Is that all you’ve got, a 3% bitter? Don’t you have something with a kick, like a double imperial dark mild Pilsner? That may sound like an exaggeration, but a drinker at a beer festival once asked me a question very like that. The point is that our opinions about craft beer are often skewed towards extremes — the buzz is that “big is best,”and “bigger is even better.” I must admit that I do like big beers and the whole American craft brewing approach of pushing the envelope. But when I’m settling down in the evening at home, or pulling up a stool beside friends in a good beer bar, I don’t want to drink pints of beers at 8% ABV or more. Instead I want something a little gentler, something that I can drink in reasonable quantity and not fall over. In short I’m looking for a session beer.
That’s a pretty vague designation, and one about which drinkers may have quite different views. My comments above define “session beer” as moderate in alcohol content, which I would further define as 3–5% ABV. Many people narrow down the definition still further on the assumption that “session beers” refers to English-style bitters and mild ales. But although it is true that the term is an English coinage, virtually all of the major beer-brewing countries produce substantial amounts of relatively low alcohol beers. In fact, my definition embraces just about every “ordinary” lager produced in the world, including everything under the “Pilsner” designation, which means virtually all the high-volume lagers produced by the US major brewers.
However, my personal idea of a session beer would indeed include British bitter and mild ales, although not all such offerings by British brewers, since more than a few are quite bland to my taste. So I would include something like Fuller’s London Pride in my definition, but not Boddington’s pub ale. And American beers brewed in an “English” style, would fit this bill. One example is a current favorite of mine, Stone’s Levitation Ale, at 4.4% ABV, and packed with hop flavor. I’m also tempted to slip in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, even though it is a little higher in alcohol at 5.6% ABV. And I have to, of course, mention the offerings from my hometown Bru Rm@BAR in New Haven Connecticut — a 5% ABV Pale Ale, Raven-Haired Beauty a 3.8% ABV dark mild, and our “cross-over” beer, Toasted Blonde Ale at 4% ABV.
Also in that list I should include a number of lager beers, notably Czech Republic Pilsners such as Czechvar and Pilsner Urquell. To my taste, many of the North German Pilsners, such as Jever Pilsner fit this designation very well, with their pronounced levels of bitterness and hop character. Widening the range still further, we could include wheat beers, such as those from Southern Germany. American versions of wheat beer are not particularly to my taste, so I’m exercising author’s license and excluding them from my personal list, but you could certainly include them on your own.
Yet other beers could be included, notably German ales, such as Altbier and Kölsch. The latter is a little on the light side for me, but I have had some very enjoyable sessions in Hamburg on Altbier. And you shouldn’t need an Irishman to tell you that Guinness and Murphy’s stouts are session beers!
I’ll stop there because I don’t want to bore you with a list that is little more than a seed catalog. The point is that a good session beer is one that you like which has flavor and fits the appropriate alcohol range. Take your pick! For the record, if I had to pick one style for my favorite session beer it would be English bitter, but that’s more a question of heritage since that was the kind of beer I cut my drinking teeth on. (For a short list of commercial session beer suggestions, see the sidebar on page 59.)
Brewing session beers
Of course, we tend to think of session beers as those we drink in a pub or bar, but there are plenty of reasons to brew them at home too. Perhaps the best is that from a comment from a brewer friend of mine. He maintains that if you can brew a 3.7 ABV beer with taste then you can really call yourself a brewer!
How you brew such a beer depends upon the style, but there’s an important fact to consider first. And that fact is it is not original gravity, which determines the alcohol content, but the difference between OG and the final gravity of the beer. In other words, if you can get some unfermentables in there you will give the beer more body without adding alcohol. That starts with infusion mashing and upward step infusion mashing at saccharification temperatures higher than the “norm” of 150 °F (65.6 °C) and/or using specialty malts, the latter being particularly important for extract beers. These topics I dealt with in the “Techniques” column in the October 2010 issue of BYO. An extreme example of this approach (which I didn’t refer to in the article) is adding a non-fermentable sugar to the wort. This of course is pretty much limited to the addition of lactose to the wort in the brewing of sweet stouts — of which several examples fit my definition of a session beer. Neither did I talk of decoction mashing, which was traditional for Pilsner lagers, and is held by some to give more body than can be obtained by infusion mashing. It is, however, a complicated procedure and beyond the scope of this article (but you can read more about it in Horst Dornbusch’s article on the subject in the December 2010 issue of BYO).
Another topic I did not deal with in that previous column, and one which is particularly appropriate for session beers, especially extract-based beers, is the use of hops to add flavor and complexity to the beer. That may seem obvious, but it is not so simple as that. Such beers are always going to be relatively light in body, which means bitterness levels cannot be too high or they will throw the drink’s palate out of balance. More is definitely not better in this instance. Something like a Kölsch, for example, should be of a delicate flavor, and not high in bitterness (16–25 IBU) or hop character. In contrast, a Pilsner lager could go up to 40–45 IBU, while English bitter ale might even go up to 50 IBU, particularly if you have beefed up its body with specialty malts, such as Vienna, Victory, Crystal and even chocolate or black malts; use these two latter carefully in bitters — no more than about 1–2% of the total grist.
