What is a Session Beer?

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In recent years the term session beer has become a household name in the craft beer world; in large part because of the popularity of the IPA and one of its offshoots the session IPA.  But what is a session beer really?

It might surprise some of you reading this post to find out that it is actually not a style of beer and it is not exclusively reserved for IPA’s.  Session beers have been around for a very long time and many beer styles have versions that would be considered sessions and many other styles would themselves qualify as being a session beer.

Basically a session is a very easy drinking beer that has a nice balance between it’s hop and malt characteristics.  In the USA it’s alcohol content must be under 5% and in Europe, especially the UK it’s alcohol content must be under 4%.  

The whole point of this type of beer is so you can have a few pints in a “session” and not become intoxicated.  Enjoy a few pours and still be able to go about your day being productive. Which leads us to the origins of this beer…

History Lesson  4 session beers sitting on a bar top with the words what is a session beer written next to them.Pin

During World War 1 factory workers in England were actually allowed to drink beers with lower ABV’s at work.  4 hour time frames or sessions throughout the day were allotted where they could consume beers with an alcohol content under 4%.  They would be permitted one per every hour.  Enough to enjoy yourself but still get the job done.  

The rationale for this was that the factory workers would be more content on the job.  Similar to the rum rations for the army.  It kept the morale up but did not allow them to become too intoxicated to be able to be productive.  Believe it or not the law that governed this stayed in place until 1988.  The beers consumed in the factories back then would have been Bitters or Milds.

Does Appearance Make a Difference?

Not in the slightest.  The color of your beer actually has no bearing on how high the ABV (alcohol by volume) is.  Novice beer drinkers always mistakenly think that the darker the color the stronger the beer; which is simply not true.  There are many very light colored beers that are 8 – 10% and there are many darker color beers that are very sessionable.  

Most people see the pure black colored Guinness Dry Irish stout and think it would taste very thick and heavy and be a strong beer when in fact it could very much be considered a session beer as it is actually very light tasting and has an ABV of only 4.2%.

How is a Session Beer Made

The trickiest part of brewing any session beer is ensuring that you brew a balanced beer.  For example brewers need to be careful not to use the same amount of hops as they would in a higher strength beer due to the fact that less grains are used.  If they do, the beer will taste like hop water and not be very enjoyable and certainly will not have the high drinkability factor that makes this such an easy drinking beer.  Finding the perfect balance is key.

The following are 8 strategies used when brewing session beers:

Malts & Grains – Malts and grains are selected very carefully.  When it comes to making beer there are two categories of grains; base and specialty.  Base grains provide the sugars that turn into the alcohol and specialty grains provide the texture, color, mouthfeel, aroma and taste.  

By pairing the right specialty grains with base grains you can come up with some beers that although light on alcohol will not be light on taste, etc.  Some excellent specialty grains that are used in session beers are Biscuit, Vienna and Munich.  There are also some base grains that add more texture to beers than others such as Maris Otter and Golden Promise.

Simple Sugars – One of the tricks to making beers with higher alcohol content is to add simple sugars such as dextrose to the recipe.  They raise the alcohol level while keeping the body of the beer quite light.  Simple sugars are avoided when brewing session beers.

Wheat & Oats – In order to get a smoother mouthfeel flaked wheat and oats are added to the recipe.  This is a very popular way of making a session beer more full bodied.

Crystal Malts – One of the easiest ways to modify and enhance the flavor of beer is to use crystal mals.  They are also a type of specialty grain that are found in most beers.  

Brewers have a large variety of choice when it comes to which crystal malts they wish to use.  They range in color from very light to very dark.  The same goes for their sweetness, the darker you get the more sweet they are.  They provide a caramel-like flavor. In beers with lower alcohol content they are a great option to use to keep the beer full bodied.

Warmer Mash – Mashing is one of the first steps in the brewing process where both the base and specialty grains are soaked in warm water for typically 60 – 90 minutes.  This part of the process is very similar to when making tea you soak the tea bag in warm water to get the goodness out of it. Mashing gets all of the fermentable sugars and starches out of the grain.  

By mashing a little warmer than usual (153 – 155 degree Fahrenheit) the grains will not produce as many fermentable sugars and will actually produce a fuller taste and mouthfeel.

Increase the Aroma – You might not realize it but a large part of what you perceive as being the taste of a hoppy beer is actually coming from it’s aroma.  Our taste and smell senses are very closely connected.  By increasing the aroma either through the hops or malts used brewers can trick your senses into thinking the beer is richer in taste then it actually is.

Hops – Hops bring many things to a beer to include bitterness, taste and aroma.  The really hoppy and bitter IPA is a result of a large amount of bittering hops being used towards the start of the boiling stage in the brewing process.  With lower ABV beers that are using less grains to help balance them, you have to cut back on the bittering hops as it will very quickly overpower the beer.

Choice of Yeast – Yeast plays a very big role in creating the overall characteristics of a beer.  Some yeasts will produce a much higher alcohol content, while others will enhance the flavors produced by the malts.  By picking the right strain of yeast brewers can produce a very satisfying tasting brew.  With session beers they typically will use a yeast that produces a lower alcohol content while enhancing the malt flavors.

Sample Recipe

The following is an example of what a session beer recipe would look like.  The following recipe is for a session IPA, which is very similar in taste and aroma to an IPA however it has the lower alcohol content we are looking for in this style of beer.

ABV – 4%
IBU – 48
SRM – 6.75
Original Gravity – 1.037
Final Gravity – 1.006

Grains:

  • 7.5 lbs 2 Row
  • 1 lb Crystal 40 L
  • 0.5 lb Flaked Wheat

Hops:

  • 1 oz Willamette (60 min)
  • 2 oz Cascade (10 min)
  • 2 oz Centennial (5 min)
  • 1 oz Cascade (dry hopped 4 days)
  • 1 oz Centennial (dry hopped 4 days)

Yeast:

Fermentis – Safale – US – 05

Instructions:

Mash for 60 minutes at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Boil for 60 minutes.  Add hop additions as per recipe. Chill wort to yeast pitching temperature and transfer to the fermenter.  Pitch yeast.  Ferment at 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Add dry hops at 4 days.  Let sit in the fermenter for 2 – 3 weeks.  Cold crash for 2 – 3 days (for a cloudier beer skip this step).  Bottle or keg.  Drink and enjoy!

There you have it my friend, you now have a  much better understanding of what a session beer is.  If you have any questions on what we covered here or how to make one for yourself feel free to let me know.

If you are going to try and brew this beer for yourself check out our list of recommended online vendors to get your ingredients from and you can also learn all about the all grain brewing system I brew on.

Cheers Big Robb is Out!

Big Robb with a pint of home brewed beerP.S. If you are a brewer and would like to get your hands on my top 5 best selling beers from my brew pub, sign up on the side of the blog or bottom if you are on a smart device to get instant access to them!  Enjoy!

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