After I selected a couple beers to enjoy while I was working on bottling several batches of wine, mead and beer it occurred to me that part of my selection criteria might make for an interesting blog post.
Two of the bottles I picked out were filled with the Ancient Fire 2012 Mild English Ale. This beer was my first attempt at this style, a Mild and in sub-category 11A of the BJCP style guidelines for those familiar with the BJCP program, a style that when made correctly should have an ABV of 2.8% to 4.5%. Mine came in somewhere between 3.75% and 4% when it was finished. That alcohol content potentially qualifies it as a session beer, a term that is warmly debated in some circles, although before I claim victory for that designation to be applied to my beer let's explore what a session beer actually should be more broadly.
I like the definition of a session beer from the folks over at the Session Beer Project. It is packaged neatly as a set of bullets and covers both objective AND subjective concerns about a beer you might find in your glass. They say that a session beer should be:
- 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
- flavorful enough to be interesting
- balanced enough for multiple pints
- conducive to conversation
- reasonably priced
I've got the first bullet covered with my Mild. The next three are subjective and all I can say is that my English Mild is somewhat interesting, easily quaffable by the pint or three and has in fact inspired conversation amongst several kinds of people including some in my brew club as well as others that are typically light American beer drinkers. The last bullet applies only in that I made the beer myself and it does turn out to be pretty cheap in the homemade, small-batch context. Would others call it a session beer? Maybe. I do.
Where did the term session beer originate?
The term originated in Britain and was quite literal, meaning a beer that could be drunk in sizable quantity during a session, e.g. a social event, workday break, etc., without the onset of intoxication. The honest origin is that alcohol was taxed so creating lower alcohol, but flavorful and drinkable, beers was more advantageous for brewers. Many of the contemporary British beers commonly associated with this definition do in fact contain alcohol of less than 4% ABV, although such beers are harder to find being made in the US. Historically even the premium ales (the next step up in British beer parlance) would have likely topped out around 4% ABV, but would have been considered too strong for a session beer. The Fullers line of pub beers, including the Chiswick Bitter (3.5%) , London Pride (4.1%) and ESB (5.5%) are a close approximation of the classic session, premium and strong tiered British beer scale.
Why did I select my Mild for my "work" beer? Well, mostly because of the lower alcohol content, but also because the flavors are mild and won't wreck my palate so that I can't properly taste the products I am bottling. At bottling time a solid taste is the last line of defense in making sure what goes in the bottle is as good as it can be. A last minute adjustment, sugar or acid perhaps, might be called for based on how the product smells and tastes. And a beer that won't overpower my senses, and who really wants to drink water while they do this work anyway, is a solid fit here.
When you are out and about what beers might you find that would fit all five of the bullets above, making it a true session beer?
You may find the Fuller's beers at some bars, including the British Beer Company, but both the bottled and kegged versions for import to the US are generally above the 4-4.5% ABV mark. Guinness on draft is typically about 4.3% ABV, but I personally don't find it interesting enough for a "true" session beer.
The beers from Notch brewing, brewed in several locations in New England, range from 2.8% to 4.5% ABV for the bottled versions and in the high 3's for their cask series. I've had the Notch Session Ale (4.5%) before and do think it is an interesting beer, although it is right at the cutoff for the alcohol content.
There are others session-able beers out there and at beer bars and brew pubs that serve cask ales you might actually find more than one version to try at any one time. Check the beer menu at any new bar you visit, most will have the ABV noted making it easy to find something session-able if desired.
Session Beer References