What are Session Beers? All the Answers Here!

Want to know about session beers? This guide explains what session beers are, their main characteristics, and a bit about their background.

BEER

Brewpedia

9/5/20237 min read

assorted cans of session beers
assorted cans of session beers

Quick Answer: A session beer is generally defined as an easy-drinking, lower alcohol beer that can be consumed over an extended period of time or "session" without overwhelming the senses or inducing drunkenness

What is a Session Beer?

Session beers have become increasingly popular in recent years among craft beer drinkers looking for flavourful, low-alcohol options. But what exactly are session beers, and what defines them?

The alcohol content of a typical session beer ranges from 3-5% ABV.

Session beers are designed to be refreshing and flavourful while allowing the drinker to enjoy several in one sitting.

The term originated in England, where patrons would enjoy multiple pints during a drinking session at the pub. Certain beer styles like mild ales and bitters were brewed at lower strengths to accommodate this pub culture.

​​The Growing Popularity of Session Beers

Session beers have exploded in popularity in recent years, especially among craft beer enthusiasts. There are several factors driving the session beer craze:

Firstly, session beers allow beer lovers to enjoy the complex flavours of craft beer over a longer period of time.

The lower alcohol content means you can slowly savour a session beer without worrying about intoxication setting in quickly. For many, this leads to a more satisfying and mindful drinking experience.

Secondly, the wider range of styles and flavours available in craft session beers appeals to those looking for diversity.

Breweries are taking traditional beer styles and reinventing them as flavourful session options. From session IPAs to session stouts, there's more variety to suit any taste.

Finally, the increased interest in health and wellness has boosted the popularity of session beers.

More consumers want to enjoy craft beer as part of an active lifestyle. With their lower alcohol content and calories, session beers allow beer fans to imbibe without overindulging.

Characteristics of a Session Beer

While there is no single style that defines a session beer, they do share some common characteristics:

  • Lower alcohol content - Usually between 3-5% ABV so they can be consumed over a long period without intoxicating effects

  • Balance - Session beers focus on balance between malt and hops rather than intense flavours. They tend to be crisp and refreshing rather than highly bitter, roast, or sweet.

  • Easy drinking - Smooth, light to medium body and moderate carbonation allows session beers to be consumed quickly and enjoyed over time. They are not heavy, boozy, or highly acidic.

  • Flavourful - While lower in alcohol, session beers still have delicate yet complex flavours from quality ingredients, brewing skill, and techniques.

  • Food-friendly - The balance and easiness of session beers make them versatile to pair with a variety of foods.

Popular Styles of Session Beers

Many beer styles can be brewed to session strength while retaining their distinctive characteristics. Some popular styles include:

  • Pale Ales - Well-hopped with citrus, pine, or tropical flavours but lower alcohol content.

  • IPAs - Less intense bitterness highlights citrus and tropical hop flavours.

  • Amber Ales - Light caramel maltiness and toasted nuts.

  • Wheat/Witbiers - Fruity, spicy yeast flavours with light body from wheat.

  • Pilsners - Crisp, dry, and refreshing with hints of malt, corn, or rice.

  • Kölsch - Delicate fruitiness with soft malt character.

  • Blondes - Light malt sweetness with grassy, herbal hops.

  • Saisons - Earthy, peppery with bright lemon-citrus notes.

Session IPAs vs. Regular IPAs

What is an IPA?

Before we dive into the differences between session IPA and regular IPA, let's quickly touch upon what an IPA is. IPA stands for India Pale Ale and is a popular beer style known for its hop-forward flavour profile. IPAs are often characterised by their high hop content, which gives them a distinct bitterness and aroma.

What is a Session IPA?

A session IPA is a lighter, more sessionable version of a regular IPA. It maintains the hoppy and bitter characteristics of its counterpart but with a lower alcohol content. Session IPAs are brewed to be enjoyed in longer drinking sessions without overwhelming the drinker with a high ABV.

Differences Between Session IPA and Regular IPA

The main difference between session IPA and regular IPA lies in the alcohol content. Regular IPAs generally have a higher ABV, often exceeding 5%, while session IPAs have a lower ABV, typically ranging from 4% to 4.5%. This lower alcohol content allows drinkers to consume more without feeling the full effects of intoxication.

Benefits of Session Beers

The growth in popularity of session beers is owed to several factors:

  • Flavour complexity - Many beer lovers enjoy the challenge for brewers to deliver flavour, balance, and complexity at a lower alcohol level.

  • Drinkability - The lighter body and alcohol allows you to easily enjoy several in one sitting without feeling weighed down.

  • Controlled alcohol intake - For situations where you want to socially enjoy beer for an extended time without uncontrolled intoxication.

  • Versatility with food - The lighter flavours and body pair well with a wide variety of foods from snacks to entrées.

Less alcohol effects - Lower alcohol means less impairment, dehydration, and other effects compared to higher gravity beers.

person pouring session beers into plastic cup
person pouring session beers into plastic cup

Tips for Enjoying Session Beers

Here are some tips to get the most out of your session beer experience:

  • Serve cold, not chilled - Between 38-45°F to allow the subtle flavours to emerge.

