Session beer: it’s an important plank in British pub culture, the 4 per cent abv or less drink that enables the British pub goer to down multiple pints during the evening without falling over. “Sessionable” is (rightly) a praiseworthy quality in a beer in Camra circles, and there are Americans dedicated to spreading the idea of the session beer in Leftpondia. But when did the term first come into use? As a style it may now be older, at least, than its first drinkers (what with them being dead), but as an expression it may only date back not much more than a couple of decades, to the days of Big Hair and leggings. Nor is it obvious exactly where the term comes from.
My personal recollection is that it wasn’t a term-of-art found in the earliest days of the Campaign for Real Ale, and it only sprang up as a way of describing beers that could be drunk for a whole “session” in the 1980s at the earliest. Indeed, the first uses I have found of the term both come from 1991, just 20 years ago, one in Britain, where someone in the magazine of the Institute of Practitioners in Work Study, Organisation, and Methods wrote:
A good tip is to pour it into a jug first, leaving the sediment in the bottle, thus enabling you to share the contents with your colleagues, which I would certainly commend, as this is definitely not a session beer
and one from the US, where Steve Johnson, in On Tap: The Guide to US Brewpubs, wrote:
Session beer: Any beer of moderate to low alcoholic strength
Now, I don’t believe for a femtosecond that those really ARE the earliest discoverable mentions of the term “session beer”, and I’m sure that somewhere in What’s Brewing or London Drinker or Tyke Taverner or some other Camra publication is a use of the term that predates 1991 by at least five years. (Update: earliest mention now 1982, albeit in a German context, and referring to 4.8 per cent abv beers, by Michael Jackson, and 1988 in a British context – see comments below. Earlier sightings still welcome …) I’m also sure there are readers of this blog who have stacks of back copies of Camra newsletters and pub guides that they can search for early mentions of “session beer”. I give you chaps (and chapesses, no sexism here, Denny) a challenge: supply a properly referenced and verifiably dated example, and there’s a good chance we can get the term “session beer” into the Oxford English Dictionary.
The history of “session beers” certainly predates the term by decades, though they are still, in the form celebrated today, a 20th century invention. The lightest table beers and family ales in the 19th century would have been 4.5 per cent alcohol or more, and “modern” light-but-tasty beer– that is, anything under about four per cent that still had flavour and drinkability – probably only began in the First World War and the government-imposed restrictions in Britain on beer strength, which lowering of strength stayed on after the war because of steeply regressive tax rates, which made beers of pre-war strength too expensive to sell.
The same wartime restrictions, unrepealed when hostilities ended, kept pub opening hours to two sessions, one at lunchtimes and one in the evening. Does “session beer” come from the idea that it’s a beer you can have right through one or other of these opening sessions? Strangely, the expressions “lunchtime session” and “evening session” only seem to appear a couple of decades or more after the Defence of the Realm Act 1915 brought the concepts into existence to try to cut alcohol consumption and keep munitions workers from spending all their wages down the pub. The earliest reference to “evening session” I have found is in, of all places, Samuel Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy, published in 1938 and set in London, when one of the characters is trying to find a place to dump some unwanted material (I won’t give the ending away by saying what that material is):
He was turning into the station, without having met any considerable receptacle for refuse, when a burst of music made him halt and turn. It was the pub across the way, opening for the evening session. The lights sprang up in the saloon, the doors burst open, the radio struck up. He crossed the street and stood on the threshold. The floor was palest ochre, the pin-tables shone like silver, the quoits board had a net, the stools the high rungs that he loved, the whiskey was in glass tanks, a slow cascando of pellucid yellows. A man brushed past him into the saloon, one of the millions that had been wanting a drink for the past two hours. Cooper followed slowly and sat down at the bar, for the first time in more than twenty years.
Lovely writing, and you don’t have to know what “cascando” means to understand what it means. (actually, it’s Italian, and means something like a jumble – it appears to be one of Becket’s favourite words, since he used it as the title of both a poem and a radio play. For what “the whiskey was in glass tanks” meant, see the picture of the bar here, where there’s a big glass container filled with whisky in the bar counter. Oh, and another snippet of social history – note that, this being the 1930s, the pub was playing the radio, not the television.)
