What is Session Beer?

Posted on May 20th, 2010

If you’ve been around the craft beer scene long enough, chances are you’ve heard someone use the phrase “session beer.” What exactly does this curious term mean? Today we take a quick look at the term and explain its meaning.

A “session beer” is a beer low in alcohol which can be consumed in large quantities without making someone excessively intoxicated. This usually means beers in the range of 3-5% alcohol by volume. Anything over 5% and most people begin to feel their alcohol a bit too much. Like most things in the world of beer, this isn’t a term that’s strictly defined, but most people familiar with it will give you a similar definition. As exciting and interesting as crazy, high gravity beers can be, sometimes it’s tough to drink more than one or two of them. This can be frustrating when you’re in the mood to enjoy a number of beers over a few hours but still want to maintain some measure of sobriety, say if you were grilling in the backyard. Situations like that are exactly what session beers are designed for. As we’ve tried to stress many times in our articles, beer should be enjoyed for the taste, not the alcohol.

The origins of the term are hard to place, but some have speculated that it comes from WWI Britain, when munition workers worked long, hard hours to supply the troops with ammo. They were allotted short “session” breaks of a few hours between shifts and many of them spend those breaks in their local pub. Knowing they’d have to go back to work in a few hours the men preferred lighter beers that they could enjoy without getting too sloshed before returning to the factory, thus giving rise to the term “session beer”.

Considering the term’s origins it should come as no surprise that many session beers are British in style or at the very least British influenced. This means lots of bitters, pale ales and porters. Although most people don’t realize it, Guinness is actually a perfect example of a “session beer.” Despite its reputation as a massive beer, it actually only weighs in at 4.3%, which puts it far below many modern craft beers which frequently tip the scales at 6 or 7%.

All of this being said, drinking session beers is no reason to ignore the signs of intoxication. Session beers will get you drunk just as easily as regular brews, so be sure to be careful if you plan on driving after a session.

Considering the big turn out we’re expecting at tonight’s meetup in Harvard Square, I may have to stick to session beers myself. If you’re in the Boston area be sure to stop by and enjoy a beer with us.

  • Sommbeer

    Great post. I’ve always been interested in this topic as it seems the brewers are using it to steal from Bud, Miller etc… I used this post on our site http://sommbeer.com/manayunk-session-ale/