Friday, January 14, 2011


The new Style guidelines for the 2011 Great American Beer Festival's competition are out, and once again, there's a clear disconnect on what Session Beer is, isn't, and can be. Or at least...that's what it seems like at first. Lemme 'splain. No, that would take too long. Lemme sum up.

Here's the style guideline for "Session Beer," under Hybrid/Mixed Beer Styles.
Session Beer
Any style of beer can be made lower in strength than described in the classic style guidelines. The goal should be to reach a balance between the style's character and the lower alcohol content. Drinkability is a character in the overall balance of these beers. Beers in this category must not exceed 4.1% alcohol by weight (5.1% alcohol by volume). Original Gravity (ºPlato) 1.034-1.040 (8.5-10 ºPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.004-1.010 (1-2.5 ºPlato) ●Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 3.2-4.1% (4.0-5.1%) ● Bitterness (IBU) 10-30 ● Color SRM (EBC) 2+ (4+ EBC)
So when I first saw this (thanks to Chris Lohring at The Notch, who brought it to my attention), I about went ballistic. The description sounds like a category for 'dialed-down' versions of other beers -- like a 'session bock' -- a low-alc counterweight to the "Other Strong Ale or Lager" category. Except that, unlike Other Strong (and wouldn't that make a great beer name?), Session Beer not only has an upper limit on ABV -- a way too strong 5.1%! -- it has an even more WTF-inducing lower limit on ABV: 4.0%!

Like I said, "when I first saw this." Then I poked around some more -- and it's a huge document, with even more incredibly sub-divided categories (meaning many more medals...) -- and found some other stuff. Like Ordinary Bitter (3.0-4.1% ABV), English-Style Summer Ale (3.6-5%), Scottish-style Light Ale (2.8-3.5%!), English-style Pale Mild and Dark Mild (both 3.2-4.0%), Classic Irish-style Dry Stout (3.8-5%), Berliner Weisse (2.8-3.4%), Leichtes Weizen (2.5-3.5%), Belgian-style Table Beer (0.5%-3.5%!), and German Leicht(bier) (2.5-3.6%). (I'm skipping the American Light categories on purpose, yeah.)

The upshot? There are actually more categories than ever for lower-alcohol, tasty beers (I guess we'll have to wait for next year for the Lichtenhainer and Grodziskie), which should mean that brewers will be encouraged to brew to those styles in hopes of scoring medals (the good side of category/medal multiplication). That's a good thing.

But the catch-all Session Beer category just baffles me. If it is intended to catch any beer that doesn't fall into the 'normal' low-ABV categories listed above...why have that lower limit? And if it's really about session -- and they have the courage to put low ABV ranges on those other categories -- why an upper limit of 5.1%?

Look, I don't pretend to have the last word on session beer. Plenty of Brits believe -- and tell me! -- that 4.5% is too high for session. Plenty of Americans believe it's too low for an upper limit. But 5.1%? I'm sorry, I see this as kowtowing to the west coast, where they seem to think that 5.5% is session-strength. It's not. That's too strong for session. Period.

If we're going to have a "Session Beer" category at the GABF in addition to all these traditional session/worker/table beer categories, why not borrow the language from other catch-all categories: "varies with style," and give it an upper limit of 4.5%. How's that sound?


  1. Good commentary! I am pretty new to Session beers so I enjoy reading about the different styles and now to see how GABF categorises them into one cat? interesting...

  2. I do believe in keeping with tradition. The term "session" has historically been 4%. I do not think we should change the definition to simply suit our own tastes.

    I really think people need to embrace the word sessionable. A beer can be sessionable without being a session beer.

    These terms only useful if we can agree on definitions. It is far more beneficial to maintain the historical definition for session beer and embrace the newer term of sessionable beer for those which do not fit the the style.

  3. I'm not really sure what the GABF intended with this catch-all, Brian!

    Kevin, I'll have to disagree; I think the last thing we need is another, really similar-sounding term. And while I agree to some extent about tradition, the 4.5% thing is a moving target for me. I have a certain amount of influence on this discussion by merit of having been writing about beer for years, and I didn't want to waste it by going hard for 4%; there wouldn't have been many American beers to celebrate. 4.5% is a compromise, and it's not forever. Happily, I'm seeing brewers coming in well below that -- 3.5, 3.8, even 3.1% beers -- so we may be able to slide it some day soon. Or not, if it works. It's a definition, and it's also a lever to move the "session" number down from 5.5%. Small steps. Small steps.

  4. I think I might try to enter the Pro-Am with my Session Russian Imperial Stout. I'll just dial my nice RIS recipe back to 5%! Whaddaya think?

    Oh and by the way, I've been mostly dead all day.

  5. I agree that there should be no lower limit on abv for session beers. Or, at least, that limit shouldn't be 4%. That seems to defeat the entire purpose.

    As Chris Lohring made his argument for why he says 4.5%, I thought he used great logic. A 5% 12oz beer has the same amount of alcohol as a single 1.5oz serving of 80 proof Vodka (both have .6 oz of alcohol), which is normally seen as a single serving. Session beer should be BELOW a usual single serving of alcohol / serving of beer.

    That's why I agree with the 4.5% upper limit (or even lower but, as you said, baby steps).

    A lower limit is just preposterous. So a 3.5% beer isn't a session beer? Weird... It's just nonsensical. I would understand if they put a limit of 1% on the low end. But 4%? Nope.

  6. And why even a Session Beer style at all? It's not even a style, but a category or collection of styles with lower ABV. I can't get my head around what they are trying to do.

  7. "apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.004-1.010"

    Sessions beers must be dry? Plenty of milds finish north of 1.010, that's were they should be, lest they be dry and bland.

    Agree with's not a style at all, merely a loose description. It's like having a catch all "British" category.

    I'm brewing my Oatmeal Stout nest week. I call it a session beer. O.G. 1.044 F.G 1.011 means it doesn't fit the artificial category definitions of either "Oatmeal Stout" or "Session Beer". Pfffttt...

  8. Chris, Brandon,

    The GABF seems to be making some attempts to open up competition to 'style-less' or 'style-straddling' beers; there are a number of much less defined categories now. I think -- hope -- that's what the "Session Beer" style is all about.

    What I don't get is why this one is so sharply defined. Why not just put an upper limit -- again, I'd suggest 4.5% -- on it, and leave everything else up to the brewer. That's the way to fire up the innovation engine!

  9. It is all about definitions. Who defines the terms, ends up determining the acceptable meaning. The problem is for some reason not yet revealed the GABF has decided to put out this definition as a "style", and seems to not understand either the origins nor understand the category. The ground swell for this low ABV style here in the US, is still in large part a grassroots ground swell that has not met the public at large or those at the GABF. It will fall on the shoulders of people like Chris to get out in front and start to lead the conversation, and there by teach the masses the appropriate definitions. Less we all swallow what the GABF is pouring.

  10. I also find this baffling. I'm very aware that some sort of specific, measurable guidelines are needed for competition, whether it be BJCP, GABF, etc. - fair enough. But it should be apparent that a 'session beer' might fall into a variety of categories; presenting it as essentially a 'light' version of something else makes little sense, as you've so rightly pointed out.

    Here's my question: does this mean that in order to qualify as a session beer under this definition, a Berliner Weisse would have to be an 'imperial' Berliner Weisse? That's just bizarre.

  11. Did you really expect BA to get it right? I'm still trying to figure out why Yeungling isn't a craft brewery based on their new definition.


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