Session in Question

Photo Credit: Sean Buchan

Photo Credit: Sean Buchan

For months I’ve put off writing this article, laziness being the number one reason, but a recent ad for Harpoon Brewery’s Citra Victorious in BeerAdvocate #87 really pushed me over the edge. Short of calling their Pale Ale a straight-up “session beer,” they twice mentioned its “sessionable” nature. A bright, Citra-hopped pale ale with a grapefruit peel addition, refreshing and sessionable…at a cool 5.8% alcohol! I’ll not retract the exclamation point, it’s that outrageous. When did we, as craft beer consumers, start considering 5.8% ABV a sessionable limit? Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale – the bona fide Godfather of craft beer – is 5.6%, and I can’t think of a single time when they, or anyone I’ve ever drank that beer beside, has thought to call it as a session ale.

So what’s a session beer, you ask? To that I’d say something that actually enters a different category of sessionability. For years we’ve been drinking craft beers that typically ranged anywhere from 4.5% – 15% ABV, so again, when I see 4.5% or 4.8%, I don’t feel like I’m drinking anything I haven’t tried before. Yes, these new session IPAs certainly bring distinct hop characteristics to the table, but many of them fall flat in terms of malt backing – in both flavor and mouthfeel; so in that sense, are they really that special? For a new market to develop that’s so focused on me spending all day with the product, I want these beers to undress completely and hit the 2.5% – 4.2% ABV range. I want these beers to stop me in my tracks, not because they’re hop-bombs, but because they’re approachable while offering layers of complexity. Basically, I want these low-ABV beers to give me the best argument possible as to why I should purchase them instead of the reliable 4.7% – 5.5%, balanced and full-flavored craft beers I’ve been drinking long before it was marketable to label them “session.”

As a long-time fan of session beers, I’m equal parts enthused and bothered by the overflowing selection of “session” and “sessionable” – predominantly Indian Pale – ales entering the market. I’m excited to find these lower-alcohol beers bringing some much-needed relief to the overbearing grip that high-ABV beers have had on the market for the last decade, while also allowing new craft beer consumers who were afraid of “heavy,” boozy craft beers to enter the fray in greater numbers. On the other hand, I’m frustrated to see that a number of these session options are nothing more than beers coming in barely below the typical 5% ABV threshold that Coors Original and Bud Heavy have been churning out for decades.

Photo credit: Sean Buchan

Photo credit: Sean Buchan

When you think back to high school health class – beyond the weekend take-home trip with your precious raw egg, and the never-awkward explanation of how to use a rubber – you might remember that the standard blood alcohol content (BAC) levels are based on the equivalency of one 12 oz 5% beer, one 1.5 oz 40% spirit, and one 5 oz 12% glass of wine. With that in mind, let’s explore the ABVs of some of the most prominent session beers in the craft beer marketplace: Sierra Nevada’s Nooner hits 4.8%; Founders’ All Day IPA comes in at 4.7%; Lagunitas’ Daytime at 4.65%;  while a number of others, including Odell’s Loose Leaf, Stone’s Go To , and Firestone Walker’s Easy Jack take it down to 4.5%.

So I ask the question, when did 4.5% – 4.8% ABV become sessionable? It’s merely 0.2% – 0.5% less than the absolute normal standard for what we’ve known as “beer”- the taboo yellow stuff we stole from our buddy’s dad’s fridge in the garage. And if you think 0.5% is a significant difference, keep in mind that NON-alcoholic beers can have up to 0.5% ABV. If 0.5% isn’t significant enough an amount to call a malt beverage an alcoholic drink, why would taking away 0.5% be significant enough to call it a session beer all of the sudden?

Sure, the argument can be made that it’s lower than a lot of the craft beers that crowd the current marketplace, but does that mean its sessionable, or just lower-ABV? And when did we stop making 4.5% beers without calling them sessionable? Prairie Artisan Ales seems OK with it; their 4.5% Birra is one of the best beers I’ve had this year, and yet they didn’t feel the need to label their farmhouse ale a “Session Farmhouse.” And while we’re on the topic, when the fuck did a 4.5% hoppy beer stop being a pale ale and become an IPA? One of the most definitive distinctions between American-brewed pales and IPAs is the ABV. For years, people have been brewing extremely hoppy pale ales and labeling them as such – because it made sense to do so.

