Session Lager from Full Sail BrewingDrink More Good Beer…Longer

I have a buddy who regularly keeps a keg of Alpha Dog Imperial IPA around. The problem is if he drinks as much as he wants, Alpha, with a hefty 8.9% ABV, makes him hallucinate before dinner's served. When he admitted to prepping with a few Miller Lights, I knew it was time for an intervention.

I had to explain the concept of session beer: beer low on alcohol and big on flavor, allowing you to enjoy more of what you love (without lapsing into totally antisocial behavior).

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Lew Bryson, a beer enthusiast in Philadelphia, has founded the Session Beer Project. Essentially, it's his unofficial movement to encourage craft beer brewers to apply their expertise to making beers full of flavor, not effect. Lew sets 4.5% ABV as the limit, but others are more generous, maxing out at 5%.

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Session beers, also called small beers, have a history as long as brewing itself. In the past, small beers came from the second or third runnings of mash. This produced a beer served to children in place of disease-laden water. Today, brewers like Anchor Brewing honor this tradition. Their Small Ale (3.3% ABV) comes from the second runnings of the mash from Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale (8-10% ABV).

In 1757, George Washington recorded his "To Make Small Beer" recipe in his personal journal.  The English, Scots, and Irish have been masters of the small beer recipe for centuries.  Think Guinness, celebrating its 250th anniversary:  deep dark color, medium body, and an alcohol content of about 4.5%.

Crafting beers with less alcohol but plenty of flavor can be challenging because there's no room for imperfections to hide. For a big beer, more grain means more flavor and more alcohol. For small beer brewers, the challenge is to extract big flavor from less grain.

More American breweries are meeting this challenge. Take recent winners from the Session Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival. Or, check out brewers who will be presenting at the cleverly named Conn-O-Session at the Kennett Brewfest October 10, 2009, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (yes, Lew Bryson had his hand in this).

As for me, the next time my buddy and I hangout, we’ll enjoy a few Gone Fishin’ from Beer Valley, a completely sessionable brew.

Rick Boyd

Creative Commons License * The joy of small beer by Brewforia Beer Market is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at brewforia.com.