“Lunchtime session” seems to turn up even later: I can’t find any use of the expression before 1956, when Nicholas Montsarrat uses it in his “African” novel The Tribe that Lost its Head, talking about the bar of the Gamate hotel in the made-up African country of Pharamaul, where “the usual lunchtime session was in progress – both men and women, some drinking determinedly, some passing the time without urgency, some munching their sandwiches.” Those were all white men and women, it may be necessary to remind readers who didn’t grow up in times when too much melanin in your skin could get you refused a drink even in an African country.
But does the phrase “session beer” derive from lunchtime session/evening session? Lew Bryson, the man behind the Session Beer Project in the US, says that he’s been told “over and over and over that it stems from the ‘sessions’ during which British pubs were open, and workmen would crowd in and drink as quickly as they could, which required lower ABV beer.” Lew is rightly sceptical: that makes the “session” sound like the Australasian “six o’clock swill”, from the days when bars in Australia and New Zealand shut at 6pm for the night.
It’s common to talk about having “a session down the pub” or “a session in the pub” with mates without that referring necessarily to being there all the time the place was open, and it seems to me more likely that this was the sort of “session” that lent its name to a “session beer”. And I don’t buy the idea of workmen having to drink their beer as quickly as they could – the British, of course, buy their drink in rounds, each person in the “round” taking it in turn to buy the group drinks, and they pace themselves as a group, so quick drinking is rude: it places an urgent obligation on someone to buy you your next drink when they may not be ready yet themselves for another one. Sessions, in any case, take place over several hours, that’s why you want a low-strength beer: not because you’re drinking lots in a short time but because you’re drinking (cumulatively) lots in a long time.
Lew also apparently has problems with prescriptivist Britons who argue that session beers must be 4 per cent abv or less, whereas he has set the barrier in his campaign in the US at 4.5 per cent, for the perfectly good reason that there are so few brews in the US made at below that strength, any lower level would leave too few beers to find a decent selection. He wondered why there seemed to be this fanaticism about the “nothing higher than 4 per cent” rule, and I suggested that it’s probably because 4 per cent (or 1040 OG, to be more accurate) is generally, if unofficially, regarded as the dividing line between “bitter” (or “ordinary bitter”) and “best bitter”, and “best bitter” is less likely to be seen as a session beer than “ordinary bitter”.
But there’s no cast-in-concrete rule about what strength a session beer should be – it’s much more about common sense. A session beer is one you can have a session with, a session is, surely (again there’s no dictionary definition of this) an event of at least three to four hours drinking beer, which, at the rate Britons drink beer (your mileage may vary) is going to be at least four to six Imperial pints, and a session beer is therefore one that is weak enough to allow you to drink that much beer and still be coherent at the end of the evening. What strength of beer enables you to drink at least six pints over an evening and remain steady on your feet must be a judgment call, and is likely to vary from drinker to drinker and evening to evening, but I’d agree that it’s unlikely to be over 4%. (Personally I’d set the bar at 3.8 per cent, which is the “classic” “ordinary bitter” strength, but that’s my opinion only.) However, there’s nothing that says you can’t have a session on, eg, draught London Pride (4.2 per cent, IIRC, and the Fuller’s “best bitter”, compared to the “ordinary” Chiswick Bitter). But I’d advise against having a session on ESB.
So – there’s no rule that says session beers HAVE to be 4 per cent or lower, merely personal prejudice/preference, any cut-off level at all over what constitutes/does not constitute a “session beer” is going to be arbitrary, though personally I would suck my teeth and shake my head at anyone who suggested a beer over 4.5 per cent was a “session” brew, and my own view is to regard beers of 3.8 per cent and below as “truly” sessionable – with the classic 3 per cent-3.2 per cent English milds as the “typical” session beers of the 1950s. (It’s a point little appreciated that the first mass-market lagers on sale in the UK, in the 1960s, were only around 3 per cent or 3.2 per cent, since brewers knew that if they had made them as strong as their Continental equivalents, the customers, who would have tried to drink as much lager as they once drank mild, would have needed dragging out of the gutters every night.)
This gets us no nearer to finding when the term “session beer” was invented, however. Over to you: let’s see your evidence.