Photo credit: Sean Buchan

Photo credit: Sean Buchan

Firestone Walker recently released Easy Jack, a 4.5% session IPA, which sits regally beside Firestone’s classic 4.9% Pale 31. If one were to drink Pale 31 against Easy Jack, there’s little doubt they’d be blown away by both, but I have a great deal of doubt that a consumer would classify one as an IPA and one a pale; and if anything, one could easily peg Pale 31 as the IPA based on its brighter, crisper lemon nose alongside its relatively equivalent bitterness and mouthfeel. In this case, they dropped their IPAs ABV 0.4% below their pale’s ABV, and still, somehow, labeled Easy Jack the IPA. Call me an optimist, but at this clip, I’m absolutely thrilled at the prospect of North Coast Brewing Co. breaking all barriers and releasing a 6.7% Little Raspy Russian Imperial Stout.

At this rate, where do we top out? If 5.8% is working for us, why not 6%? It’s certainly less than 7%, and for crying out loud, what pussy really gets drunk on 6% beers these days? Of course we all know that craft beer is about pushing limits (that’s cute), and that categories are for stooges (unless one wins a medal, then they mean something), and that all brewers malt their own barley and grown their own hops. I realize there doesn’t have to be any set laws in the world of craft beer, but I also realize a marketing gimmick when I see one, and session IPAs are the new cock of the walk.


About Jesse Brookstein

A product of Clinton, NY (a quaint little drinking village on the outskirts of Utica), Jesse quickly grew to appreciate all things beer. After a few years driving beer trucks and a brief internship at Brewery Ommegang, he moved to Colorado in 2006 to further his career in the craft brewing industry. In 2007, he joined the packaging team at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, CO, and held the post of Packaging Manager for three years before resigning in 2014 to open Call to Arms Brewing Company in Denver with two of his former Avery colleagues.

  • John Verive

    Pedantic perhaps, but worth noting none-the less: you specifically mention that Harpoon does not call the beer a “session beer” but does call it “Sessionable”.

    I don’t see a problem making this distinction. A higher-ABV beer can indeed be “sessionable” in that it encourages and rewards sitting down to more than a couple servings of the brew. Sierra Nevada Pale ale is one of the most sessionable brews around whether or not anyone calls it a “session beer”. It won’t fatigue the palate, nor will it bore the drinker after a few glasses. I personally have had countless “sessions” of drinking SNPA exclusively for an evening. Hence it is “sessionable”.

    My point is a beer can be “sessionable” without being classified as a “session beer.”

    (And for the record, I think the “session beer” limit SHOULD be closer to 4% (or below) than 5% – which seems to be the line set by the current glut of “Session beers” from craft breweries.)

    • tbeseda

      I agree with your point about semantics. A beer drinking session varies person to person, but I think Jesse is more making a point about a marketing schtick.
      Something the less crafty branding guru-ninjas hired to build unit-pushing bandwagons are picking up on as a trending persona trait.

      I’m glad someone’s calling them on their bullshit.

  • Frederic Yarm

    The number of people who come in to my bar asking for IPAs far out numbers the people asking for pale ales. Although the pale ales are what the people who want flavorful but not extreme beers prefer, but I am never quite sure what people expect when they hear the term “pale ale.” When a beer sits at that boundary between the two, calling it an IPA will sell more units.

  • Rob

    Come to the UK and sit in a nice pub with your mates and drink 8 odd pints of sub 4% bitter in good condition. The beer is a facilitator for the social gathering, but not the focus of it at all. It shouldn’t take away from the conviviality of the occasion. There shouldn’t be any more comment on the beer than “Ooo that’s nice”. That to me is what a session beer is about. But sub 4% is where cask ale really shines in comparison to keg. 3 bottles of SNPA does not a session make.

    I do find it slightly odd with this obsession about labeling everything to the nth degree. Why not just call it a pale ale? The abv lets people know how strong it is. If they decide they can drink it all night long then great, but it seems rather presumptuous of the brewer otherwise…

  • tbeseda

    I think a brewer needs to step up and make a classic < 2& Belgian table beer. Just sayin'.

  • Chris

    The ABV difference between a 4.5 and a 5.0% beer? The 5% beer is 11% more alcohol. Between a 4 and a 6%? 50% more alcohol. Most consumers simply subtract the ABVs and claim it’s only 0.5% more alcohol.

    And why so many brewers calling normal strength beers “session”? Its hard to brew session beer but easy to jump a trend with marketing.

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