Stouts? IPAs? Pale and brown ales? Your style is now in session

Pints by Jason Foster


“Session beer” has become a common term to describe a lower-alcohol beer that’s fairly balanced in flavour — ideal for drinking without getting loaded. It can apply to a whole range of styles from light lagers to English bitters to blonde ales. Anything that’s lower alcohol and relatively easy to drink can be called a session beer.

The historical origins of the term are a bit murky, but the most plausible scenario is it arises out of restrictive British liquor laws during the first world war. Opening times for pubs were restricted to two four-hour periods — one in the afternoon and one in the evening. The rules were aimed to restrict the liquor consumption of munitions workers and, I suspect, assist the rationing process. Workers would choose beer that they could reasonably consume during the four-hour “session” and still be able to return to work without get picked up for being drunk and disorderly. That likely meant lower alcohol and an easy-to-drink flavour profile.

There is no official definition today, but most accept that a session beer should be less than 5% alcohol (some say less than 4%) and the flavour profile should emphasize moderation and balance. Not too much hoppiness. Not too rich and malty. A beer designed to allow for sociable consumption over the course of an evening.

Recently the term has taken on a new meaning. We’re starting to see it applied to styles of beer. First there was the generic “session ale” which included a whole range of flavour profiles, and was simply anchoring itself in the accepted definition.

But more recently it’s being used as a modifying adjective to an existing style. Session IPA. Session brown ale. Session pale ale. Session stout.

Basically, a sessionized version of your beer is supposed to be “smaller” while holding on to the parent style’s original profile. So, a session IPA should be hop forward with a noted bitterness but a lighter body. A session brown would still be nutty and chocolatey but tones down the flavours a notch or two.

Seems simple, right? No.

It all depends on how you want to look at it. There are (at least) two perspectives — proponents see the term “session” as a signal to the consumer that the beer will be interesting and flavourful, but lower in alcohol to encourage having a couple without ill-effects.

The other perspective argues that tacking the word session onto a well-defined style distorts the understanding of the term. This position tends to also see the broad use of “imperial” — a bigger, bolder version of a style — as equally problematic. Their argument is that when you alter the fundamental characteristics of a beer, like alcohol content, bitterness level, and body character, you are changing its style.

The usually unstated extension of this point is that the brewery is misleading the consumer about what the beer really is.

Let’s look at that argument.

There are established, quantifiable parameters to existing styles. An American-influenced IPA hitting only 4% alcohol falls out of style, in terms of the stats. Some respond that they don’t care about the style guidelines. Fair enough. But the guidelines create an important anchor for what is already an anarchistic approach to naming beer. A more nuanced counter-argument is that the adjective “session” modifies expectations and signals something not traditional to style but still respecting it. This argument has merit — think white IPA, Cascadian dark ale, or hopfenweizen — all of which have gained wide acceptance.

Here is where I struggle with that argument. When does a sessionized version simply become an interpretation of an existing style? For example, if a session brown ale is really just a dark mild (and, really, it is), why create a whole new and largely false name?

Similarly, is a session pilsner simply a German leichtbier (light beer) in disguise? If there’s an existing style that offers a fairly close approximation, why not use that name?

I can already hear the replies. Consumers have never heard of those styles. True. But don’t we do a disservice to those styles by ejecting their names for convenience

I understand why breweries — whose job it is to sell beer – want to use the shorthand “session” to describe what they’re up to. But people concerned about the integrity of craft beer should not simply shrug their shoulders and move on. Styles exist for a reason.

I actually take a middle position in this debate. I think, much like Imperial, that it works for some styles better than others. Sometimes the brewer really is creating something new and original (like white IPA) which requires a new descriptor. Other times, they are just being lazy.

Either way, session-styles are the new rage. Get used to it.