What is a session beer? From 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. on a recent Wednesday night, this question became an obsession — an increasingly fuzzy dragon to chase. That would be because we — four of us in total, all beer fans — were plowing through a crop of 42 of them in search of truth.
First question: It’s got to be more than just ABV, right? According to BeerAdvocate, a session is “a beer below 5.0% ABV with a balance of malt and hops that displays a clean finish and high drinkability”. Can a higher-ABV beer be considered a session if it’s so drinkable as to encourage two or three more on a summer day? Is Bell’s Oberon — which stands at a hefty but eminently drinkable 6.5% — a session? Is it even possible to make a covetable beer below 5.0%? Does it all just end up tasting like a watered-down craft beer?
We ended with a wider definition than most, for reasons you might be able to guess. The session beer has to be one that’ll keep you sharp(ish) down the stretch, one that won’t prohibit enjoying the rest of the six pack you brought to the barbecue, one that’ll provide the experience and flavor of the craft beer over an afternoon without an imperial hangover the following morning. That means a decent range of ABVs, but 5.0% is a good benchmark. Along the way to this conclusion, we discovered the merits of seven beers ranging from 2.7% to 4.9% ABV. Each is easily worth a spot in your cooler come session season.
Anchor Steam Beer
Best Accessible Session: Anchor is one of the oldest craft breweries and their Steam beer is everywhere. The surprisingly high-ABV California Common offers a no-bullshit drink for no-bullshit guys. The high malt flavor of steam beers is a love-or-hate kind of thing, but its hyper-consistent flavor profile paired with an ABV below 5% means this is a fantastic beer for matching with a burger (which is exactly how we began our night). Some tasters thought that the “heavier” flavor profile in comparison to the “lighter”, less malt-centric IPAs would make the third or fourth Anchor Steam a tough sell.
Tasting Notes: Heavy malt, bread
Sessionability™: 3 tech startup holiday parties out of 5.
Evil Twin Bikini Beer
Best Flyweight Session: New York’s Evil Twin had the distinction of being the lowest-ABV beer we tested at 2.7%, and it proved one of the easiest beers to “session”. If anything, boredom or endless trips to the bathroom would get to you before the alcohol. Once you pop the attractive can, the beer overwhelms with all the sweet smells of a well-produced IPA. Bikini packs a ton of hops into the first sip with quick notes of citrus — likely amped up by the lack of balancing (and alcohol-producing) malt. Frustratingly, none of those strong flavors fall off quickly, goading you to take another sip and keep chasing that excellent first burst of flavor.
Tasting Notes: Hints of grapefruit, fresh hops, lemon
Sessionability™: 4 questionably legal Brooklyn rooftop barbecues out of 5.
Most Interesting Session: The powerhouse brewery from southwestern Michigan has a Midas touch with drinkable, interesting beers, but their Oarsman Ale might be the strangest of all. To be honest, when we first poured the Oarsman we were pretty sure it was expired (it wasn’t). The beer gives off a powerful sour, skunky, tart smell that fans of the Berliner Weissbier style will absolutely love. The taste confirms any farmyard-y notions with a strong hit of lemon and honey and just a hint of hops. Testers likened it to a more nuanced shandy but wondered if all the strong tartness might be off-putting over the course of an afternoon.
Tasting Notes: Lemon, wheat, funk
Sessionability™: 3 lengthy arguments about sell-by dates out of 5.
Summer Seasonal Sessions
One of the best parts of summer is kicking back — whether after a bike ride or during a beach day — and opening a cold, refreshing beer. This is not stout territory. These summer sessions with limited releases, usually between May and September, are the perfect go-to’s when the mercury starts rising. Click on any beer to learn more.
Firestone Walker Easy Jack
Most Deceptive Session: Firestone Walker is no stranger to excellent beers and their pass at a session IPA is more of the same. Easy Jack was one of the two beers tested that didn’t taste at all like a session, instead exhibiting all the hallmarks of a well-crafted IPA. The citrusy, resiny notes we’d found in Bikini Beer were loud and strong, but were also balanced by a malt backbone and a finish that lingered well after each sip. As such, Easy Jack is a fantastic beer to keep around the house for low-guilt sipping without missing out on flavor. The only thing keeping this beer’s Sessionability™ from a perfect 5 out of 5 is that all that flavor makes it a tough beer to mindlessly throw back; maybe it was the previous three beers, but this one took longer to get through than the rest (though in most cases, this isn’t a bad thing).
Tasting Notes: Citrus, heavy hops, strong malt backbone
Sessionability™: 4 “sure, I’ll have one more”s out of 5.
Other Half SuperFun Pale Ale
Editors Pick: We managed to track down a particularly fresh canning of Other Half’s low-ABV pale ale and couldn’t be more surprised with its the nuance and flavor. This was the session beer we’d been dreaming of. Strong notes of orange peel, citrus, yeast and hops managed to be sweet and dry without all the bitterness that can burn a session to the ground. What’s more, unlike the Easy Jack, the lingering flavor seemed to fall away at just the right moment, encouraging another sip and making this feel more drinkable than even some lower-ABV beers. Superfun is a perfect response to those who wonder if it’s possible to make a flavorful, interesting beer under 4.5% ABV. If you can find it, buy it. If you can’t, head to their Brooklyn tasting room or call in some favors.
Tasting Notes: Orange peel, yeast, sweet hoppy bite
Sessionability™: 5 BeerAdvocate.com posts out of 5.
Flying Dog Easy IPA
Most Unexpected Taste: We went into the Flying Dog expecting more of the same session IPA formula — a quick hit of citrus, some hoppy bitterness and a fast drop-off after the sip. What we got instead was a high-malt, low-hop beer with a tiny hint of sourness. We’re not sure we’d call it an IPA, but it might be just the ticket if you’re looking to get out of a citrus-and-hops routine.
Tasting Notes: Malt, bitter hops
Sessionability™: 3 dubious taxonomies out of 5.
Founders All Day IPA
The Benchmark Session: Before we embarked on our session beer test, Founder’s All Day IPA was the one we all knew and loved; at the end of the night, the Michigan brew was exactly as we’d remembered it. This well-balanced IPA falls just short of the strong flavor profile of Easy Jack — but not to a fault. All Day is the perfect beer for the warmer months when you want something interesting, flavorful and light that’ll keep you sated on a Sunday afternoon without making you feel (whether via alcohol or too-strong flavors) that you can’t have another couple. Plus their 15-pack of cans is about as good a deal as we’ve found when it comes to great craft beer.
Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, pine, crisp hops, crisp finish
Sessionability™: 5 ill-advised 15-packs out of 5.