The mystery of sessionability

Brewers will tell you that designing a beer to have “sessionability”, the indefinable something which keeps bringing the drinker back throughout the evening to refill their glass from the same fount, is one of the most difficult problems they can set themselves.

Simple one-off tasting sessions are unlikely to tell you if you have achieved your goal: it’s just like the “Pepsi Challenge”, where, in the battle of the colas, the sweeter drink wins in a head-to-head comparison, but over the distance the drier fluid wins. The only way to find out which new beers have sessionability, one brewer once told me, is to set a table up with a variety of free beers and ask the public to help themselves: the beer that is drunk the most, the beer that people come back to most often, will be the most sessionable.

Back in February, Lew Bryson, one of America’s leading beer bloggers, flattered me by asking for my comments about session beers, to go into an article he was writing. I found I had written several hundred words by the time I had finished, and as Lew couldn’t possibly use them all, and it’s long enough after his piece was published, here they all are, plus some extra just for you.

I love session beers. I love the way they make a good evening down the pub with friends even better. What makes a good session beer is a combination of restraint, satisfaction and “moreishness”. Like the ideal companions around a pub table, a great session beer will not dominate the occasion and demand attention; at the same time its contribution, while never obtrusive, will be welcome, satisfying and pleasurable; and yet, though each glass satisfies, like each story in the night’s long craic, the best session beers will still leave you wishing for one more pint, to carry on the pleasure.

What is “moreishness”? Like a great many qualities, defining it is hard, but you recognise it when you taste it. Strength doesn’t have that much to do with it: that is, a weaker beer isn’t automatically a session beer. Obviously if you’re drinking large quantities it’s easier if the beer is weaker, and the British traditions of drinking in pints and buying in rounds means that a session is unlikely to be less than five or six (British) pints – nine or so US 12-ounce glasses.

My impression is that Britons drink larger volumes than Americans, and for that reason the beer in the UK is weaker. The reason why Britain has recognised session beers and the US does not springs, I suspect, from the differences between British pub culture and American bar culture: in British pubs drinkers will stay all night long, and you want a beer you can drink all night long. I may be wrong (you’ll tell me if I am), but American bars seem to be geared for shorter stays than British pubs. The requirement that a session beer shouldn’t be too strong is secondary to the need for it to be a beer that can be drunk all night without the drinker tiring of it: “quaffability”.

A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings. Like the chamber music that composers Mozart and Handel wrote for their patrons’ soirees and divertimenti, a good session beer is a backgrounder to human interaction: capable of being appreciated as a work of art if you pause from conversation and consider it, but good-mannered enough not to intrude unless asked. A good session beer is a string quartet playing quietly, rather than The Messiah.

The “session” itself, the long night drinking down the pub with mates, has, I think, always been a feature of British working-class life, even when beers were stronger (I’m not going to present the evidence here but I’ve got it if you want it), and I’m sure that “session beers”, beers that were satisfying, moreish and not too obtrusive, existed even before high taxes made it too expensive to sell beers at their pre-First World War strengths. The skill of British brewers was that they were able to carry on making tasty, satisfying, sessionable beers at lower gravities from the 1920s onwards.

The public evidently appreciated these lower-gravity beers, since they carried on drinking them, and when draught lagers arrived in the UK they were brewed at the same low gravities as the milds they were replacing, to fit in with the “session” of five or six pints. Ideally, a session beer shouldn’t be much more than four per cent alcohol by volume, simply to allow the drinker to wake up the next morning still able to remember how they got home.

The actual style of a session beer does not matter much: it shouldn’t be too packed with flavour, too hoppy, too dry, too sharp or too sweet, because that will place the beer too much in the foreground. I’ve had sessions in German bierkellers with lager, and in Liverpool boozers with dark mild. A session is not about the beer: it’s about the people, the conversation, the company. The beer, if it’s a good session beer, makes the session flow, provides the salt. You’d enjoy the company without the beer: but the beer lifts it to a better, more satisfying level.

pump-clip-naked-ladies
For me, bitters work best as session beers, because, I think, it’s easier to hit that “quaffability” target on the hoppy side of the circle than anywhere else. Among my top session beers – and this is very far from an exclusive list – are Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, which once made me stay all night in a pub in St Albans after a meeting of the National Union of Journalists (the NUJ, as it happens, is how I first met Roger Protz) simply because it was so good; Woodforde’s Wherry bitter, which I have enjoyed enormously since I first tasted it at the Cambridge Beer Festival in the early 1980s and was struck at once by how good it was; London Pride, a delight almost everywhere I drink it; and another bitter local to me in West London, Twickenham Brewery’s Naked Ladies, an excellent, balanced, hoppy 4.4 per cent abv brew. (Pete Brown probably wouldn’t approve of this beer’s name, but it commemorates a set of 19th century marble statues of water nymphs, or, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Oceanids, in a council-owned public garden by the Thames. Twickenham people are very fond of the Naked Ladies, big-bottomed Victorian gels who look as if they would be very surprised if you pointed out to them that they didn’t have any clothes on.)

