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Thinking Small: Sessionistas Fight To Redefine American Beer Culture…

It’s David versus Goliath, only in liquid form. Often framed as extreme versus session beer, two sides of the coin, mortal enemies fighting a cage match for consumer attention, the debate over beer alcohol levels is playing out in barrooms and liquor stores from San Diego to Boston. The narrative often involves a clash of drinking cultures, with brash upstarts promoting hop bombs and barrel aged beer mammoths while a few quiet warriors work to promote a new world order of beer, filled with three and four percent alcohol ales and lagers.

On its face, the comparison of big and small beers offers an attractive dichotomy, a true exercise in contrasts. And after pumping the extreme beer balloon to its swollen limit, the mainstream media now stands ready to burst the engorged alcohol behemoth in favor of the next big (or little) thing. With articles promoting the trend-worthiness of lower alcohol beers splashing across Advertising Age and the New York Times, it’s easy to get swept up in the rah-rah spirit behind the session beer movement. Experience, however, suggests that it’s going to be a while before Americans toss aside their regular IPA’s and stouts and openly embrace the idea of lower alcohol beer.

In choosing the ‘session’ banner, American promoters have knowingly wedded themselves to a beer culture that is entirely foreign to this country. The British concept of session drinking involves the consumption of many rounds of lower alcohol beer over an extended period, say five or six beers after work. In adopting the session moniker as opposed to simply calling their efforts a campaign for lower-alcohol beers, these brewers face target consumers who are not given to long stints in the pub or hours of uninterrupted drinking. Our drinking culture is goal oriented: have a beer to accompany a meal or fill a short window of time after work and before a commute. Most drinkers don’t sit around and have a half-dozen beers before heading home and with craft beer prices in many markets approaching $7, 8 or even $10 a pour, regular ‘sessions’ would be bankrupting.

Beyond incompatible consumption levels, transferring the concept of session beer to the United States has hit other hurdles. Born in the pubs of England, even hard core sessionistas have a difficult time actually defining what they mean by session drinking. Is 4.5 ABV session worthy or must it be 3.5 or lower? Often obsessed with the numbers, the side of session beer that promotes balance and flavor harmony is lost in the process. Belaboring such beer minutiae escapes or disinterests most drinkers. With a history punctuated with terms of government enforced moderation and prohibition, Americans have a difficult time relating to such beer confines. Most American drinkers don’t have experience in purposely selecting lower alcohol products in order to sustain a lengthier drinking session and have simply viewed alcohol as a means to a socially lubricating end.

The state of our beer culture is influenced by our purveyors and producers. Local drinking establishments don’t put a premium on courting the session drinker. Whether based in concerns related to promoting over-consumption or sheer laziness, most bars don’t list the alcohol levels in the beers they serve unless mandated by law. The consumer looking to undertake a true session is left asking the busy bartender about lower alcohol options or doing their own advanced legwork. For their part, American brewers have also not focused much attention on producing low enough alcohol beers to provide a sufficiently sizable point of differentiation from other brands.

Despite recent headlines, American beer culture has a long way to go before lower alcohol drinking gains a true foothold. We have adopted a totally different world view from that of the British session beer experience, which simply isn’t transferable to or in tune with our local beer and drinking culture. To be sure, promoting lower alcohol yet flavorful beer options is a worthy mission. But calling it session beer in the United States is a little like calling three tables in a restaurant back alley a German beer garden.

-Article appeared in Issue 53 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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14 thoughts on “Thinking Small: Sessionistas Fight To Redefine American Beer Culture…

  1. Thoughtful stuff, as usual.

    You neatly sum up the problem facing those who would market session beers to “goal-oriented” drinkers. But actually I wonder if sessions are so rare in the U.S. I don’t think so. Loads of people drink light lager in quantity, among friends, in a bar, tailgating, on the river, at home with the game, or wherever. Those are usually 4.2% or so. Seems like there’s an opportunity there for more flavorful beers to make a useful entrance.

    I think the entrance of a few more of those beers is all the sessionistas really want. Transforming the American beer culture? Nothing so ambitious. For me and the others to whom I’ve spoken, it’s more selfish than that. We just want to see more options for the sort of drinking we’d prefer to do. All we can really do is suggest that others try it out. They might like it, and they might find themselves making better decisions at the end of the night.

    Anyway, great take Andy.

