Is Brewing Now in Session?

making beer
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Defining a beer isn’t the science some purveyors and homebrewers wish it to be. Anytime I hear people arguing over the differences between an American Pale Ale (APA) and an Indian Pale Ale (IPA), I can’t help but roll my eyes. True, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has worked hard to clarify and classify all fronts of beer, but that’s not something I would ever want someone who enjoys beer to get hung up on. It’s like arguing what shade of blue the sky is today, as though the proper definition will somehow affect the overall enjoyment of atmospheric scatterings of light.

But here we are, trying to define what exactly constitutes a Session Ale. The BJCP appropriately uses it as a modifier for existing styles. Where Imperial informs the drinker the beer is a heavier version of the style, Session suggests things will be lighter. In the 2015 BJCP style guidelines, the parameters are clear. A session-strength beer must be less than 4 percent alcohol—the exception seems to be IPAs, which are granted up to 5 percent. I wonder why I don’t see such an exception for a Barleywine or Scotch Ale, beers known to push high ABVs.

As I sat down with Sam Green of Octopi Brewing, he gave me the skinny on what he’s experienced firsthand. “It’s a marketing tactic.” Over and over, we’d come back to this point. He told me of a particular Ale that one of the breweries he previously worked at was having trouble selling. They renamed it twice, and people weren’t buying. But once the tag Session Ale was added, the beer flew off the shelves. As you probably have guessed, the recipe never changed.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Session Ales come with the assumption that a person can drink several bottles over the course of a day and still function. In short, Session Ales are sessionable. I really like the idea, but not because I can drink a lot to keep my buzz going. Rather, I can come home after work and have a beer or two without sacrificing my ability to be a parent or work on side projects. Here’s the issue: by drinking strictly Session Ales, at this point in time, I am sacrificing some of my favorite beer styles and flavors.

If you enjoy barrel-aged beers, you’ll be hard pressed to find one below 6 percent. And how can a 6 percent beer carry with it the same characteristics of a 10 percent beer? Short answer, it probably can’t. Sam says, “Sessions Ales are a speed-limit sign to a beer style: a restrictor on its potential, but still trying to deliver all the flavor.” That’s not to say things are set in stone. In a perfect world, I’d be able to enjoy everything I like about beer while keeping my mental state somewhere on the foothills of sanity. As long as the Session Ale trend holds true, there’s no reason to doubt we can get there.

I view the future of Session Ales as a challenge to the brewer. Currently it’s a question of what needs to be sacrificed to get the beer to the appropriate ABV to be considered session strength. Even then, few breweries have difficulty slapping on a label that uses the word Session in order to boost sales. For some, brewing is an art. As with any art form, the time will come where the current understanding of design will be challenged. To break from the current mold, it’s necessary to reexamine what elements make a beer a beer and then approach the situation from a different angle.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

The science behind activating enzymes to breakdown starches is a constant in the same way slapping paint onto a canvas will always be necessary to create a painting. The paints chosen change the overall effect of the image: watercolors for a blended image, acrylics for a textured look, oil paints for richer color, then there’s fresco, pastels, tempera, and so on. In the November/December issue of this magazine, I talked with Trevor Easton of Alt Brew, and he showed me that what I knew about the brewer’s malt cocktail was more limited than I’d believed.

To take the next step, perhaps the answer lies in going around the current understanding of what needs to be in a certain style of beer. This is admittedly out there in terms of maintaining a flavor profile while turning down the ABV, but my hope is that someone much smarter than me will experiment with some of these ingredients and find a way to incorporate them into the existing recipes to create something that doesn’t feel like being shortchanged after buying a gas-station hotdog.

There’s no doubt that the Session Ale erupted due to an influx of demand for the trend, but I don’t really like the thought of this idea settling into a moniker for mediocrity. I’ve had some Session Ales that weren’t actually Session Ales—they were simply true to the style they were brewed in. That’s never been the challenge. Sam tells me that a Session IPA is one of the easiest things to throw together because it’s not really doing anything that hasn’t been done. The challenge is toning down a beer that was never meant to be tempered while keeping all that big flavor. If Wisconsin brewers ever figure this one out, the local bar scene might never be the same.

To longer nights and shorter headaches.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Stay sober…er by checking out these local Session Ales.

Breakfast Beer Cream Ale with Coffee –
Pearl Street Brewery – 4.5%

Extended Play APA –
Lakefront Brewery – 4.2%

Bubbler Blonde Ale –
Next Door Brewing Company – 4.5%

The Commuter Kolsch –
One Barrel Brewing – 4.8%