Here's the style guideline for "Session Beer," under Hybrid/Mixed Beer Styles.
Session BeerSo 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%!
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)
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?