What is a session beer? Well, it depends on who you ask. The term's precise origins and coinage are fuzzy. Beer experts can't seem to agree on a specific year, for instance, but consistently point to British pub culture as its inspiration. It's generally agreed upon, however, that any brew bearing the description should be low in alcohol but tasty enough to enjoy for a prolonged period of time, or "session."
"It's important to realize that 'session beer' isn't a style," Lew Bryson tells Creative Loafing. Bryson, a Pennsylvania-based drinks writer, started the Session Beer Project in 2007 as an attempt to balance the hype and press coverage surrounding so-called "extreme beers" (13 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stouts, for example) that he saw at the time and which arguably still exists today. "[Sessions are] a whole range of styles, just like extreme beers are."
Along with a few other criteria, Bryson, who's become the U.S. authority on sessions, defines them as having 4.5 percent alcohol by volume or less. The ABV issue is a bone of contention throughout the sessionsphere. Notch, a session-only Massachusetts brewery, sides with Bryson's 4.5 percent ABV and under. But some folks stretch it a bit higher — Michigan's Founders Brewing makes an All Day IPA Session Ale that clocks in at 4.7 percent — while others passionately argue that the bar should be set a bit lower. "The only advice I have for brewers is to label session beer at 4 percent or under and nothing else," Adrian "Ding" Dingle, a British expat and Atlanta beer obsessive, says. "I'd also like them not to jerk around with styles and tradition, too, but that's a different question altogether, and up to them. I'll just vote with my wallet and not buy them."
ABV arguments aside, in recent years U.S. brewers are inarguably making more session — or "sessionable," at least — beers that can be enjoyed, one after another, without impairing the drinker's faculties the way many craft beers (which often fall in the 5-15 percent range) would. The Atlanta area is no exception. In just the past year, Wrecking Bar Brewpub (Ding the English Bitter, 3.7 percent, named after the man quoted above), Terrapin (RecreationAle, 4.7 percent, the Athens brewery's first-ever beer in a can), Cherry St. Brewing (In Tents Session IPA, 4.7 percent), Twain's Billiards and Tap (the first batch of its rotating One-and-One Session IPA Series just launched at 4.2 percent), and Yes Face (a new, session-focused brewery from Mark Broe of Griffin, Ga.'s shuttered Eagle & Lion brewpub) have all served up new offerings in the session tradition.
Like Bryson, these brewers — who are drinkers, too, of course — are looking for balance. "We feel that, as beer styles get bigger and bolder, there are people who want to enjoy the same level of flavor, but without all the alcohol," Cherry St. founder Nick Tanner says. "Bigger and bolder can sometimes be rougher and harsher. Going to the pool or hanging out with friends does not mean 'getting drunk.'"
Contrary to popular low-ABV macrobrews like Budweiser and Miller, "session" doesn't translate to "lacking flavor." In fact, in many cases, it means quite the opposite. Inspired by a trip to Portland a couple years ago, Wrecking Bar brewmaster/founder Bob Sandage came back to Inman Park with the notion that would eventually lead to beers like his recently released Hoppy Hobbit Session IPA, which boasts both American and New Zealand hops, and a 4 percent ABV. "Hair of the Dog had one of their 'Little Dog' beers that was best described as a session IPA," Sandage remembers of his trip to the Oregon Brewers Festival. "Everybody that tried it loved it, and I knew after getting established at the Wrecking Bar that I wanted to have a session beer on tap as much as possible."
Nor does less alcohol translate to less work for the beer maker. "Brewing these requires more skill and more careful handling," Broe says. The Yes Face founder, who fell in love with sessions while working as a chiropractor in England, is currently contracting through Jailhouse Brewing Company in Hampton, Ga. His first casks were tapped at Ale Yeah! in Decatur and Roswell in early July. "Every brewer knows that higher alcohol can cover up a lot of flaws, as well as make the beer more sweet for the American palate."
Judging by local interest alone, sessions aren't a mere craft-beer fad. "I think people like to drink beer, plain and simple," Terrapin brewmaster and co-founder Brian "Spike" Buckowski says. "It's much easier to drink a couple great-tasting session ales than it is to drink a couple 10 percent Double IPAs."
And judging by the annual pseudo-holiday, Session Beer Day, which was founded by Bryson in 2012, there's a continued interest well beyond Georgia, too. Not to mention hope for the future. "I'd like to see dedicated session taps to give people a choice, better session-beer innovation, and more respect for people who drink the same beer all night," Bryson says. "Turn down the music, cut back on the big screens! Stop obsessing on the beer, stop ticking them off on your phone apps, and talk to your friends. Session beer takes a backseat to people, which is as it should be."NOTE: This story has been updated since publication.