What Is A Session Beer Really?

When you feel like cracking open a beer, there's always a wide array of options to choose from — IPAs, APAs, sours, pilsners, stouts, and more. With all the beer types and terms, it can be hard to keep them all straight. Take, for example, session beer. What exactly is it? The answer has been up for debate. According to Beer Advocate, this type has no clear-cut definition, as they say, "it has yet to be truly defined by anyone." 

In fact, instead of describing a style of beer — like an American pale ale or a pilsner — the term "session" is an adjective that actually describes the quality and drinkability of the beer, explains Allagash Brewing Company. So, a session beer is really any variety that is both lower in alcohol content and very refreshing, according to the popular brewing company. "Generally, it applies to beers that are not too filling. These beers also tend not to be too anything. They're not too bitter, not too hoppy, not too malty. This is not to suggest that session beers do not have flavor, but rather that they strike that perfect balance," they note.

To qualify for this title, the ABV (alcohol by volume) of the beer should be under 4-5%. Allagash further explains that the term is subjective though, and you might get a different answer from different brewers. Beer Advocate, at least, agrees with Allagash's take, noting that a session beer is any that contains no more than 5% ABV and has a clean finish, balanced between malt and hops.

Where does the term session beer come from?

According to Beer Advocate, there is a theory about where the term session beer originated. The site explains that in England during World War I, shell production workers were allotted two time periods a day in which they could imbibe. These 4-hour 'sessions' usually went from 11am-3pm, and 7pm-11pm. The workers wanted to enjoy a beer that they could well, slam a lot of, so they had to be ones that weren't too heavy in ABV or flavor — hence the term a '"session ale." 

As Beer Advocate further notes, it wasn't uncommon for workers to drink upwards of eight of these beers per session, so the low alcohol content was imperative to keep them functioning. While the term, again, is subjective, Allagash lists some examples of beer style that could fall into the session category as a pilsner, witbier, kolsch, blonde, hefeweizen, pale ale, gose, or Berliner Weiss.

So if you ever find yourself in need of a slammable, refreshing cold one that will leave your thirst quenched but your wits about you, try reaching for a session beer.