Session beer isn’t really a style of beer. “Session” is basically an adjective used to describe a beer that is: lower in alcohol (generally under 4 or 5% ABV) and high in refreshment.
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. Different brewers will give you different definitions of what session beer means to them. It’s not a clearly defined style like a Belgian witbier, or tripel.
What defines a session beer, theoretically, is the fact that you can enjoy a few of them in a drinking session and still have your wits about you. This is one of the few places in the world of food and beverage where quantity does kind of equal quality. The term probably gets its origins from the pub days in the UK where folks would drink milds, bitters, Scottish “light” or 60 Shillings – these styles are all typically considered session-strength at <4% ABV.
If it’s not obvious by now, the term is majorly subjective. Even a dry Irish stout like Guinness could qualify as a session beer with its easy drinking mouthfeel and low ABV.
Making these types of beers presents a particular challenge for the brewer—keeping alcohol down and flavor high requires skill. A notable example from our brewery would be Tiny House. At 3.4% ABV, it’s a small beer (85 calories per 12 oz. serving). By dry hopping solely with Amarillo and fermenting with our house yeast, we’re able to bring out some nice melon and grapefruit aromas to complement its subtle malt profile. Another example we’d mention is River Trip (we call it a “Belgian-style Session Ale). We brew River Trip with coriander to add citrus and floral notes to its hop profile. Spices are a good way to add flavor without adding more substance. That beer comes in at 4.8% ABV, and with 128 calories per 12 oz. portion.
If you’re ever in Portland, Maine, we’d invite you to stop by for a tour or tasting. We’d love to show you around!