By Tracy Phillippi | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Bring out the grill and lawn chairs—it’s tailgating season in Wisconsin! And let’s face it, with a four-hour football game to get through, you don’t want to fill your cooler with boozy beers that will put you to sleep before the game even starts.
Enter “session beers,” the current darling of the craft beer world. Simply put, a session beer is so-called because it is brewed purposefully to remain relatively low in alcohol, usually three to five percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and can be consumed in larger quantities over an extended period of time (the “session”). Mirror this with barley wines, strong belgians and imperial IPAs that can clock in well over 10 percent ABV and generally limit the beer drinker to one or two small glasses. These big beers are overflowing with flavor, so breweries do their darndest to keep their session beers interesting, from loading up on hops to exploring the fruity side.
And the best thing about session beers is they are not just a summer fling. They fit the setting, not just the season. Whether it’s tailgating all day long at a Badgers or Packers game or enjoying a long evening of pub trivia with your mates on a cool November night, there’s a trusty session ale to see you through.
Like most beer folklore, the history of session-style beer has multiple interpretations. The most commonly recited tale is that these low-alcohol beers date back to the World War I era, when English weapons manufacturers were permitted to drink on the job. Employees could choose to partake in some relaxing suds during one of two “sessions,” scheduled periods of the day lasting up to 4 hours when the taps were allowed to flow. As you’d expect, in order to remain productive, workers needed to set aside the boozier beers in favor of easy-drinking ales. Around the same time, the UK government imposed restrictive taxes on strong beers, making it too costly for breweries to produce high-ABV beer.
In more modern times, British blokes will “have a session” down at the pub, taking turns buying rounds of pints for one another. Sipping your pint and slowing down the pace is considered rude, so in order to keep up with the pack, lower alcohol beers are preferred.
In North America the trend towards lower-ABV craft beers has been a long time in the making. In the 2000s, the number of breweries in the US rapidly increased, and they needed a way to differentiate themselves from the friendly competition. This led to a game of one-upmanship: Who could make the hoppiest beer? Who could make the beer with the strangest ingredients? Who could make the strongest beer?
Barrel-aged and “imperial” beers became the norm, and lower alcohol beers were considered weak in both flavor and stature. Eventually the pendulum started to reverse, and a segment of beer drinkers emerged who were looking for the opposite—low alcohol yet flavorful beer styles that could be consumed without falling off the barstool.
Philadelphia-based beer and whiskey writer Lew Bryson is regarded by many in the industry to be an authority figure on session beer. In January 2007, Lew founded the Session Beer Project (http://sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com). “I originally started it to try to get more attention for the ‘regular’ beers brewers made every day, but I quickly changed that to a focus on tasty, lower-alcohol beers—session beers—because they weren't getting any attention at all. I thought people would like them...if only brewers would make them.”
And boy did session beers take off! Six years ago, Lew had a difficult time finding eight session beers in the market to have a festival, and now almost every brewery has a beer that would meet the criteria.
Of course, any given beer doesn’t need to be labeled as “session” in order to satisfy the criteria. For example, if you choose beer styles like an English mild, Berliner Weiss, German pilsner, kolsch, and some fruit beers, you are likely to get interesting flavors under the 5 percent ABV threshold.
Ale Asylum’s Demento: A Local, Sessionable Gem
One of Madison’s most beloved session brews is none other than Demento Session Pale Ale from Ale Asylum. Director of Promotions Hathaway Dilba says that session beers were just starting to gain popularity when Demento hit Madison’s beer scene in 2014. The brewery used hop varieties that had already proven to lure in local hop heads: Cascade, which is featured in Hopalicious, and Centennial, found in their Satisfaction Jacksin Double IPA. These citrusy hop varieties give Demento its big flavor, all while clocking in at only 4.7 percent ABV.
For Quality Control Manager Joe Walts, session beers like Demento are “fantastic because they let me drink beer fairly steadily, while something like a double IPA would require me to take an awkward hour-long break between each beer to ensure that I'm drinking responsibly. High-gravity beers can pack in more flavor, but the social benefits I gain from drinking beer have little to do with maximizing flavor.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
Like all fads, the session beer craze is not without its critiques. From the consumer perspective, a night at a craft beer bar can quickly add up, and low-ABV beers don’t have the “bang for your buck” factor that an IPA might. Others cite that the popularity of session beers provide an easy in for the big beer companies to profit on yet another craft beer trend (Bud Light’s strategy, after all, is to showcase its superior drinkability). Perhaps most concerning is how quickly a session of low-alcohol beers can turn into a session of binge drinking—something no brewery wants to stand behind.
What does the future hold for low alcohol session beers? Joe Walts hopes to see Ale Asylum and others produce even lower alcohol beers (3 to 4 percent ABV) similar to what is popular in the UK. Lew Bryson is hoping for more “delicious session beers in the market at a reasonable price” and a more educated consumer (and brewer) base that’s excited about the breadth of possibilities for session beer. In the meantime, fill up your cooler and enjoy the game!
Session-style beers available in Southern Wisconsin:
New Glarus Brewing Moon Man (5% ABV)
Wisconsin Brewing Company Nectarine Pale Ale (4.9% ABV)
One Barrel Brewing Commuter Kolsch (4.8% ABV)
Ale Asylum Demento Session Pale Ale (4.7% ABV)
Potosi Brewing Company Good Old Potosi (4.5% ABV)
Capital Brewing Island Wheat (4.2% ABV)
Next Door Brewing Company Bubbler Blonde Ale (4.5% ABV)