The Small Beer’s Slightly Bigger Brother
by Mike Retzlaff
I really don’t know anyone who exhibits an exclusive thirst for Barleywine, Doppelbock, Wee Heavy, Tripel, or other high intensity beverages. It’s often desirable to consume a lighter gravity beverage for several reasons. Sometimes you simply want to drink a number of pints without starting to drool, getting loud, and becoming “that guy.” The lighter gravity beverage might be called a Session beer.
All sorts of beers are called Session beers but the term can be, and often is, misused and misleading. When compared to Barleywines, Doppelbocks, or Belgian Tripels, beers in the 5% to 6% range would certainly seem to be Session beers. I generally reserve the heavy duty beers for the evening when my day is finally winding down and there’s no chance I’ll be leaving the house. Maybe I’ve “smartened-up” over the years or perhaps I’m just a big wuss. My ego whispers to me that I’m simply being prudent. I don’t think my ego is lying to me; at least in this instance.
I’ve seen all sorts of definitions of what a Small or Session beer is but it always comes in the form of someone’s opinion. I’ve found no global mandate to denote the strength of these lighter gravity beers so I’ll assert my own opinion. In the previous article on Small beers, I was referencing the Danes who exempted Temperance beers from taxation as they contained less than 3% abv. If we start there, a Session beer would contain between 3% and my opinion of 4.5% abv. These are admittedly arbitrary numbers but lacking any real authority to dispute them, they are the numbers I embrace. I’ve seen 5% listed by some as an upper limit but that seems a bit high for the purpose at hand and the limit always seems to crawl up to 5.5% and even higher. Small and Session beers are the only classes of beer that I gauge by alcohol content instead of OG or by style. Neither of these are considered beer “styles” any more than “big”, “summer”, or “dark” beer would be.
To keep things in perspective, most global beer cultures think of beers in the 5.5% to 6% abv range as “strong” beers. That is roughly the same as most of our normal North American craft beers. Most German, Polish, Czech, and other European commercial lagers rarely crest 5% to 5.2% abv in their standard offerings.
I notice more and more lower abv choices when shopping for craft beer. Many craft breweries are offering beers which weigh in at 5% abv or less. Stone Brewing, North Coast Brewing, St. Arnold’s, Brooklyn Brewing, and Goose Island all offer beers which sport 4.5% abv or less. Some are heavily hopped while others seem to be a bit more balanced. In Great Britain, there are Ordinary Bitters, Best Bitters, Scottish Light, Scottish Heavy, Scottish Export, Brown, and Mild ales. UK breweries produce literally hundreds of different beers which clock in between 3% and 4.5% . . . my stated Session beer parameters.
The Brewer’s Association GABF guidelines state that virtually any “classic” style of beer can be scaled down to an abv parameter which makes it a “session” beer. Of course the drinkability of this creation is not supposed to suffer which means you might not be able to scale it down with a calculated ratio alone; you have to maintain the concept of balance. The GABF mandates a narrow window for Session beers (4% to 5%) and tends to see them as deflated “classic” styles. I see them as any existing style which falls within the parameters plus other styles only slightly scaled down just to get them under that 4.5% abv limit.
The American concept of “big is best but bigger is even better” seems to have peaked and many commercial craft brewers are going the other way to give consumers what they really seem to want (or at least what they seem to want right now.) Many home-brewers are doing exactly the same thing to provide themselves some latitude in deciding what they really want to drink. Perhaps that Double Chocolate Mint Imperial Lithuanian Stout with Chipotle, Basil, and Rhubarb @ 11½% abv wasn’t really the right beer for the cook-out last weekend. By the way, is Uncle Fred still passed out in the bushes? Would someone check?
The concept of an IPA with only 4.2% abv might sound alien to many but they’re out there. That’s the same abv as Guinness Draught! Who could argue with an American Wheat beer at 4.4% abv? At a picnic, it can be nice and crisp, thirst quenching, and won’t leave you drunk with a headache after drinking three pints and enduring as many hours of backyard sun! It also goes well with virtually any cook-out food, just like its 6% abv big brother.
Session beers are not restricted to ales. Most lager styles can easily fit under that 4.5% ceiling and many already do. Some of the Bock beers might work well as does Rauchbier, Schwarzbier, and certainly Oktoberfest.
There are only a handful of styles which wouldn’t fit the mold here. Most anything with Imperial, Wee, Strong, Doppel, or Tripel in the name probably could not successfully make the transition and remain as a recognizable original style.
Many of your own recipes can be adjusted to produce a Session beer. Something as simple as a plain-Jane Pale Ale can really shine as a lower alcohol beer. Session beers should augment and facilitate conversation. During quiet times, they should set the mood for contemplation; not beat the psyche into submission. Next time we’ll get into brewing these two beers.