But of course there’s more to hops than just bitterness, and hop aroma and character show to advantage in many session beers. For example, Woodforde’s of Norfolk in Eastern England brew an excellent and very popular 3.8% ABV bitter ale called Wherry, which just bursts with hop character, achieved by late addition of hops in the wort boil. This late addition is the major part of the total hop addition, so the bulk of the hop bitterness comes from this, rather than from addition at the start of the boil. You have to bear this in mind if you want to use big late hop additions and don’t want to unbalance the beer. For the homebrewer, I think a better approach is to add bittering hops at the start, at the level to achieve your IBU target, and then late hop with low alpha aroma hops, such as Saaz, Hallertauer or Liberty, and the usual suspects for English ales, such as Goldings, Fuggles and Styrian Goldings.
Another favored approach, especially for English ales, is dry hopping with varieties such as those just mentioned in the secondary fermenter. For American ales that fit my definition of session beers, you can also use stronger-flavored hops, such as Cascades, Amarillo and Simcoe. And actually, since session beers are not meant to keep for any length of time, dry hopping can be done in the keg if you are serving them as draft beers. There’s also no reason why you cannot dry hop lager beers in the secondary lagering stage. This is especially good for Pilsners in my view, as late hopping on the small scale of homebrewing doesn’t always work as well as on a commercial scale. In this case you would probably want to go with European varieties such as Hallertau, Hersbrucker, Spalt and Tettnang, although Liberty and Mt. Hood also work well.
Session beers should be easy drinking but still flavorful. This can be achieved in a number of ways, notably high-temperature mashing, using specialty malts and late and dry-hopping. These approaches are exemplified in the two recipes I have given. Try them and set both your digestive and creative juices flowing!
Terry Foster writes “Techniques” in every issue of Brew Your Own magazine. He is the author of the books “Pale Ale” and “Porter” in the Classic Beer Style series.
(5 gallons, 19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.048 (11.9 °P)
FG = 1.014 (3.6 °P)
ABV = 4.4% IBU = 40 SRM 3
8 lb. (3.6 kg) Briess Pilsner malt (1 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Briess Carapils® malt (1.3 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) German Vienna malt (3.8 °L)
10.4 AAU Northern Brewer pellet
hops, (1.3 oz./37 g at 8% alpha acid) (90 mins.)
1 oz. (28 g) German Hallertau hop pellets (0 minutes)
1 oz. (28 g) Saaz pellet hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager yeast,
or White Labs 800 Pilsner yeast
Step by Step
Infusion* mash at 154–156 °F (68–69 °C) for 90 mins. Run off and sparge with hot water to collect 6 gallons (23 L) of wort. Boil wort for 90 minutes, adding Northern Brewer hops at start, and Hallertau hops at end. Pitch yeast (preferably as a 1-quart/1-L starter) when cool and ferment at 50 °F (10 °F) for seven to ten days. Remove the beer from cooler, and let temperature rise to about 65 °F (18 °C) to reduce diacetyl level.
Rack to secondary, add Saaz hops in weighted sanitized bag, and lager at 33–35 °F (0.6–1.7 °C) for 2–4 weeks. Rack again, and bottle with priming sugar (2.0 oz. corn sugar maximum), or force carbonate in keg.
*If you prefer, use an upward infusion approach — 15 minutes at 120–122 °F (49–50 °C), 5 minutes at about 150 °F (66 °C), 1 hour at 154–156 °F
(5 gallons/19 L, extract plus grains)
OG = 1.042 (10.5 °P)
FG = 1.012 (3.1 °P)
ABV = 3.9% IBU = 23 SRM = 60+
4 lb. (1.8 kg) amber* liquid malt extract
12 oz. (0.34 kg) amber* dried malt extract
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (55 °L)
4 oz. (0.11 kg) pale chocolate malt (218 °L)
4 oz. (0.11 kg) Dehusked Carafa II® malt (425 °L)
4 oz. (0.11 kg) Black Malt (550 °L)
6 AAU Fuggles pellet hops, 1.5 oz
(43 g) at 4% alpha-acid (60 mins)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Fuggles pellet hops (0 mins.)
White Labs 002 English Ale yeast, or Wyeast 1318 London Ale yeast.
*Preferably those made with a portion of Munich and caramel malts
Step by Step
Steep crushed grains in 2 qts. (2 L) water at 140–160 °F (60–71 °C) for 20 mins. Strain liquid into boil pot, and rinse grains with further 2 qts. (2 L) hot water. Add 3 gallons (11.5 L) to collected liquors, and dissolve the liquid malt extract, then dried malt extract. Top up to 5 gallons (19 L) with water and bring to boil. Add bittering hops and boil 60 mins; add rest of hops when heat is turned off. Cool to 65–70 °F (18–21 °C), and pitch yeast (preferably as a 1 qt. (1 L) active starter). Ferment five to seven days, then rack into secondary for up to one week. Bottle or keg with priming sugar, using as little sugar as possible (depending upon the residual carbonation level of the beer); 1–11⁄2 oz. (28–42 g) corn sugar would be my recommendation, as you are shooting for a beer at a little under 2 volumes CO2. Higher carbonation levels can “drown out” the nuances of this mild ale.