  2. Andy,

    I couldn’t agree more. My wife and I were discussing this very subject at the brewery this weekend; as they had finally added a 4.5% Pale Ale to their line up for “drinking during the hot summer.” I was disappointed that it was not in the line up over the school year, as I often like to brainless law journal editing while enjoying a pint or two. Instead, I brew “session” beers (3-4% ABV) at home and store in my kegorator, so that I can enjoy a brew while still maintaining the ability to study.

    I am hopeful that the idea will take shape, but I think it will take some forward-thinking brewers and businesspersons. Why is it the case that there are three starbucks within walking distance of the University, but not a single brew-pub or bar that offer sessionable CRAFT beer?

    1. Matt, that’s exactly the point we’re at now. More brewers are brewing these…they’re far from in the mainstream, and there’s not many. But there’s more than a few years ago. In Massachusetts alone, The Tap in Haverhill brews a 3% berliner weiss in the summer. Mayflower brews a 3.8% summer rye. And Notch Session is completely dedicated to the concept of American session beer.

      I think Andy is right, it’s got a long way to go. But some people are starting to move in the right direction, at least.

  3. As we so often do in this country, I think the use of “session beer” is a term we’re lifting from the British with only the slightest nod to how they use it, that being the connect to low alcohol.

    The cultural nuances of how those in the UK drink is unknown to the vast majority in the U.S. to the point that I don’t think labeling lower alcohol beer “session beer” here will create a state of confusion where people start to wrap the whole thing up in the idea of drinking for a session. “Session beer” is a familiar enough term that many understand that it references lower alcohol beer, and it’s a catchy term.

    American Session Beer isn’t looking to import English beer culture, it’s just looking to push lower alcohol craft beer options, which we sorely need. In the same way that “extreme beer” was a concept that the more mainstream craft beer drinker seemed to get on board with, lower alcohol offerings need a catchy name…a theme or umbrella to fall under. That’s why the use of “session beer” as a name. The number, 4.5%, is more for brewers than anyone, really. It’s just a line because you have to have some concept of what is and what isn’t to push an idea.

    You can see the full argument in our recent piece about this here:

  4. I think you have the wrong Goliath – “Experience, however, suggests that it’s going to be a while before Americans toss aside their regular IPA’s and stouts and openly embrace the idea of lower alcohol beer.” – I don’t think this is the goal of this so called movement. If it is, it certainly isn’t the best business decision. The potential is to provide a better opportunity for the macro drinkers to step into the craft beer world. Much to Joe’s point, there are plenty of people drinking in quantity.

    You hit the nail on the head with pricing though. $7 pints aren’t going to be sessionable for many macro drinkers.

  5. Thank you for another point of view that was being drowned out by the sessionistas as you call them.

    I always had problems with the term session or session beer as it is used in the UK when applied to the US. To begin with our culture just doesn’t follow the same kind of drinking experience. And I also think its a dangerous term when introduced to the general public who may not understand the intentions of the term and just see it as promoting binge drinking. The general beer drinking public usually has no idea how much alcohol is in their beer, now we want them to be able to calculate how many 4.2% beers they can have instead of their usual 5.5% beers? Right or wrong, two drinks seems to be the accepted notion of moderate drinking – anything more is considered excessive, heavy, or binge drinking. No one wants to be known for their binge drinking. I also see many times the argument to be able to drink more beers and still drive home – this will never be seen as “responsible drinking”, no matter how low the abv of the drink is – and would be a poor marketing tool.

    Its like we are trying to come up with some cute way to say “low alcohol” beer because it won’t sell if labeled as such. IMO, if we have to trick people into buying/drinking low alcohol beer by coming up with terms that attempt to skirt around the facts, you really don’t have a movement at all.

  6. You make a great point about American drinking being ‘goal oriented’ since it is reflected in nearly every activity in America. I once bought a bicycle and planned on casually riding it around the neighborhood for a couple of miles a few times a week, but couldn’t have a conversation with anyone that didn’t involve complicated exchanges in which I was encouraged to ride 200 miles a week, with $1000’s worth of extra equipment adorning me and the bike – ridiculous and very little sense of the casual enjoyment of something.

    In short, there is very little culture in the USA of slowly and casually drinking large volumes of beer over several hours, which is the main reason that the term ‘session beer’ should never even be USED in the US – it’s irrelevant and it doesn’t fit! The routine abuse and misuse of the 4% limit simply adds to the mess.

