April 7 marks an important historical event for beer drinkers: Little Repeal Day, when, in 1933, after 13 long years of Prohibition, beer of 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) or less became legal again. (Full repeal occurred eight months later, on December 5, 1933.) Since 2012, the day has become known among certain enthusiasts as Session Beer Day — a holiday to celebrate and promote tasty, low-alcohol brews.
That doesn’t mean light beers, though. Sessions are not a lesser version of something else, they’re beers in their own right, with a low alcohol level conducive to a prolonged drinking session (hence the name). Lew Bryson, drinks writer and founder of the Session Beer Project, defines the term using loose but important criteria: 4.5% or lower ABV, with enough flavor and balance to keep you interested over multiple pints. “I just want a beer that’s not going to interrupt the conversation,” he says. It should be “low-alcohol, but not low-taste.”
Although low-alcohol beer — often known as “small beer” — has existed for centuries, the term session beer is fairly modern. Some people point to early-20th-century British laws restricting pub hours to lunchtime and evening “sessions” as the origin. Whatever the case, Europe has a long-established tradition of low-ABV beers, typified by Czech pilsners, German kölsch, and British beers of all kinds. The continent also has more relaxed drinking customs than the United States, with multiple daytime pints a not-uncommon occurrence.
Over here, though, aficionados have tended to associate low ABV with mass-produced, flavorless light beers, especially as craft brewers have ratcheted up the game with more hops, bigger malts, and added smoke. Growing tired of the constant oneupmanship and in search of something tasty he could drink in volume‚ Bryson started the Session Beer Project in 2009, sensing that he was not alone. And he wasn’t. Over the ensuing five years, more and more brewers have released lower-alcohol beers — many of which have not sported “session” on the label but have proven popular simply because they…taste great.
Offering session beers makes good business sense, of course: The lower the ABV, the greater quantity a drinker can enjoy. And for imbibers, choosing a session beer over a high-octane barleywine, dubbel or imperial means less worry about overindulging and inevitable next-day regrets.
In recent years, sessions have gained more acceptance — enough that Bryson feels his original goal to expand the choice available has been achieved.
“I remember the day I got a sample of the Samuel Adams Belgian session ale in the mail,” he says. “I had this little moment. Especially when they brought it back again the next year — I felt we made it.”
It’s true — there’s more variety of American craft beers with low ABVs now than ever before. Besides the aforementioned Sam Adams, session heads can enjoy offerings from Victory, Stillwater, Deschutes, Abita, Goose Island, Evil Twin, and even the new Finback Brewery in Queens. Notch Brewing in Massachusetts focuses exclusively on making session beers. Lambics and other sour beers, including Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam beers, often fall below 4.5% ABV, as do a host of common European imports including Smithwick’s, Pilsner Urquell, and Carling. Guinness stout (4.2%), Shiner bock (4.4%), and Yuengling lager (4.4%) all meet the criterion as well.
So you have plenty of choice for celebrating Session Beer Day — or for any day when you want to enjoy several in a row. Get out there and drink!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 7, 2014