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.)