It’s not uncommon to hear beer nerds use the word “sessionable” when discussing some beers. But what the fuck does that even mean? Words are useless without context. And the term isn’t part of our modern lexicon anymore. I cannot even tell you when I discovered, truly, what a “session ale” was. I heard it. Around. Somewhere. Before this podcast (as with all things beer), I just tried to use clues to help me figure it out. And while that’s been effective, if slow, this go round, I felt clueless for a long time. Well, friends, I don’t want you to feel clueless anymore. So let’s lay to rest what the word “session” means in relation to beer. And as with everything we’ve discussed in previous episodes, there is a historical context to understand.
The term session isn’t a new one, but it seems like here in the States, it wasn’t a commonly used one until the last 5-7 years (based purely on my anecdotal experience).
So let’s start with a simple definition. A session beer is any beer of 4% or less (generally, although some would say 5% or less). This being a fairly low ABV, it makes the beer easily consumable without a heavy-handed side-effect of intoxication. At least not with only a couple. Now, the word on the street as I heard it, is that “sessions” were breaks for laborers in the steel and coal industries, and part of their salary included beer. These low ABV beers quenched the thirst and provided some hydration that wasn’t water, while still allowing workers to maintain their senses.
This is the context I picked up along my beer journey, and the one I’m wanting to back up or refute with today’s episode, as well as provide some timeline as to when the term came about.
Zythophile.co.uk, in the article “How Old is the Term ‘Session Beer’? (http://zythophile.co.uk/2011/05/20/how-old-is-the-term-session-beer/) claims that the term came around in the 80’s to reflect pub culture. However, based on my own research in previous episodes, I sort of dismissed this article because he claimed that a “session” was certinaly a 20th century invention as table beers would be a 4.5% or higher ABV, and we already know that some table beers in Norway were incredibly low, as to be almost negligible. Now, if we’re talking purely by British standards, there is some truth to the idea that beers wouldn’t be that low. Until the 20th century, very few British beers went any lower than 6% (https://www.beeradvocate.com/articles/14816/the-surprising-history-of-the-session-ipa/)
In an article from Vinepair, they pose the question “Was WWI Era Britain the Birthplace of the Session Beer?” (https://vinepair.com/articles/was-wwi-era-britain-the-birthplace-of-the-session-beer/). In this article they were working from a place of assuming that the Royal Navy sort of “invented” the term, given their history of allocating alcohol to the workers that supplied the seamen as par for course. In this article they lay out the “sessions” as times from 11 am to 3 pm and 7 pm to 11 pm (which is corroborated in other articles. This seems to generally be the time frames when workers could take breaks and have a work-sanctioned pint). It’s also my understanding that the sessions were as much put into place for alcohol control as they were for any other reason, these sessions being the only times alcohol could legally be served (https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/10/368038601/for-more-drinking-with-less-buzzing-session-beers-gain-fans).
Paying workers in beer is by far not a new concept, and long pre-dates the British Navy and the 20th century stories of session ales. Tablets from ancient Mesopotamia show receipts of workers paid in beer. The pyramids were build by the mildly inebriated (lol). Beer has, in many ways, fashioned the world around us. (https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/06/5000-year-old-pay-stub-shows-that-ancient-workers-were-paid-in-beer/). Hell, Chaucer was paid in wine by Richard the II.
This idea of a sessionable beer is now used to market to day drinkers. So what started the modern obsession with sessions after so many years of praise for big beers that pack a heavy punch? Allaboutbeer.com credits a beer from High and Mighty Beer Co called “Beer of the Gods”, an American blond with 4.5% ABV released in 2006/2007? (https://www.beeradvocate.com/articles/14816/the-surprising-history-of-the-session-ipa/). I’m not sure how much stock to put in this, but I found it somewhat interesting. This article also claims that “sessionable” is considered by some to be a pejorative term. I haven’t really seen that to be true, though there are plenty of people who won’t get out of bed for anything less than 7% (which is a whole other weird side of beer that I don’t fully understand, but I guess it depends on why you’re drinking it).
The big picture is that, once again, this is ALL down to marketing. At this point, the word “session” does not have the same meaning, and certainly not in the US, so now it’s just a convenient buzzword. I suppose, looking at it less cynically, it’s a descriptor that can help the consumer choose a drink based on their needs/desires/etc. Personally, I’m all about a session if I’m at a work event that involves drinking. It allows me to keep my wits, but always have the security blanket of a drink in my hand.