What do those four beers have in common? Three are in the “best bitter” abv range and only one less than 4 per cent alcohol, none is backwards in the hops section, but all are very different in their flavours. Ultimately, though, any one of them would keep me in the pub with mates for much longer than a single pint.

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16 thoughts on “The mystery of sessionability

  1. I think part of the reason British brewers do session beers best is they’re tastier when served from casks. Beers of modest strength seem to have only modest flavour when served with the higher carbonation in kegs.

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  2. I’ve often wondered if session beers existed in England before 1914. So often you read in the 1800′s that British beers were too strong, that the new lager offered a real alternative, e.g., Charles Graham said this in the 1880′s. It seems hard to think that people would in general drink the same number of units as at a session today but of beer 50% stronger or more… Perhaps people drank smaller measure then, or possibly drank more slowly than today. Also, mixing beers in the pub may have lowered average FGs although this would only go so far. Is it cynical to suggest that adulteration of beers by adding water, reportedly a big problem in the 1800′s, “solved” this problem?

    Gary

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  3. Stan asks if it “Is it the beer that keeps you in the pub or the mates?”. Put that way, my answer is clear – my mates. In the years since I have re-discovered beer, I can’t think of a time when I went to a pub, microbrewery or brewpub except to meet up with friends, except when traveling.

    Wether it is in a pub, a bar, a friends house or my own home, session beers have a special place in my heart. With the explosion of double IPAs, Imperial this and that, it makes it challenging to enjoy more than one or two without either the ingredients to begin to coat my palate, and the alcohol to numb my senses.

    I am a member of a homebrewing club that is embarking on the quest for a really good (the best of our clubs) session beer. Our focus is on both Milds and English browns. Some members may be tempted to increase the malt bill or hop schedule, but I personally am hopeful that the one that shines, rises from the pack, is essentially a brew with the elusive moreishness and quaffability – while keeping its foamy head under 4% abv. Cheers!

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  4. Excellent post – and some so-called beer enthusiasts miss the point that beer really should be a lubricant to sociability rather than just an end in itself. If you can’t contemplate the prospect of an evening in the pub drinking the same good, well-kept beer, then you don’t really understand beer.

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  5. Always interested in more information to be sure, but I was speculating more than intending to ask for this! By the way, I should have said mixing may have kept FGs up (not down), anyway I meant mixing beers may have been a way to reduce strength in some cases.

    Another thing that occurs to me in this regard is the shandy – that was a way to drop the alcohol level of beer by 50%, almost to a lager-like level in fact. But I would think that drink was restricted to summer. Anyway would a 4-ale drinker ever mix lemonade with his beer? That seems doubtful!

    Anyway again excellent article, thanks much for it.

    Gary

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  6. Even the US beer style guidelines from Brewers Association classify English Style Pale Ale as OG 1044-1056, still too high IMHO for a session beer. A 1036 – 1038 OG beer really is an English thing.
    Steve

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  7. Pingback: The Mystery of Sessionability | BeerInBaltimore.com

  8. The most sessionable beer I brew is a very simple ale made with Pale Malt, Crystal Malt and a single hop. At 3.7% you can drink a few pints of it and not worry about the next morning.

    A simple, tasty beer without too much alcohol is what defines a good session beer, in my opinion.

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  9. I love the Naked Ladies (no, I’m not giggling as I type)– it is a beautiful beer!

    A session for me would be three pints max, maybe four. It is always the rounds with friends that might make me exceed my original intentions– never the beer. The whole buying of rounds and all-night drinking sessions was something I had to get used to after moving from the US to the UK.

    But the idea of drinking 5-6 pints in a night is very alien to me. I am just one American saying this so nothing can be generalized. With that said, my first impression, when I hear that a beer is “quaffable” or “sessionable” is that it must be boring. I know I’m wrong to think this, and embracing subtlety is good, but I prefer drinking smaller amounts of very intense beer, but it’s hard to find such beer on cask here in the UK.

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  10. I think part of the differences between the UK and US is beer culture. The UK has a beer culture where the US doesn’t, it has a culture of prohibition. Overall the culture in the UK has not really evolved and a good session down the pub is still common. The US on the otherhand has behind closed doors perception to alcohol. Bars in NY have an underground feel and are usually in basements, people drink less of a stronger drink so they can get their drinking done quicker. Shots of spirits are popular rather than drinking them mixed. Drinking a couple of beers down the pub during your lunch hour just doesn’t happen in the US like it does in the UK.
    In Australia binge drinking is a problem that stems from the six o’clock swill (look it up) where prohibitionist attitudes ‘forced’ Australians to drink their swill rapidly before pubs closed.

    Anyway interesting article.

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    • As an American, I can assure you, we are working on forming a beer culture, though we are far behind that of the Europeans. Prohibition shaped our consumption for sure, and while sessions as described above may not be as prevalent, you cannot discredit the American microbrew scene in these terms. Its not an old culture, but its there.

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  11. Pingback: A New Notch in the Beer Market : Scalable Intimacy

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