer Lew Bryson writes of a session
beer project at which no beer served exceeded 4.5%.
Session beers have relatively the same definition for me,
but with some extra qualifications. First, the beer must
taste good. The low in alcohol description is not enough
to satisfy my thirst for a session beer, thereby
eliminating virtually all “lite” beers, low calorie beers,
“ultra” beers and other such watery slop, devoid of
Michelob Ultra, therefore, is definitely NOT a session
beer in my book, but Guinness Draught Stout, also low
in alcohol, definitely is. About a year ago I tasted a beer
at The Ship Inn, a wonderful English style brewpub in
Milford, NJ. Their Farmhouse Ale was listed at less than
4% but was full bodied and flavorful, literally a beer “you
could drink all day”. The Gaslight’s Prince of Darkness,
although the name implies something stronger and
mysterious, is a beer of similar quality and drinkability.
My second qualification is that the beer must not have
any residual effects (headache or hangover). Most mass
marketed American beers, while usually not exceeding
5%, are not necessarily session beers to me because I
find that downing them in quantity results in a session
headache, although I don’t seem to have the problem
with Straub’s or Yuengling.
After a parade in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania a few years
ago our Mummers Aqua String Band was invited back to
the local firehouse where several kegs of fresh Yuengling
Premium were on tap. We stood around for quite a while
with the firemen drinking “Ying Yangs” (as they called it)
with no loss of faculties or ensuing headache. A great
Lastly, in order to be classified as a session beer, a beer
must be just plain old beer! No lambics, oak-aged
chocolate porter, vanilla stout or any other flavored
beer, whether 5% or not. Such beers are enjoyable one
at a time, but I defy anyone to drink a sixpack of
Saranac Maple Porter, for example, in one session. It
would be like drinking a couple pints of maple syrup,
While I believe that America now produces most of the
best beers in the world, too many American
micrbreweries are trying to outdo each other with
“double”, “triple” and even “quadruple” IPAs, “Imperial”
lagers and other styles with a high alcoholic content.
Samuel Adams even has an Imperial Wit. Witbier is
supposed to be light and refreshing, ala Hoegaarden.
Who need the alcohol content to be spiked”?
It’s not uncommon to walk into a beer bar, find a dozen
tap handles and only one or two session beers available.
The rest are taken up by 8.1%, 10% and even 12%
beers, seriously limiting the amount one can sample and
still get safely home. They may be great craft brews to
taste and rate, but who wants to actually spend an
evening DRINKING them?
Give me a real session beer any day. This is one area in
which European brewers leave America in the dust. The
real ale of Great Britain and the everyday beers of
Germany or the Czech Republic are great session beers.
The only thing “Imperial” about most British beer is the
Imperial pint glass, allowing for 25% more drinkable
beer with each pour than the American counterpart.
Germany’s masskrugs and other oversized glassware
are perfectly suitable for serving the oceans of pils,
helles, and dunkel popular in biergardens and
brauhauses. Spending an evening drinking beer at long
tables and listening to the oompahs definitely calls for a
session beer. After a couple of masskrugs of Golden
Monkey or Brooklyn Chocolate stout the beer lover
wouldn’t know whether he was in a brauhaus or an
To be sure , there is a time and a place for enjoying
such beer, but forced to decide between one or the
other, I’ll take the session beer every time!
Beer Raconteur, Writer and Historian