Session Beers: The drive to go little

Everyone has heard the sentiment. “Bigger is better!” “Go big or go home!” “Supersize it!” What’s with the obsession with big? It seems the idea is that bigger is always better. Sure, maybe sometimes, but there’s beauty in the small also.

Case in point . . . there’s a guy in Drew’s homebrew club who when he was getting into brewing was convinced to build a 30-gallon (114-L) brew system. 30 gallons (114 L) . . . that’s basically a full barrel of beer! He complained to us that brewing took all day, he was exhausted at the end of it, and the 30 gallons (114 L) of beer he ended up with got boring by the time he finished it. Not to mention the fact that if something went awry with the brew, he’ll have a barrel (6 Corny kegs worth) of less than spectacular beer until he managed to get it together to brew again. In this case, bigger was definitely not better!

Homebrewers seem to have an obsession with “big.” Bigger batches, bigger equipment, and bigger alcohol content. Don’t overlook the fact that small can have a lot of benefits.

So, let’s talk about session beer. First, what is a session beer? Most of the lore and legend about it comes from the British tradition of spending the evening in the pub, having a “session,” a drinking session with your mates. If you’ll be sitting there for hours drinking and discussing the problems of the world, you don’t want to be so hammered that you can’t follow the conversation, or walk home after, or work the next day. (There are so many historical tax and law actions of the British government that built this lower alcohol beer culture that we could write a book. Better yet, go read some of the great ones out there if the history interests you.) Regardless, when the order of the day is a fair number of pints — a low-alcohol, flavorful beer is what you need.

The first and biggest tip is to use the most flavorful base malts you can get your hands on.

What exactly constitutes a session beer is an endless debate. Countless words have been spilled over the fight of “less than 4%” — “no, less than 5%!” In these days of 6.5–8% ABV IPAs being called out as “sessionable,” it almost seems quaint to argue about it.

But why have us define it when venerable beer/whiskey writer Lew Bryson did it better and with more action. Lew has previously championed “Session Beer Day” here in the U.S. (April 7th – the day in 1933 when beer was allowed to be sold again).

Lew makes two very important points about session beer:

  • It must be no more than 4.5% ABV, and preferably lower. (He split the difference between the 4ers and the 5ers.)
  • Keep in mind that it’s low alcohol, not no alcohol. Drink and act appropriately with this in mind.

So how do you go about brewing a proper session beer? We’re going to give you the benefit of Drew’s experience making great session beers and Denny’s struggle to come up with a recipe for one.

The first and biggest tip is to use the most flavorful base malts you can get your hands on. This is no time to skimp. Remember, in a lower-gravity beer that you’re going to be using less malt. Less malt in the tun means less flavor from the malt and more flavor from your water — which let’s face it, tastes like water . . .

For British-style session beers, Maris Otter or Golden Promise malts are pretty much the standards. Both are very flavorful varieties of barley. Keep in mind that it IS a variety of barley and not a type of malt. It will differ from maltster to maltster depending on how they process it. Yes, it’s more expensive and yes, you should spend more for it.

On the American side, Denny’s failed attempts at an American mild (eight test batches before he got it) showed him that many of the standard American malts that he regularly used and loved were just not up to the task. The beer came out thin, and flavorless. His wife referred to it as “hop water.” That changed when he got ahold of some malt from Mecca Grade Estate Malt. They use a variety of barley called “Full Pint” and between the variety and the way they malt it, it packs a real flavor punch.

Fortunately, there are craft maltsters all over the US these days, so look around and see if you can find one near you. Oftentimes their malts will provide more character than your standard North American 2-row malt. Sure, many brewers would argue there is a time and place for those style malts, but this is not one of them. It’s fairly easy to make a high original gravity (OG) flavorful beer with a lot of malt. You want . . . scratch that, you need character here. If you can’t source a local craft maltster, then try to find one of the more flavorful base malt varieties. Which also brings us to the other issue that less malt brings, wait for it . . . less body building components. You want some chew to give the sip that beer-y heft. Remember the hop water comment earlier?

Most beers being brewed in the world before the U.S. craft beer revolution would be considered session beers. The English were adept at providing deep character in their low-ABV ales. Photo courtesy of Forest and Main Brewing Co.

Traditionally, the way to control beer body has been with mash temperature. Lower mash temperatures (148—151 °F/64–66 °C) produce a more fermentable wort. Higher temperatures (154–158 °F/68–70 °C) produce a less fermentable wort for more mouthfeel. Our standard modern malts are so hot with enzymatic power that mash temperature appears to impact the final body less than it used to. That means that ingredient choice and recipe design will be what mainly drives your beer. Any lingering effect from mash temperature is dependent on the particular malt you use.
So pay attention! Haven’t used a particular malt before? Prepare to brew a few test batches before you dial in how to use it. The good thing about test batches is that you still end up with beer, even if it’s not exactly the beer you thought you were making. If malt is the base of your beer, then water is the mortar. And in a session beer, there’s even more water to impact your beer. And this is where I think American brewers need to take a cue from the British. I suspect due to the strong Germanic influence in modern American brewing, we tend to keep our mineral levels relatively low, even when making British-style beers. Both of us ran face first into this when reading British literature calling for a massive addition of calcium, chloride, and sulfate in their beers.

Makes sense once you taste a fresh example of a low-gravity British ale. The minerality adds a distinct feel to the beer — a little more mouth presence than just the low amount of malt and sugar would lend you. In other words, don’t neglect your water minerals. Although it’s safe to say that both of us still tend to a lower, American-style, water adjustment protocol.

Okay, so malt and water are there — now this is going to be the hard one for most of us. Hops — we love them. The whole of American craft brewing is based around an inexorable love of hops. Fortunately in the world of session beers, there’s plenty of room for whirlpool hops. Unfortunately for our hop addled minds — scads and scads of them is not in the cards.
In other words, you’re going to need to practice proportional hopping. We don’t want to tell you not to add pounds of hops to your beer, but in the land of a sessionable beer, even a hop-driven pale ale, you’re just going to be wasting valuable ingredients. For your strong hop aromatics, pull out your whirlpool techniques but, again, restraint wins the day and allows you to build a beer that is hoppy without screaming “hoppy!”

Lastly, think about what the yeast will bring to the beer. British yeasts typically throw fruity esters that contribute to the overall flavor (or can we spell it flavour here?) profile. They also often leave some body to the beer. Think about using something like the strains supposedly from the Fuller’s Brewery (Wyeast 1968/White Labs WLP002). Even that low level of diacetyl from some strains can be used as a beer booster. (Please note – be careful not to make a butter bomb. Practice good yeast care!) In Denny’s quest for an American mild, he turned to his standby Wyeast 1450. Although it is a very low ester producer, it leaves a wonderful silky mouthfeel to the beer, which helps compensate for the lack of quantity of malt.

It’s probably best to avoid highly neutral yeast strains that don’t bring anything to the beer party. When you have this few ingredients you need to make every one of them work hard for you. Look for a yeast that has “fullness” and flavor that will complement the rest of your ingredients. For hops, think more in terms of flavor and aroma than bitterness. You definitely want some bitterness there, especially if you’re making a session IPA, but it’s easy to overwhelm the malt in these beers. Always think in terms of complementing, rather than defining, the rest of the beer.
And one last tip . . . you can always make your own session beer by the glass. If, like Denny, you keep a keg of carbonated water on hand (and if you keg, why don’t you?), you can add a small shot of carbed water to your glass and then top-off with your favorite full-strength beer. Session tripel? Session barleywine? You bet!

So, bigger isn’t always better . . . try some session beers to see for yourself!

Issue: October 2020