If you hang around beer geeks enough, and you listen to them talk, you might hear this exchange.
“What are you drinking?”
“The new session pale ale from ____”
“How is it?”
“Awesome. Super sessionable.”
What’s a session beer? What makes a beer sessionable? A session beer is one that’s under 4.5% ABV (some extend that to anything under 5%) and is easy to drink more than one in a “session.” Lately it’s become a catch-all phrase for easy-drinking beer, but in the strictest sense, it’s use refers to flavorful, low alcohol beers.
A few years ago, there was a trend in brewers coming out with extreme or imperial beers – those with the most hops or the highest ABV possible. These beers are still out there but in the last year or so there has been a bit of a push-back from brewers. The sentiment began to change once consumers palates got used to different beer styles. It’s like spicy food, in a way. You can go for the hottest thing out there, but after a while, you might want a better, more judicious, use of spice to satisfy (and not overwhelm) your palate. The strong flavors of alcohol and lots of hops tend to hide flaws in beer as well, just like putting a lot of hot sauce can hide an otherwise mediocre meal. It takes a lot more skill to create refined, flavorful low-alcohol beers, just like a chef needs to learn how to balance heat with all of the flavors in a dish.
Luckily, we live in a region where we have a lot of talented brewers. As the weather begins to warm and the sun comes out, I start to reach for beers that I can enjoy while also enjoying summer – meaning that I don’t get obliterated after one or two. Enter, the session beer. The fun thing is, style doesn’t matter. As long as a beer is under the session “line” it counts.
4.3% ABV Rising Tide Brewing Company – Maine Island Trail Ale. Yes, I’ve written about this beer before, and it’s now returned, available in cans for the first time this year. I love that it has a really distinct hoppy flavor but is so light and so quenching at the same time. It keeps you coming back, and will probably be one of my go-tos (again) this summer.
4.6% ABV Peak Organic Brewing – Fresh Cut. This beer came out last year and I was skeptical because it was a “dry hopped lager” and I was afraid it might resemble Heineken. But I have to say I’m in love with the combination of the crispness of this beer and the amount of hops it brings to the table. Another staple in my fridge, the 6-packs do not last long in my house.
4.9% ABV – Smuttynose – Bouncy House. Okay, it’s not a Maine beer, but it is widely available. This used to be a limited-release only beer in the big bottles, but it’s been switched to 6-packs, something I’m very okay with. This is labeled as a session IPA – so the hops take front and center here. Brewed with Magnum, Calypso and Saphir hops, this also has a bit of a different hop profile than other beers out right now. This one falls a little on the fruity side, but without being overly sweet.
4.3 % ABV Atlantic Brewing Company – Bar Harbor Summer Ale. Atlantic has been making a strong comeback into the Portland beer scene, with tap takeovers and six packs appearing where I haven’t seen them previously. Atlantic is arguably best known for its Coal Porter, but if you’re not familiar with this summer seasonal, I urge you to try a sip. It’s interesting one for the beer geeks, too because they use a combination of German hops typically reserved for lighter lagers, but then brew it as an English-style ale. The result is a beer that’s mild on the hops but has a backbone that works well with all kinds of food. This is a great choice to bring to a summer cookout or party for sure. If you haven’t gotten a chance to sample Atlantic’s beer yet, look for it in town. I’ve seen it on tap recently at Little Tap House and The Thirsty Pig.
4.5% ABV Allagash Brewing Company – House Beer. A little bit of a departure from the other choices, this Belgian style beer is one that was originally brewed for brewery workers to drink after a long day of brewing, so the low alcohol content is a nice refresher. As opposed to a hoppy profile, this one has a subtle malt taste, with a little bit of bitterness that hangs on just enough. Like their saison, you can’t drink this one without being somehow “reminded” of Allagash’s other offerings – so this might still act as a gateway beer to their other less sessionable ones.
What’s fun about trying these beers is that they tend to obliterate your mental definition of “light” beers. They are full of flavor, and often leave me in disbelief at their low alcohol content. This list is just a start – there are many more session beers brewed in and outside of the state, and more on their way. Bissell Brother’s next beer is slated to be a hoppy session beer and will be released a little later this spring/summer named “Baby Genius.”
Do you have other favorite session beers? Share them with us in the comments!