You’ve likely noticed the word “session” pop up on beer lists across town, but exactly what does that mean? By definition, any beer that doesn’t exceed 5 percent alcohol by volume — its acronym is ABV — and has a balance of malt and hops that make it highly drinkable qualifies.
The rules aren’t hard and fast, but the constants are big flavor and low alcohol. You can enjoy several of these light-bodied libations during the course of a few hours and won’t get completely obliterated.
According to Beer Advocate, the 6-percent mark on average tends to be when folks feel the effects of a beer’s alcohol content, while most can tolerate a 5-percent beverage with no problem. It’s not an exact science— people handle their booze differently, but it speaks to why anything less than 5 percent is called sessional.
Some trace the origin of the style to World War I factory workers in England, who wanted a beer during their lunch — or session — break that wouldn’t get them too buzzed midday. Others connect it to Britain’s pub-centric lifestyle, where lower alcohol content kept folks upright on their stools longer. As of late, there’s been a resurgence in the craft beer market, and Richmond breweries are cranking out some of the best you’ll imbibe.
“Most of my beers are sessional,” says Rock Bottom’s head brewer, Becky Hammond. “I try to keep it that way so that it appeases the general public and most everyone can enjoy more than one pint — hopefully of differing varieties.”
As to variety, Richmond breweries are proving that session beers aren’t boring or predictable. Isley Brewing Co. currently offers Ruby Red Slippers, a grapefruit pale ale, and Strangeways Brewing recently released Wake Me Up Before You Gose, a semi-salty Germanic sour. While crisp and hop-forward, Evelyn American IPA from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Chillax from the Answer Brewpub and Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery’s ’Til Sunset all are distinctive.
Local experts say balance is critical to the perfect session beer. Hardywood’s Patrick Murtaugh explains that higher alcohol beers generally use more malt to obtain the increased fermentable sugar levels. As a result, stronger beer usually will offer bolder favors and a more viscous mouth feel.
“The tricky thing about making low ABV beers is obtaining an intricate and nuanced flavor profile without the heavy body to back it up,” says Murtaugh. “This is left to the skill of the brewer to coax just as much complexity out of a beer with less malt using the ingredients on hand.”
Tom Sullivan, operations director at Ardent Craft Ales, says there’s a challenge in juggling hoppiness, maltiness, aroma and mouth feel. “There’s a much lower margin of error,” he says. “If one thing is missing or overwhelming, you’re more likely to taste it.”
It turns out these beers are full of surprises that make them as complex as their boozier brethren.
“Our Wort Share Session IPA has more hops than our year-round IPA, Pocahoptas,” says Chris Ray, of Center of the Universe Brewing Co. in Ashland. “The balance in creating a low ABV IPA is so difficult — more hops are needed at the end of the boil and/or dry hopping to enhance the flavor without contributing too much bitterness.”
Some critics have chalked the session beer revival up to nothing more than a trend or seasonal spike, but the local consensus suggests otherwise.
“People always want to enjoy a smaller beer,” says Adam Worcester, co-owner of Triple Crossing Brewing Co. “They especially want to enjoy smaller beers after drinking much larger beers.” For that reason, the brewery always keeps one or two on tap.
Head brewer Brandon Tolbert at the Answer has mastered session styles and thinks they make craft beer more approachable. “Anyone who says they don’t like hoppy beers, I would challenge them to try [the Answer’s] Petty Larceny or something similar,” he says. As for the session style, he adds: “I’m not fortune teller, but I believe it’s here to stay.”