If you’re looking for one of the most refreshing and versatile beer varieties in the world, a session beer is for you. The odds are that you’ve tried some form of session beer at some point in your life because it’s more of a description than it is a strict variety. While there is a Session brand and a Session Beer Market, the Session beer we’re discussing today refers to it in the broader term.
If you’re curious and want to learn more, then read on!
What is a Session Beer?
Simply put, a session beer is all about drinkability, refreshment, and slightly lower alcohol content. To be considered a session beer, the ABV is typically less than 5%, it’s not overly heavy with any one ingredient, and you should be able to down multiple beers in a single “session” and still be sober.
A session beer shouldn’t be too heavy on bitterness or hops, and it shouldn’t be too filling or too light. There are many different varieties of session beer because, once again, session is more of a describing adjective than a strict category. IPAs, lagers, hazy IPAs, wheat beers, ales, and many more can have individual brews in their subcategories that can be described as session beers.
History of Session Beer
Session beer has been around since the introduction of beer. While most early brewers didn’t have as much control over the drinkability and refreshment of their brews, most of their drinkers didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, during the start of the craft beer revolution, that session beer really became a focus. Nearly half of all craft beer drinkers say that they want a beer that they can drink multiples of, have lower alcohol content, and that’s refreshing. AKA, session beer.
The actual origin of when someone first used session to describe beer isn’t fully known. There are many legends and stories that describe the first uses of the term, but no one knows for sure. The story that garners the most faith stems from an English factory during World War I.
Supposedly, workers at the factory were given two “sessions” throughout the workday to take time out to drink low ABV beer. This was done so that they could come back from their sessions and their work wouldn’t suffer the consequences. While this makes for a good story, no one knows for sure whether or not this is where session beer was first coined. Another theory is simply that you can drink the same beer at a bar for long sessions or periods at a time.
Characteristics of Session Beer
While many different types of beer can be coined as a session beer, they all share a few common characteristics. Here are the common themes that connect all session beers.
- They must be drinkable enough so that you can drink multiples of the same beer throughout the day.
- They have to be refreshing and the type of beer you crave on a hot summer day.
- An ABV percentage of less than 5% is important so that you don’t get drunk after a single beverage.
- They shouldn’t be as bitter, hoppy, or heavy as porters and stouts.
Different Types of Session Beer
A good lager is typically light, smooth, crisp, and mellow, which are all fundamental characteristics of a good session beer. Lagers include everything from Coors Banquet beer to Miller Lite to specialty brews such as the Alpine Lager from Samuel Adams.
While there are many different types of lagers, not all of them are session beers. Some lagers are more flavorful or have a higher alcohol content than others. To be a true session lager, it must have a low ABV and meet each of the requirements listed above.
Taste and Flavor
A session lager should be crisp and tasty but not overly sweet, heavy, or flavorful. It shouldn’t be bland by any means, but it should never overpower the senses.
Session style lagers are great with many different types of food and are one of the most popular beers to pair with a meal. Pizza, burgers, wings, pub pretzels, Mexican fare, and pretty much anything outside of other ethnic cuisines are great when paired with a session-style lager.
Cerveza is a broad term that refers to different types of Mexican and Spanish-style beer. Dos Equis, Corona, Sol, and Bohemia are some of the most popular cervezas, which literally translates to the American word for beer.
The typical session-style Cerveza is actually very similar to a session-style lager. The alcohol content is almost always between 4% and 5%, and Cervezas are notoriously refreshing on a hot day.
Taste and Flavor
Session-style Cervezas are unique because they have a distinct taste and yet are incredibly similar to other beer styles. I often think of Cerveza as a happy medium between light beer and wheat beer. You get a little extra wheat, but not so much that it’s overpowering, which makes it the perfect session beer.
Much like lagers, you can pair whatever your heart desires with session-style Cervezas. Everything from pizza to burgers to wings to tacos goes down great with a cerveza.
IPAs are one of the most popular and newer beer styles to hit the United States. While most IPAs and hazy IPAs are known for their heavy hoppy flavors, session-style IPAs are different. In order to be a session-style IPA, it can have hops, but it can’t be overpowering. Imperial IPAs and Double IPAs are examples that certainly don’t meet the criteria of a session beer.
Session-style IPAs can be somewhat hoppy and flavorful, but they should never be high in alcohol content or hoppiness. A great example of a session-style IPA that I recently enjoyed is Slightly Mighty IPA from Dogfish Head. It is very crisp, refreshing, and flavorful, but not overpoweringly so, and it also has an alcohol content of just 4%. Most IPAs struggle with this final characteristic and typically have ABV ranges of 5% to 7%.
Taste and Flavor
Session-style IPAs should be somewhat fruity and hoppy, but not overwhelmingly so. Stronger brews such as DIPAs and Imperial IPAs are overpowering with their hoppiness and bitterness and are not session-style IPAs.
As with the first two brews, you can pair a good session-style IPA with just about any type of food outside of dessert.
Modern Hefeweizen beer typically has a healthy mix of wheatiness and fruitiness. Once again, not all hefeweizen beer is a session beer. Many of the more traditional styles are too wheaty to be considered sessions.
A session-style Hefeweizen should have low quantities of alcohol as well as lower amounts of wheat.
Taste and Flavor
Session-style Hefeweizen should be a solid mix of wheat and beer but never be too heavy on either. Shofferhofer Hefeweizen Grapefruit Beer from Binding-Brauerei AG is a great example of a delicious session-style Hefeweizen.
Once again, a session-style Hefeweizen can be paired with most types of food outside of dessert and certain ethnic foods.
Are All Beers Session Beers?
While it may seem like nearly all beers are session beers, this simply isn’t true. There are certainly smaller subcategories within each beer variety that can be thought of as session beers, but that doesn’t encompass beer in general. Here are the beer styles that all have individual brews falling under the session category.
- Pale Ale
- Berliner Weiss
- Hazy IPA
As you can see, if you’ve ever drunk beer in your lifetime, you’ve likely had a session beer. Session is a broad term that refers to the drinkability, alcohol content, and refreshment level provided by beer. It doesn’t necessarily have strict requirements outside of being drinkable enough to enjoy a long session of the same beer without getting too tipsy.
Are you a fan of a particular session beer? If so, tell us which one in the comments section below! To read about other kinds of beer, click here for our beer styles blog posts.