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Beer Town: Session beers breaking out all over

For years, session beers — loosely described as flavorful lower alcohol beers — have been a hot topic among craft beer aficionados.

Malt Advocate magazine Managing Editor Lew Bryson even started a blog called the Session Beer Project.

Terrapin Beer Co.

Terrapin Beer Co.

But recently several companies, including 21st Amendment, Samuel Adams, Founders, Terrapin and Wild Heaven, have given a bigger boost to the cause with offerings that are rekindling the debate over the precise definition of a session beer.

According to the Brewer’s Association, a session beer is any style of beer that “can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style’s character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 5.1 percent alcohol by volume.”

Some British beer lovers think the definition should be something under 4 percent alcohol — truly a beer that can be enjoyed over several pints during a leisurely drinking session at a pub.

Bryson’s definition is “4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less; flavorful enough to be interesting; balanced enough for multiple pints; conducive to conversation; reasonably priced.”

In February, Atlanta’s Wild Heaven Craft Beers introduced Let There Be Light, a 4.7 percent alcohol by volume “sessionable” beer brewed with barley, wheat and two rare hops, Nelson Sauvin and Sorachi Ace, along with a bit of orange peel.

“If you truly love craft beer, it becomes an all-occasion thing,” said Wild Heaven President Nick Purdy. “We wanted to create a lower-alcohol, sessionable beer that retains the bolder flavors we as craft beer lovers want. Let There Be Light is our first shot at that, and we love it. I’m sure it won’t be our last.”

Over in Athens, Terrapin brewmaster Brian “Spike” Buckowski has come up with Easy Rider, a new hopped up 4.5 percent session ale due to be released in late April.

Brewed with more than 60 percent Maris Otter English malt for a rich, nutty flavor, it’s hopped like a less aggressive IPA, with several varieties, including the Zythos hop blend. It’s also dry-hopped with Galaxy, an Australian variety that imparts bright citrus and passion fruit aromas.

“I’m really excited about it,” Buckowski said. “We’re going to release it first as a seasonal, but depending on the response, it could move to year-round.”

As for session beers in general, Buckowski thinks the time is right for styles that are lower in alcohol and more balanced between malts and hops.

“Things have been so over-hopped for so many years,” Buckowski said. “Even if a beer is to style, some hopheads on rating sites still slam it because ‘it doesn’t have enough hops.’ Finally, we’re saying, ‘I can make a low alcohol beer that’s flavorful but it doesn’t have to be tongue-scraping hoppy.’”

A few more session beers to look for:

21st Amendment Bitter American — a breakthrough canned 4.2 percent dry-hopped pale ale that went into year-round production in early 2012.

Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner — a canned 4.7 percent contemporary rendition of a classic lager style with plenty of hop flavor.

Founders All Day IPA — a 4.7 percent brew with the characteristics of an American IPA; it’s not available in Georgia yet, but you can find it in North Carolina.

Samuel Adams Belgian Session — a crisp, bright 4.3 percent version of a traditional Belgian ale that will be available in April as part of a new seasonal mix-pack.

— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog

16 comments Add your comment

Dengue Fever

March 14th, 2012
11:34 am

This DINGhole disagrees. Where’s my union jack jean jacket that I like to wear when I’m indignant?

Hindu Elvis Pimp

March 14th, 2012
11:52 am

Enter your comments here

Hindu Elvis Pimp

March 14th, 2012
11:53 am

Way to give credence to Ding, even if it is negative.

Marris Otter

March 14th, 2012
12:00 pm

One aspect that the craft beer world had to fight was the well placed perception craft beers were big and heavy. It’s what attracted some to try what was very different and very flavorful, however, the macro drinking crowd shied away from craft beers because of this. Now that the craft beer industry has begun recognizing the value of session beers to it’s faithful followers, it’s quite possible the macro crowd will discover that craft beer is not always big and heavy.


March 14th, 2012
12:14 pm

Those definitions would make Guiness a session beer (4.2%), to which I heartily agree! Lets all raise a pint to session beers this St. Patrick’s Day.


Matt Crowther

March 14th, 2012
12:26 pm

The Wrecking Bar’s Hoppy Hobbit Session IPA is delicious, only about 3.8% alcohol but with great hop character from New Zealand varieties.

Mark N

March 14th, 2012
12:35 pm

Dang, Matt and JayTee, you both beat me to the punch! I gotta think of something else now. Hmmmmmm. I got nothing, except that I’m thirsty and maybe session beers will bring to America the great British tradition of drinking a pint at lunch. That would be cool….

John Sukroo

March 14th, 2012
12:40 pm

Matt beat me to the punch about the Hoppy Hobbit. Really excellent, and great body and mouthfeel for a below 4% beer.

G Lounge

March 14th, 2012
1:03 pm

It was Hamms that made “the beer you want to have when you are going to have another”. I think that defined the “session” beer. Now I have to disagree on the alcohol % as the cut for “session” beers. I think the true essence of session is if you can have 3 of them and enjoy them. Now, I can’t have 3 Anchor Christmas Ales. But, I can have 3 Hefes or Winter Lagers which all might have 5.5% – 8% alcohol. Now, I don’t want to hit 6 or 8 of these bigger beers and need to be somewhere. However, I think if I can have more than one and really enjoy them, they are still session beers. If they have a high finishing gravity or are really hoppy, they are probably not part of my session. But, just because they got a wee bit over 5.1% doesn’t mean I’m going to kick them off my session agenda. Cheers!

Jeff H

March 14th, 2012
1:38 pm

Bob, you should have mentioned the Eagle and Lion Brew Pub opening this week in Griffin, which will specialize in cask conditioned ales of the British, low-ABV variety:


March 14th, 2012
2:25 pm

Session beers offer another opportunity to drink craft beer. I love the high gravity offerings, the super hoppy, the very dark, and the plain old pale ale. This just shows the great variety of craft beers in general. And another way for the craft brewers to cut into the profits of the big boy brewers.


March 14th, 2012
2:49 pm

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone, especially about some of the local brewpubs, which offer great session beers and great places to enjoy them.

As for Eagle and Lion, I’ve been in touch with the owner, and I’ll be doing an entire story or column on that, but wanted to wait until I’d been down and could do it justice.

Ken Carman

March 14th, 2012
8:20 pm

We need both. This was the problem when America lived in Bud/Miller land where one style, one abv, was the require brew for the few brewers we had. The more diversity the better. One isn’t better than the other, technically, it’s just a matter of styles. There was a time when some big brewers told distributors they couldn’t carry their major brand brew if they carried craft beer. Dollars tucked into legislator’s pockets assured laws that made craft brewing tough, at best. So much for “the market regulating itself.” Many of those laws are still on the books. Being a major anything in business shouldn’t mean you are allowed to participate in unfair business practices that turn free market into a one, two, or even three sided game of Monopoly.

[...] Written by Bob Townsend for (Atlanta) [...]

Marshall Stacks

March 15th, 2012
8:36 am

About time! But why does the Eagle and Lion have to be in Griffin?!

Stuart Arnold

March 18th, 2012
8:04 pm

Fascinating that 0.5% can cause so much contention. The English are right though!
Twitter: @Stuart_Arnold