Back in the summer of '93, I got heat stroke. And a concussion. It was my first summer in Houston, after 10 years in Indiana, with its average July high of 83. I was playing an all-day soccer tournament out in Bear Creek Park, its freshly-razed expanse offering no respite from the brutal sun. I had been hydrating on the South Bend plan despite the Houston heat, and it all came to a head in the fourth game of the day.
Deep in my backfield, a high crossing pass came my way, headed for the other team's right wing. We contested it in the air. I won. I also lost. As I followed through on my header, sending the ball up the line to a waiting midfielder, I collided head-to-head with the other guy and hit the dirt like a waterlogged ragdoll. I've been obsessive about hydration ever since, especially during the comfortably oppressive heat of a Houston summer.
That gets us to session beer. session beer is its own hydration plan, a built in mechanism for ensuring you don't wind up day drunk, which, in my experience, is similar in unpleasantness to lying on the sidelines of a soccer game, a teammate's sweat-soaked bandana draped across your forehead, woozily waiting out the effects of blunt force trauma and a lack of fluids. Since I don't like that feeling, but I do like wiling away a lovely Saturday mornaftervening over a succession of delicious adult beverages, I've become quite fond of session beers.
Depending on whom you talk to, you might find somewhat differing opinions of what exactly that means. ABV provides an easy, definitive target, though it also opens up plenty of debate. Beer Advocate calls it at 5 percent. Lew Bryson, a professional beer writer of some repute, draws a firm line in the sand at 4.5 percent. Over at his Session Beer Project, a repository for all things session, he both admits the slightly arbitrary nature of the threshold, and makes a convincing argument for its importance. I tend to edge toward lenience, keeping things under 5 percent, and using the other qualifiers, mentioned below, to separate what I think of as true session beers from those that simply have moderate alcohol.
Pretty much all parties agree on a few key points, ABV set aside. Session beers must be low in alcohol. Low enough that you can enjoy multiple pints in a "session" without suffering the ill effects of higher alcohol brews. They have to be balanced and refreshing in character, in order to make it enjoyable to drink a significant quantity in a (relatively) insignificant span of time. They must taste good.
Within that rubric, there's a lot of room for stylistic variety. Some lend themselves to sessions more than others, of course. Belgian Strong Ale, by definition, will never be session beers, as we've laid out here. Pilsners, Witbiers, Kölsch, English Bitters, Berliner Weiss; these are just a few styles whose typical characteristics either land them handily in "session" territory, or whose flavor profiles lend themselves to the low alcohol, high drinkability treatment.
The more I look around, the more beers I find waiting for a session, whether or not they intend to. Here, in no particular order, are a few examples I've been enjoying lately, consumed like dominoes while tending a grill in the backyard or just sitting around the house hanging out with the family. I'm sure they've appreciated the general level of sobriety I've maintained in the process.
Founders All Day IPA American IPA, 4.7 percent ABV
A light and lithe study in hops aroma and flavor, this packs more wallop than many more standard pales manage. If there's a beer available in the Houston market better suited to Session proselytizing, I've yet to find it. It starts bright and grassy, with hints of pine and citrus bleeding from the nose into a palate that allows just a hint of malt. Never bitter or aggressive, this is as thirst quenching as it is delicious and engaging. A picture perfect session beer. If they could sneak the alcohol down a half percent or so, this beer would be nothing short of miraculous. I don't think my fridge has been without this beer since it made its Houston debut.
Kona Big Wave Golden Ale American Blonde Ale, 4.4 percent ABV
Smooth as Old Blue Eyes wrapped in Teflon tape, Big Wave is easygoing and laid back in a way that speaks to your mental image of Island life, stereotypical though it may be. Tropical fruit (think the dried nuggets in trail mix, only pleasant) shuffles amiably past moderately bready malt, chased by a lightly spicy hop profile that whispers toward a squeaky clean finish. Like a hammock in a bottle.
Jester King Le Petit Prince, Commercial Suicide Farmhouse Table Beer, 2.9 percent ABV; Oaked Farmhouse Mild, 3.5 percent ABV
These are just a couple of JK's session offerings (See also: Das Wunderkind!, Bonnie the Rare, Drink'in the Sunbelt, Buddha's Brew). Clearly, Jester King has a crush on session beers, and I'm all for it. They consistently manage to make session beers that manage extremely low alcohol and significant flavor.
Petit Prince is worth a mention if for no other reason than the fact of its alcohol content. If there's a lower alcohol craft beer available in the Houston market, I've not found it. If it were as weak in flavor as it is in booze, though, it'd be a moot point. Thankfully, though it's done with a light hand, Le Petit Prince is packed with flavor. Bright with lemon, prickly with a peppery spice, and teasingly laced with an almost transparent banana note, Le Petit Prince offers a lot, but is also willing to take a back seat to whatever else is going on. If you're deep in conversation, it's an affable whistle-wetter. If you've got a few minutes to pay attention, you'll notice the hint of funk under its cracklingly dry, exceedingly crisp surface. Follow it through to a slightly spicy, ever so mildly bitter finish. The next sip is back with lemon-pepper, grassy hops right up front, all of it purposefully light and refreshing as a jumping into the pool.
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Commercial Suicide manages a similar feat, but from the opposite direction. Dark fruit and coffee bump up against the slightly musty character of old books, brittle and deep, but with a lightness that makes it all feel like an optical illusion. Nutty, dusky roasted malt predominates, but with a light hand and an easy demeanor. Dark and mild (the style of origin, here) is a good way to put it. You take a sip and the beer fills your mouth. You swallow, and it's like it was never there. It's powerful, but refreshing and inviting. It makes me want to read romantic poets, and assures me that I won't fall asleep while doing it.
Stone Levitation Ale American Amber, 4.4 percent ABV I've written about this one before, but I think it deserves mention here. A good example of how "balanced" doesn't always mean what you think it means, Levitation is clearly a Stone beer. If you drink Stone, you know what I mean; they're not exactly known for "balance." With more than a hint of hoppy bitterness, Levitation is downright assertive for a session beer. From the pine and orange-oil nose to the dryly briny, citrusy first sip, to the round and full malt that hits the mid-palate like a thick slice of brown bread, to the lingering bitterness of the finish, Levitation could stand shoulder to shoulder with any of Stone's beefier brews. It would stand longer, too, with its milder demeanor and tame weight. For all that flavor, it stays quite drinkable, teetering intriguingly on the edge of too heavy. It's almost like a liquid dare. Drink another one. You know you want to.
Dogfish Head Festina Pêche (Neo)Beliner Weisse, 4.5 percent ABV This has been one of my favorite seasonal beers for a few years now. Every time it pops up on shelves, I buy a four pack on every trip to the store. It's that good. From the first puckering sip, a clear and bright tartness that tastes like walking out of a darkened house into the sunshine, I was hooked. That tartness snaps your senses awake pleasantly, leaning into a concentrated peach flavor that never approaches cloying artificiality, as saturated as it is. The lemony pucker brings it back in line moments later, echoing apples and bread before leaning into a pleasantly dry finish. It's lean and full, aggressive and refreshing, surprising and effortless. I didn't even realize it fit my session rubric until about a month ago. Since then, I've been buying two four packs.
Without even really thinking about it, this list manages to show a couple of things about session beers. First, it shows their versatility. There's a lot of flavor, and a lot of flavors, to be coaxed out of less than 5 percent alcohol. Second, it shows that "session" beers are everywhere. This list isn't even the tip of the iceberg. I bet you have something sessionable in your fridge right now. Go check. Hell, you might have a favorite session beer you didn't even know about. Now that you do, how about we share a pint or three?