Summer Session: Low Alcohol for High Temps

Categories: Brew Blog

Nicholas L. Hall
When you don't drink session beer, you get day drunk. When you get day drunk, you wind up with a teammate's sweaty bandanna on your head. Don't wind up with a teammate's sweaty bandanna on your head.
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.

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Thanks for this article, I'll definitely seek these beers out. Remember when it was illegal for a beer to advertise its alcohol content on the bottle? Somebody told me it was because the politicos didn't want people seeking out stronger beers just for the buzz. Which sounds just ridiculous enough to be true. Anyway, some of us not only prefer lower alcohol content but also lighter tastes in the summer heat. 


You said drinkability.


Low alcohol! You're speaking my language! I've noticed a few venues in CA where they've been listing the beers by alcohol content. Makes perfect sense...

Had no idea you were from South Bend: I was born in Chicago but both of my parents were born in South Bend. Great post...


Nicely done, Mister Hall. Thanks for the mention!


@lew.bryson Much appreciated. Love the Session Beer Project; would love to see more of the beers you've mentioned available in my market.

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