It’s Time for Session Beer

Last Call by | Apr 2010 | Issue #39

Photo by Jon Campolo

I’ve been on a hiatus from the craft beer industry for six years, and much has changed, mostly for the better, but with some collateral damage along the way. In the frenzy for higher-ABV offerings, craft session beer has been wounded … badly. Craft session beer is often hard to find or identify, and I repeatedly find myself drinking session beer imports by necessity, not by choice. But the climate is changing, and session beer is attracting attention. The craft beer consumer is intelligent and has a diverse palate—they can embrace higher-ABV beer at the same time they embrace session beer. So let’s bring session beer back into the conversation, and let’s start by taking back the session beer definition.

What is the definition of session beer? From the British perspective, it’s always been a lower-ABV offering, typically sub-4 percent. In the US, beer writer Lew Bryson has set a standard in his Session Beer Project blog, which is a must-read for any craft beer fan. I believe Bryson’s definition should be fully endorsed by the craft beer industry: “4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less, flavorful enough to be interesting, balanced enough for multiple pints, conducive to conversation [and] reasonably priced.” I can already sense the anti-style guideline zealots seething, but consumers need context and reference points when making decisions. Without consistent reference points, we neither educate consumers, nor develop the craft beer category.

With the emerging focus on higher-ABV beers, alcohol content has been creeping upwards with each new product introduction, to the point where flagship beers at 6-percent ABV are now being deemed session beers by some. Unless our livers’ ability to metabolize alcohol has increased, how reasonable is it to increase the ABV definition of our session beer? It’s simply not. From a consumer-education perspective, session beer ABV cannot be subjective. And isn’t consumer education a critical responsibility for craft brewers? If we debase session beer’s culture, history and most important attribute, lower alcohol, it will only confuse the consumer. And in the end, what will we have achieved? Absolutely nothing.

It’s hard for some to fathom that many would rather trade down the alcohol scale, not trade up. But with age, family, children, work … sometimes life gets in the way of our love for craft beer. If we spend some time educating the craft consumer on session beer, surprising things will happen. I’ve been doing this recently, and most craft consumers are unfamiliar with lower-ABV options. A smile comes to a consumer’s face when you let them know they can have three beers at 4 percent instead of two beers at 6 percent without compromising flavor or trading down to a macro light beer. Consumers love options and love craft beer, so why not provide more options for the times when they thought soda water was the only alternative? Let’s educate consumers, be consistent in our message and grow the craft beer category with session beer. Craft beer enhances our time together; session beer extends it. Who doesn’t want to extend the good times?

In late April, I re-enter the craft beer industry by releasing more than a session beer—a session beer brand. Notch American Session Ales, a line of flavorful session beer that is always less than 4.5-percent ABV. I’ve been told that I am swimming upstream in the current high-ABV climate, but I am not alone. Check out Notch and more than 25 other brewers at SlowFest, a session beer festival in Boston on April 23rd & 24th. Come by for a session.