    1. Hey Ding-

      This may be the first time that we agree on anything. Well said. I think for Americans to even give a thought to the level of alcohol in their beer is a step in the right direction, regardless if the ABV level is 3 or 6 percent. That’s why the Wall Street Journal article didn’t bother me. Where Americans were long used to essentially a single style of beer (with very similar ABV’s), you have to first teach them that there are differences in alcohol levels between beers. That most of them already drink “session beers” as some seem to want to define them (i.e. beers under 5 or 4.5% abv — i.e. Bud Light) also renders the concept as applied to the US a little silly.



      1. I still find it ASTONISHING (literally) that it is not a federal requirement to state the ABV of a beer on the label – why on earth would I NOT want to know exactly how much of potential lethal substance (alcohol), I was consuming?

        I also find the idea that when I order a Gin & Tonic in a bar in the US and I have zero idea how much alcohol is actually in it, preposterous. Isn’t that incredibly dangerous on a whole bunch of levels??

  7. Myself, I usually visit my go-to “session beer,” Guinness on tap (4.1 – 4.3 ABV) if I’m driving, while my buddies will often opt for the latest high gravity “big beers” or Belgians. After 2 to 4 of these after work, they’re in no condition to drive home while I’m just fine due to sipping the same number of Guinness over the same time span. My colleagues (not knowing Guinness’ low alcohol content) are unwittingly impressed at my drinking prowess.

    Andy’s article was spot-on, as were others’ comments here who have said “session beer” is just a more palatable name for low-alcohol beer. Like “lite beer,” it’s just a name that will go down smoother in the marketplace.

  8. “In short, there is very little culture in the USA of slowly and casually drinking large volumes of beer over several hours…”

    But I just don’t think this is true. Maybe if you add “on weekdays after work in the pub,” then it becomes true. But light beer is wildly popular in the USA, usually at 4.2%, and people often drink it in quantity, whether at home, sporting event, barbecue, the lake, the beach, out at a bar with friends, etc etc etc. If one doesn’t want to accept light lager as session beer because it’s not “flavorful” (one of the conditions of Lew’s definition, by the way), or because it’s not “craft,” then fine, but one would need to explicitly exclude it.

    Others might call it binge drinking, but you can’t say there’s no culture of drinking lower-alcohol beer in quantity in the USA. It’s just not true. (Would I like that beer to taste better? Hell yes.)

    So let’s be clearer about what this sessionista thing is really about. It’s NOT about American drinking culture writ large. It’s simply a niche within the craft beer niche that would like to see more lower-alcohol beers from craft brewers.

    “I still find it ASTONISHING (literally) that it is not a federal requirement to state the ABV of a beer on the label – why on earth would I NOT want to know exactly how much of potential lethal substance (alcohol), I was consuming?”

    I’m just finishing a little article on this very topic, look for it in DRAFT in a few months. Incidentally, the TTB proposed this in 1997 and might still rule on it at any time, requiring ABV and other nutritional info on beer labels… or they might not. The wheels of bureaucracy…

  9. Great to see a sensible take on the session issue.

    Would I like to see more tasty lower-ABV options? Sure. But the “sessionistas” seem to be imposing their will on the craft beer community with constant arguments about what ABV the “session” label should be and the constant comparisons to the UK drinking culture (both arguments are pointless).

    Session beers need to be pitched as a “moderation” drink and despite what they say, they need to provide a lower price point than the +6 ABV beers to gain a foothold with craft beer drinkers & BMC drinkers looking for more “taste” in their beer.

  10. If brewers really intend these “session” beers to be consumed in larger quantities then why do they only come in six packs or less? Notch Saison is only available in 22 oz bombers. Bruery Hottenroth in 750 ml. Stone’s Session IPA last year was in measly 12 oz bottles for $4 a pop. Seems to me they just want to spend lest on ingredients and charge about the same.

  11. Joe Strange, you are spot on. You and Anti Beer Geek saved me most of a post. I would just like to further emphasize that having “session” mean one thing in the U.S. and another in the U.K. can’t possibly be a big deal. “Football” has lead that kind of double life for a while now (though that may be the worst example, given the arguments it spawns about which definition is “correct”). Is spending the entire time, from when you leave work until you go to bed, drinking beer at a pub somehow superior to stopping for a pint on your way home? Isn’t it useful to have a term for “low alcohol beer”? It gives the movement an identity and brand and likely some momentum, and I don’t see that it has a cost. Until that momentum builds up a little more, Matt has the right idea: make your own.

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