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.

24 thoughts on “Yes, it’s VERY possible to define a ‘sessionable’ craft beer

  1. Have been saying the same to anyone that will listen for years now. The point about conflating drinkable makes sense, I’d always wondered where the session claim came from in some beers but this makes sense.

    Can confirm, from personal experience of 3 pints, Neck Oil is anything but sessionable.

  2. This is persuasive, but it tends to imply that drinking beer by the imperial pint is definitive of a session, which poses some problems for the rest of the world.

    Is it possible that “a session” might involve drinking several “beers”, whatever your idea of a “beer” might be? Or that a Belgian party might get through five 33cl bottles of a 7% beer in a similar length of time, & similar level of conviviality, to a British group getting through five pints at 4%?

    For me the idea of a session rests on there being such a thing as “a beer”, and it being relatively ordinary – you couldn’t have a session on barley wine or DIPA, however small the measures were. But I think it can stretch a bit beyond pintable bitters and milds.

  3. I think a session beer has to be drunk in a pub, so outside of pub culture it all looks a bit weird. People who don’t really get it seem to think it just means ‘weaker’ but that’s really lacking the cultural connotations.

    1. Indeed, there was a time when “a beer” would probably have been a porter rather than one of the paler beers we now call mild and bitter. Perhaps they didn’t have sessions back then (it’s possible, that’s not me being sarcastic).

  4. As always, well reasoned and defined, Martyn. Obviously composed during a session of ‘sessionables.’ I, however, prefer to enjoy my ‘drinkable’ beers with ‘eatable’ food. They’re more ‘approachable,’ that way.

    Prescriptivist Thomas

  5. ‘Session’ is often now used here to mean weaker than the norm for the style. So session IPA can be 5% abv or a bit more when the norm is 6.5-7%. ‘Mutatis mutandis’ for stronger styles. It’s an evolution of language, but then ‘IPA’ is used differently today to its original sense (except viz. alcohol level!), say the hop flavour, or that much of it is made to be consumed as early as possible. The term ‘cask ale’, 20 years ago when much of it came cloudy here, seemed awry, but now it seems right especially as it can come that way too in its homeland. These things just change over time and end with a mind of their own.

  6. I would have been inclined to agree in general with the idea that a true session beer shouldn’t be too hoppy, but the thesis is challenged by Batham’s Bitter: very heavily hopped and yet I have had a ten-pint session on it, something I have never managed with any other beer.

      1. Batham’s Brewery, a family brewer based near Dudley in the West Midlands. They’ve got 11 tied pubs across the Black Country; the bitter’s a regular guest ale at a couple of local pubs, but I’ve never seen Batham’s beers anywhere outside the West Midlands.

  7. This is a big problem in the USA – I live on the West Coast and there are (or were) many good pubs around in the 90s. Intimate, atmospheric – usually in what were previously industrial zones with big brick buildings. I had a campaign to get brewers to produce a session beer and only once succeeded – A place calle dthe Old Lompoc. It was a little strong 4.5% (but nothing else was under 5.5%) but clean and enough taste without any overwhelming element. I got crowds in there of 10-20 people and we emptied the keg. A couple of weeks later I returned for the next iteration – the next ‘session’ was tasty but instead of reducing the ABV he’d increased it to 5.8% (because his customers’ liked stronger beers”…

    Around that time I got an email reply from John Morland (I think his name was) a brewer from S California that specialised in IMperial (double) IPAs and other strong beers. He said there were several reasons why West Coast brewers would not brew true session beers:
    – The stronger the beer the more they boasted – the macho element
    – The bottles with high alcohol would last on shelves without going off – shelf-life
    – It was much harder to brew a good tasting low alcohol beer than a high alcohol beer – his brewers didn’t have the skill
    – Customers wouldn’t pay premium prices for a beer because of taste if the alcohol was less than the mass-market US beers (which are usually 4.5-5%)
    – you didn’t win awards or get plaudits for ‘weak’ beer (THEN – that’s changed a little)

  8. Good article, and a few thoughts. Agreed, I was initially confused at the US use of ‘session’: to me, a session is a peculiarly British thing, tied up with pubs (you don’t generally have sessions at home even if you do drink to excess with friends) and, typically pints. That last point, causes me to question though whether drinking schooners (2/3 imp. pint) of 6.5% beer can also be a session? Probably not, as I seldom drink two of the same beers (even they were all 6.5%) due to the more intense flavour and the fact that there are too many other choices in a good (craft) pub.

    So yes I concur, for a beer to be sessionable it cannot be too strong in either alcohol or distinctive flavour (guess we’re looking at the word ‘balanced’ again here).

    To me, as a Brit, British cask bitters (sorry. ‘pale ales’) are the ultimate in sessionability – flavoursome but subtle, and not too strong. Cask also has the advantage that they’re easy to drink owing to lower levels of carbonation and slightly higher serving temps.

    (And ok, to me we’re talking Fuller’s London Pride or Harvey’s Sussex Best.) Cheers.

    Oh, and good company and conversation is also a must for any session.

  9. It is possible to have a ‘session’ in a British pub on a stronger ‘no sessionable’ beer. But when you wake up the following morning it dawns on you why modest strength ales are called session ales.

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