Tag Archives: session beer

Yes, it’s VERY possible to define a ‘sessionable’ craft beer

I was thinking of ignoring the “what does sessionable mean” debate, even through I was dragged into it by my ear by having my research quoted. Then I saw a tweet yesterday from someone talking about “a sessionable 5.5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout”, and the world swam and dissolved before me as I plunged screaming and twisting into a hellish, tormented pit of dark despair.

Let me make this as clear as I can. This is an egregious and unforgivable total failure to understand what the expression “sessionable” means, is meant to mean, and was coined for. A 5.5 per cent alcohol beer is not, and cannot be, “sessionable”. A smoked oatmeal stout, while I am sure it can be lovely, is not and cannot be “sessionable”. Nobody ever spent all evening drinking four or five, or six, pints of smoked oatmeal stout.

This is NOT a session beer …

The rant you are now reading springs less from that particular beer review than a piece this week by the British beer writer  Lily Waite on the American website Vinepair headlined “It’s Impossible to Define ‘Sessionable’ in Craft Beer”. I don’t think Lily wrote the headline, which looks to go further than her article does, but her piece, which references my research back in 2011 into the origins of the term “session beer”, raises a number of potential difficulties around a definition of the term “sessionable”, not least the existence now of beers called “session barley wine” with eight per cent alcohol and 75 IBUs, and “session double IPA“, again at eight per cent abv.

I try not to be prescriptivist about language, but for me “sessionable” is a very useful word with, actually, yes, a precise meaning, and if people are going to start being stupid with it by releasing something called a “session barley wine” or “session double IPA”, even as a “joke”, then we are in great danger of destroying an important descriptor, and losing an easy way of summing up one of the fundamentals of British pub culture.

It’s entirely possible to define “sessionable”, but only if you understand what the expression was coined to describe, which many American beer drinkers – and brewers – apparently do not. A large part of the problem is that the word springs from a very British practice, the “session”, and Americans don’t really understand what the “session” is about. Britons and Americans are fooled into thinking that, because they speak the same language (more or less) and drink the same sorts of beers (more or less) in places that are called “bars” (even if the British “bar” is actually a room in a pub, rather than the descriptor for the whole establishment), then their out-of-home drinking cultures are entirely similar and compatible. They’re not. “Sessionable” means “beer capable of sustaining a session”, and “session” means “extended period of three or four hours drinking pints and engaging in conversation with friends”. That is why the fundamental definition of a session beer has to be that it has a comparatively low gravity and is comparatively unobtrusive. Americans, in my experience, do not generally spend entire evenings in one bar drinking pints. (See also the bizarrely tiny glasses used at American beer festivals.)

Another problem is that people are confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. The two are very much not the same. An eight per cent barley wine may well be “drinkable”, in the sense of that great beer-reviewer’s cliché, “dangerously drinkable”, that is, it slides away down the throat very easily. But “sessionable” means “you can drink several and still walk out the door without bumping into the frame.” An eight per cent barley wine is therefore NOT “sessionable”.

… and this is not a session beer either

Lily Waite’s piece is specifically looking at “sessionability” in the context of terms such as “session IPA”, and the craft appropriation of a term than applies much more to mainstream, non-craft beer drinking in the UK, and beers such as Carling, Fosters and the like. She interviewed some people with – ahh – interesting takes on sessionability, including James Rylance who helped create the now highly popular Neck Oil, Beavertown Brewery’s “session IPA”, which comes in at 4.3 per cent abv, and “masses of hop additions during the whirlpool and a huge dose of dry hops” (I quote from the brewery’s website). I’ve never tried a session on Neck Oil, but while 4.3 per cent is just on the edge of sessionability, I’m not sure about “”masses of hop additions”, even ignoring ” a huge dose of dry hops”. The classic British session beers are milds and light bitters, which generally have low hop rates. High hop rates are, I suggest, the antithesis of sessionability: too many hops, and you really can’t drink more than a couple of pints without hop overload.

This MIGHT be a session beer, if the hops aren’t overdone

James Rylance told Lily Waite that sessionability was less about abv than “balance”, and insisted: “I think ‘sessionable’ is a beer that can be drunk repeatedly, multiple times, in its correct volume. There’s a lot of Belgian beers that are super sessionable, like Saison Dupont at 6-point-something percent — that’s sessionable, but I’m just not drinking a pint of it.” No, sorry, couldn’t disagree more. You’re confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. You might be able to drink several small Duponts, I’m sure, lovely beer, and one is certainly not enough, but a true session beer has to be gulped in pints, not sipped. And probably I drink too fast, but after a four-hour session, I wouldn’t even be able to find the bar if I were drinking something that was 6.5 per cent. So no, Saison Dupont is NOT “sessionable” either.

But this is DEFINITELY a session beer – or was …

I can’t agree, either, with another of Lily Waite’s interviewees, Chris Hannaway of the London-based alcohol-free beer venture Infinite Session (see what he did there?), which launched last year with a 0.5 per cent pale ale brewed at Sambrooks in Battersea. ” “A ‘session’ is no longer about everyone ordering the same 4 to 5 per cent lager rounds for everyone in the group,” he says – but it never was. It was about people drinking 3.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent milds, bitters or lagers, depending on what they wanted, and drinking them all night long.  

So: what’s the definition of “sessionable” and does it apply to craft beer? Sessionable means a beer you can drink over an extended period without getting too drunk and without growing tired of it and wanting something else. And yes, clearly that can apply as much to craft beer as it does to macro, mass-market beer. (Indeed, personally I find mass-market beers entirely unsessionable because they bore me after half a pint. Dull is not sessionable either.) A sessionable craft beer is going to be one that is not too strong, and not too challenging in terms of massive hop flavours or other flavour attributes such as roastiness, sourness or whatever. There – not impossible at all.

How old is the term ‘session beer’?

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.)

Continue reading How old is the term ‘session beer’?