  • Use a glass - Pour into a pint, mug, or tulip glass to appreciate the colour, head retention, and aroma.

  • Try a flight - Sample several session beer styles in a flight to compare the different flavours.

  • Pair with food - Complement any dish, from light salads to burgers and other pub fare.

  • Drink fresh - Look for bottling or canning dates and consume within 3-6 months for peak flavour.

  • Keep an open mind - The diversity of session beers means there is likely one to satisfy any palate.

Brewing Your Own Session Beers

For homebrewers, session beers present a unique brewing challenge. Creating a flavourful yet lower alcohol beer requires precision and skill. Here are some tips for tackling session beer brewing:

  • Use a modest amount of specialty and base malts. Too much malt adds alcohol, body and sweetness. Aim for a starting gravity around 1.030 to 1.040.

  • Add rice, corn, or simple sugars to add fermentables without heaviness. This will help dry out the beer.

  • Use flavourful hops like Citra, Mosaic, or Galaxy. Bright, tropical hops add complexity without alcohol.

  • Consider using ale yeast strains that emphasise ester and fruitiness rather than malt character.

  • Ferment at cooler temperatures near 60°F to keep fruity flavours clean.

  • Add herbs, spices, fruit or other adjuncts to inject flavour without boosting gravity.

  • Avoid high mash temperatures which lead to unfermentable sugars that add body and sweetness.

  • Rouse the yeast occasionally during fermentation to ensure complete attenuation.

With some recipe refinement and process tweaks, brewing satisfying session beers is an attainable goal for homebrewers wanting to expand their craft.

The Takeaway on Session Beers

Session beers have become so popular because they allow beer lovers to stay connected to the craft beer experience while maintaining control over their drinking.

For decades, lighter macro lagers dominated the lower alcohol space. But craft brewers have shown that flavourful, nuanced beers need not be high in alcohol.

This revelation has helped launch the session beer revolution, where beer enthusiasts can responsibly enjoy the tastes they love over time.

Want to learn more about beer, homebrewing or anything in-between? Head over to the Brewpedia blog for loads more!

FAQ

Q: What does the term 'session beer' mean?

A: The term 'session beer' is used to describe a beer that has a lower alcohol content, usually around 4-5 percent ABV, allowing you to enjoy multiple without getting too intoxicated. It is a type of beer that you can drink in a longer "session" without feeling overwhelmed by its alcohol content.

Q: What is the history behind the term "session beer"?

A: The term 'session' originated in Great Britain during World War I when munitions workers were given a break period for drinking. They were allowed to have a few pints of beer during these breaks, but the beers needed to have a lower alcohol content so that the workers wouldn't get too intoxicated and stumble back to work. This lighter beer became known as 'session' beers and the term has stuck ever since.

Q: How is session beer different from other types of beer?

A: Session beers are typically lower in alcohol content compared to other types of beer. They are designed to have a lower ABV, usually around 4-5 percent, which makes them more drinkable and easier to consume over a longer period of time.

Q: What is a session IPA?

A: A session IPA is a type of beer that falls under the session beer category but has a hop-forward flavour profile, similar to an IPA (India Pale Ale). It is usually lower in alcohol content, between 4-5 percent ABV, but still maintains the hoppy and citrusy characteristics of a traditional IPA.

Q: How does a session IPA differ from a regular IPA?

A: The main difference between a session IPA and a regular IPA is the alcohol content. Session IPAs have a lower ABV, usually around 4-5 percent, while regular IPAs can have higher alcohol content, ranging from 6-7 percent or even higher. Despite this difference in alcohol content, session IPAs still maintain the hop-forward flavour profile and citrusy characteristics of a traditional IPA.

Q: What is the significance of the term 'sessionable'?

A: The term 'sessionable' is synonymous with 'drinkable' and is used to describe a beer that is easy to drink over a longer period of time. It signifies that the beer has a balanced flavour profile and a lower alcohol content, making it enjoyable and suitable for longer drinking sessions.

Q: Are all session beers low in alcohol content?

A: Yes, all session beers are intentionally brewed to have a lower alcohol content, usually between 4-5 percent ABV. The purpose of a session beer is to be able to enjoy multiple beers without becoming too intoxicated.

Q: Can session beers still have a flavourful taste?

A: Absolutely! Despite having a lower alcohol content, session beers can still have a flavourful taste. Brewers carefully balance the malt, hops, and other ingredients to create a beer with a great flavour profile and mouthfeel, providing a satisfying drinking experience.

Q: What are some examples of session beers?

A: Some examples of session beers include milds, lower ABV pale ales, and certain Belgian beers. Guinness, although not called a session beer, is often referenced as a beer that can be enjoyed in a "session" due to its lower alcohol content, smoothness, and drinkability.

Q: Why would someone choose to drink session beers?

A: People may choose to drink session beers for various reasons. Some may want to enjoy a longer drinking session without getting too intoxicated, while others may simply prefer the taste and balance of flavours that session beers offer. Session beers are also a great choice when you want to socialise with friends over several drinks without feeling overwhelmed by higher alcohol content.