Session Confession: We're High on Low-Alcohol Beer!

Some years back, when the craft-beer renaissance was really picking up steam, there seemed to be an unwritten doctrine that more was more: The bigger the beer, the better.

And I was on board. “I want something that punches me in the mouth,” I’d tell bartenders. I wanted a statement beer. A barrel-aged stout, maybe, or an IPA that could rip your teeth out. A liquid equivalent of a garish attention hog that you couldn’t take your eyes off. It felt important to reject water-like light beers out of hand, and the only way to do that, it seemed, was by selecting the opposite: big, bold, alcoholic.

But I’ve noticed a curious change in my own drinking habits over the past two years or so: I frequently find myself perusing menus looking not for the barrel-aged sour or hop-bombed IPA, but for whatever beer has the lowest alcohol content.

Yes, that makes me feel like a granny.

Here’s the thing about low-alcohol beers, though: They don’t ruin your palate in one pint, which means you don’t waste your money buying more heady craft beers that you can’t really taste. Also, you can drink them all day (or night) without blacking out, which is handy if you've committed to an afternoon of patio imbibing.

Not long ago, such an affinity would have meant a brisk retreat right back into beer conglomerates pouring lagers or, at the very least, switching my allegiance to German styles, which are not nearly as pervasive as the Belgians and Americans in tap rooms and breweries.

Now, though, the craft-beer industry has expanded into the wonderful world of sessions. The concept of a session, or sessionable, beer, possibly came from the twice-daily legal time period (sessions) during which British workers were allowed to hit pubs during World War I. They’d drink low-alcohol ales, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 4 percent ABV, because they could pound several of them and remain uninebriated, and then they could go back to work.

These days, brewers use the word “session” to describe any beer lower than 5 percent ABV (though some purists argue that 4 percent should really be the upper limit, because 5 percent is still a pretty potent brew). The category technically captures English mild ales and German lagers, though you'll rarely see them marketed as such. Sessionable IPAs have caught fire in the States, likely because IPA is an incredibly popular category; locally, try versions from Ska, Something Brewery, Alpine Dog and Sanitas, to name a few. But you can also find sessionable versions of just about any style you fancy: Call to Arms Brewing makes a session saison that rings in at 3.8 percent, WestFax makes a 4 percent amber coffee session, Jagged Mountain has a sessionable porter, and Black Bottle does a sessionable Belgian ale. Several brewers also make an English mild, arguably the original session beer.

Even if you’re a big beer enthusiast, it’s worth tasting some of the lower ABV beers beside your go-tos, if only to consider what alcohol content does to flavor and nuance of beer. Session beers often (though not always) have more levity and subtlety, which makes them a nice foil to their full-throated cousins.

Start (or further) your education this weekend by hitting Sesh Fest, where dozens of breweries will pour beers that clock in at less than 5 percent ABV. The beers mentioned above will be there, along with a slew of others. Pick up your tickets online for $30, or buy them for $35 at the door. Sesh Fest hits the Highlands Masonic Event Center from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 6.
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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk