How old is the term ‘session beer’?

Session beer: it’s an important plank in British pub culture, the 4 per cent abv or less drink that enables the British pub goer to down multiple pints during the evening without falling over. “Sessionable” is (rightly) a praiseworthy quality in a beer in Camra circles, and there are Americans dedicated to spreading the idea of the session beer in Leftpondia. But when did the term first come into use? As a style it may now be older, at least, than its first drinkers (what with them being dead), but as an expression it may only date back not much more than a couple of decades, to the days of Big Hair and leggings. Nor is it obvious exactly where the term comes from.

My personal recollection is that it wasn’t a term-of-art found in the earliest days of the Campaign for Real Ale, and it only sprang up as a way of describing beers that could be drunk for a whole “session” in the 1980s at the earliest. Indeed, the first uses I have found of the term both come from 1991, just 20 years ago, one in Britain, where someone in the magazine of the Institute of Practitioners in Work Study, Organisation, and Methods wrote:

A good tip is to pour it into a jug first, leaving the sediment in the bottle, thus enabling you to share the contents with your colleagues, which I would certainly commend, as this is definitely not a session beer

and one from the US, where Steve Johnson, in On Tap: The Guide to US Brewpubs, wrote:

Session beer: Any beer of moderate to low alcoholic strength

Now, I don’t believe for a femtosecond that those really ARE the earliest discoverable mentions of the term “session beer”, and I’m sure that somewhere in What’s Brewing or London Drinker or Tyke Taverner or some other Camra publication is a use of the term that predates 1991 by at least five years. (Update: earliest mention now 1982, albeit in a German context, and referring to 4.8 per cent abv beers, by Michael Jackson, and 1988 in a British context – see comments below. Earlier sightings still welcome …) I’m also sure there are readers of this blog who have stacks of back copies of Camra newsletters and pub guides that they can search for early mentions of “session beer”. I give you chaps (and chapesses, no sexism here, Denny) a challenge: supply a properly referenced and verifiably dated example, and there’s a good chance we can get the term “session beer” into the Oxford English Dictionary.

The history of “session beers” certainly predates the term by decades, though they are still, in the form celebrated today, a 20th century invention. The lightest table beers and family ales in the 19th century would have been 4.5 per cent alcohol or more, and “modern” light-but-tasty beer– that is, anything under about four per cent that still had flavour and drinkability – probably only began in the First World War and the government-imposed restrictions in Britain on beer strength, which lowering of strength stayed on after the war because of steeply regressive tax rates, which made beers of pre-war strength too expensive to sell.

The same wartime restrictions, unrepealed when hostilities ended, kept pub opening hours to two sessions, one at lunchtimes and one in the evening. Does “session beer” come from the idea that it’s a beer you can have right through one or other of these opening sessions? Strangely, the expressions “lunchtime session” and “evening session” only seem to appear a couple of decades or more after the Defence of the Realm Act 1915 brought the concepts into existence to try to cut alcohol consumption and keep munitions workers from spending all their wages down the pub. The earliest reference to “evening session” I have found is in, of all places, Samuel Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy, published in 1938 and set in London, when one of the characters is trying to find a place to dump some unwanted material (I won’t give the ending away by saying what that material is):

He was turning into the station, without having met any considerable receptacle for refuse, when a burst of music made him halt and turn. It was the pub across the way, opening for the evening session. The lights sprang up in the saloon, the doors burst open, the radio struck up. He crossed the street and stood on the threshold. The floor was palest ochre, the pin-tables shone like silver, the quoits board had a net, the stools the high rungs that he loved, the whiskey was in glass tanks, a slow cascando of pellucid yellows. A man brushed past him into the saloon, one of the millions that had been wanting a drink for the past two hours. Cooper followed slowly and sat down at the bar, for the first time in more than twenty years.

Lovely writing, and you don’t have to know what “cascando” means to understand what it means. (actually, it’s Italian, and means something like a jumble – it appears to be one of Becket’s favourite words, since he used it as the title of both a poem and a radio play. For what “the whiskey was in glass tanks” meant, see the picture of the bar here, where there’s a big glass container filled with whisky in the bar counter. Oh, and another snippet of social history – note that, this being the 1930s, the pub was playing the radio, not the television.)

“Lunchtime session” seems to turn up even later: I can’t find any use of the expression before 1956, when Nicholas Montsarrat uses it in his “African” novel The Tribe that Lost its Head, talking about the bar of the Gamate hotel in the made-up African country of Pharamaul, where “the usual lunchtime session was in progress – both men and women, some drinking determinedly, some passing the time without urgency, some munching their sandwiches.” Those were all white men and women, it may be necessary to remind readers who didn’t grow up in times when too much melanin in your skin could get you refused a drink even in an African country.

But does the phrase “session beer” derive from lunchtime session/evening session? Lew Bryson, the man behind the Session Beer Project in the US, says that he’s been told “over and over and over that it stems from the ‘sessions’ during which British pubs were open, and workmen would crowd in and drink as quickly as they could, which required lower ABV beer.” Lew is rightly sceptical: that makes the “session” sound like the Australasian “six o’clock swill”, from the days when bars in Australia and New Zealand shut at 6pm for the night.

It’s common to talk about having “a session down the pub” or “a session in the pub” with mates without that referring necessarily to being there all the time the place was open, and it seems to me more likely that this was the sort of “session” that lent its name to a “session beer”. And I don’t buy the idea of workmen having to drink their beer as quickly as they could – the British, of course, buy their drink in rounds, each person in the “round” taking it in turn to buy the group drinks, and they pace themselves as a group, so quick drinking is rude: it places an urgent obligation on someone to buy you your next drink when they may not be ready yet themselves for another one. Sessions, in any case, take place over several hours, that’s why you want a low-strength beer: not because you’re drinking lots in a short time but because you’re drinking (cumulatively) lots in a long time.

Lew also apparently has problems with prescriptivist Britons who argue that session beers must be 4 per cent abv or less, whereas he has set the barrier in his campaign in the US at 4.5 per cent, for the perfectly good reason that there are so few brews in the US made at below that strength, any lower level would leave too few beers to find a decent selection. He wondered why there seemed to be this fanaticism about the “nothing higher than 4 per cent” rule, and I suggested that it’s probably because 4 per cent (or 1040 OG, to be more accurate) is generally, if unofficially, regarded as the dividing line between “bitter” (or “ordinary bitter”) and “best bitter”, and “best bitter” is less likely to be seen as a session beer than “ordinary bitter”.

But there’s no cast-in-concrete rule about what strength a session beer should be – it’s much more about common sense. A session beer is one you can have a session with, a session is, surely (again there’s no dictionary definition of this) an event of at least three to four hours drinking beer, which, at the rate Britons drink beer (your mileage may vary) is going to be at least four to six Imperial pints, and a session beer is therefore one that is weak enough to allow you to drink that much beer and still be coherent at the end of the evening. What strength of beer enables you to drink at least six pints over an evening and remain steady on your feet must be a judgment call, and is likely to vary from drinker to drinker and evening to evening, but I’d agree that it’s unlikely to be over 4%. (Personally I’d set the bar at 3.8 per cent, which is the “classic” “ordinary bitter” strength, but that’s my opinion only.) However, there’s nothing that says you can’t have a session on, eg, draught London Pride (4.2 per cent, IIRC, and the Fuller’s “best bitter”, compared to the “ordinary” Chiswick Bitter). But I’d advise against having a session on ESB.

So – there’s no rule that says session beers HAVE to be 4 per cent or lower, merely personal prejudice/preference, any cut-off level at all over what constitutes/does not constitute a “session beer” is going to be arbitrary, though personally I would suck my teeth and shake my head at anyone who suggested a beer over 4.5 per cent was a “session” brew, and my own view is to regard beers of 3.8 per cent and below as “truly” sessionable – with the classic 3 per cent-3.2 per cent English milds as the “typical” session beers of the 1950s. (It’s a point little appreciated that the first mass-market lagers on sale in the UK, in the 1960s, were only around 3 per cent or 3.2 per cent, since brewers knew that if they had made them as strong as their Continental equivalents, the customers, who would have tried to drink as much lager as they once drank mild, would have needed dragging out of the gutters every night.)

This gets us no nearer to finding when the term “session beer” was invented, however. Over to you: let’s see your evidence.

34 thoughts on “How old is the term ‘session beer’?

  1. Well I can’t help in the positive sense, but the CAMRA Dictionary of Beer does not list “session” at all in its edition dated May 1983, despite having many obscure terms in it.
    Some time after that then.

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  2. Glad you took a look at this. I had thought about emailing you to ask if you would. I searched briefly and did not find anything older than 20 years or so using the term. I did find some mentions of “session bitter” as a brand or type of beer, which I thought may have started the use of the term, but who knows. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can comment on the existence of “session bitter”.

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    • Good thinking! A quick Google Books search brings up a reference to “session bitter” in Neil Hanson’s The Best Pubs of Great Britain, published 1989, and “session lager” in a 1989 copy of the International Journal of Advertising – although this refers back to 1988:

      “Just occasionally the industry lets its guard down and the 16-24-year-old marketing group is revealed as the true target audience. Holsten, for example, did just this during 1987. An advertising brief in Campaign during that period [sic] included the words ‘to be aimed at 16-35-year-old session lager drinkers’ (19 February 1988)”

      So we’re looking at some time between 1983 and 1988, apparently.

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  3. I have my copy of Mass Observations’ The Pub and the People (1943, based on observations of pubs in late 1930s Bolton) open and i’m leaving through it (no index you see) and …

    … well, i haven’t found mention of a session yet, though there is a section on time spent drinking, that may reveal more. There is talk of ‘swiggling’ and drinking gills rather than pints, and so on.

    I’d spend more time looking if I wasn’t preparing to host a three to four hour long British Beer tasting session this afternoon. Unfortunately all nine beers are +4% (in Australia sub 4% are called mid-strength, as opposed to light or heavy).

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  4. I’ve just been browsing through some editions of the Good Beer Guide from the late 70s and early 80s and don’t find “session” appearing in any of the beer descriptions. What is very noticeable is how few of the beers are over 1040 OG. So, if the bar is set at 4.0%, almost all of the beers around at the time would have been session beers and the use of the term may have been somewhat superfluous.

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  5. There is a very small but very vocal minority on American beer sites that insists on the 4% rule for session beers. The argument always seems to be “that’s history” but it would seem that this is not necessarily so. I’m with Lew Bryson on a rough 4.5% for American beers simply because sub-4% beers that I actually want to drink are pretty unheard of here. I wold kill to have a local beer comparable to cask Chiswick Bitter.

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  6. Session beers are a bit of a good news/bad news scenario in the US. The good news part is that Americans are used to and have been used to drinking session level beers, those falling between 4 and 4.5% ABV, for quite a while. The bad news is, and it’s pretty bad, those beers happen to be Coors Light, Bud Light and Miller Light. I’m pretty sure a good number of Americans have absolutely no problem doing 12 ounce curls in sets of five and six, nightly. It’s not the alcohol we have an issue with, it’s all that flavor.

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  7. To be more specific, in his 1982 Pocket Guide To Beer (the first edition) Michael Jackson referred to “everyday session beers” when describing the characteristics of (German) Helles beers. He stated their alcohol level was from 4.8% to a bit over 5%, a level that he felt encouraged consumption of multiple glasses. I am paraphrasing but the quoted words are verbatim from the text and clearly used to describe session beers as we know them today.

    This 1982 usage is the earliest I know of and I believe therefore Michael invented the term session beer.

    Gary

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    • Gary, I think you may have a winner there, excellent work, though I’m sensing that Michael may be using a term he’s picked up from brewers (or brewery marketing people?) However, this certainly appears to be the earliest use of the term inprint so far.

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      • Having now found my own copy of the 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer I’m amused to note that the earliest use of the term found so far refers to a beer produced in Munich with an abv of 4.8 per cent “which is typical of a US premium beer”.

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  8. You had me at Beckett.

    For what it’s worth, I think the concept is actually culturally specific. The idea of low alcohol beer for its own sake seems rare, and where low-alcohol beers are regularly brewed, their consumption doesn’t seem to be linked to the act of drinking in any particular way. Interestingly, and here I draw on the history I learned in Amber Gold and Black, the cultural aspect seems relatively recent and one preceded by events (the great gravity drop). There’s nothing that precludes sessions with larger beers, nor single pops with wee ones. The linkage is purely cultural.

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    • I don’t think I would agree with that. “Low” is subjective but as long as there have been other fermented beverages available, beer has almost always been the more moderate option. Whether or not that makes it a “session” beverage I guess is really an open question.

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  9. Martyn, thanks. In Michael’s New World Guide To Beer, published in the late 1990’s, when referring to certain beers of modest gravity, he stated they, “are what British brewers would term “session” beers. They are consumed by the half-liter…”.

    This supports your sense he may have picked up the term from brewers’ lingo. But also, he may have simply phrased the matter this way to give gravitas, authority, to his statement. Putting it differently, he may have regarded himself as “spokesman” for U.K. brewers, their interface with consumers – which in many ways he was at the height of his influence.

    It is difficult to say of course. Perhaps the term will pop up in a pre-1982 CAMRA or other text which has the imprint of brewers’ informal terminology.

    On whether high consumption of low gravity beers is something inherent or cultural, I think it’s a bit of both. I think most people drink by the effect it has on them, not by how many units they take in. Thus, one will stop after 3 or 5 drinks, etc., depending on the alcohol. This being so, weaker drinks are inherently likely to be taken in larger amounts because a very mild drink would not produce enough exhilarating effect for most purposes.

    But whether people will do this in any particular country depends also on their attitude to drink, work habits, leisure time, disposable income, and many other factors. Another factor, economic but part of the larger cultural picture, is whether brewers make more profit selling more drinks than less with the same alcohol content. It depends again on the country.

    Gary

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  10. “Session” is not a cultural concept exclusive to the Brits. The Czech’s love of lower ABV lager is certainly well documented, and in a pub culture where beers are replenished without asking, you could argue that Czech’s session culture is just as strong. Do they have a word for it? I have yet to uncover one. They have descriptions for lower ABV beer, but what about the activity?

    Could the lack of the term “session” in the UK before the 1980’s be explained because it was simply an expected behavior at the pub?

    And in the US, early 1900’s saloon drinking was done at a stand-up bars. The temperance movement believed chairs would encourage excessive drinking, and buying “round of drinks” would lead to lingering (anti-session league?). Also interesting, if not contradictory, the liquor trade took the side of the temperance movement because they felt turnover at the bar made more profits. This may have set the tone for the US’s get in and out mentality (check out “The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston 1880-1920).

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  11. ‘The history of “session beers” certainly predates the term by decades, though they are still, in the form celebrated today, a 20th century invention.’

    I think this statement was intended only in the context of British beer? Certainly in Belgium a tradition of beers (far) below 4% predates the 20th century and its conflicts, and still hangs on even though almost all saison and “Speciale Belge” type beers are of higher gravity.

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    • Well, Britain had weak table beers and harvest ales (for drinking in the field while harvesting was going on) for hundreds of years – millennia, even – but these weren’t drunk in the sense of a “session”.

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      • I’ll take your word for the British side, but in Belgium I think it’s fair to say weak (say <4% ABV) beers were indeed drunk in the sense of a session. Consider:

        "In 1908, for example, the beers sold in more than half of the bars in Wallonia did not attain 2 [Belgian] degrees." ("Belgium by Beer, Beer by Belgium" by Charles Fontaine and Annie Porrier-Robert).

        The authors also provide a table of average gravity for Belgian beer over the years; it's less than 4 degrees Belgian from 1900-1956.

        (I'm sure you know this already, but anyway I'll note that 1 degree Belgian is roughly 2.5 degrees Balling/Plato or roughly 10 specific gravity "points," giving roughly 1% ABV after fermentation.)

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  12. Right, small beer and table beer (something very similar is still available in northern France and Belgium, “la biere de table”) were not session beers. They were refreshers for field or mealtime.

    And so, what were the sessionable beers in the 1800’s in England? We know what they were in Germany: lagers under 5% ABV (often between 3 and 4%), and stories have come down of lengthy beer bouts, initially in universities and the later the soldiery and elsewhere, of using such beers for mass satiation.

    I would say porter provided that office in England – not strong porter or stout – since it was around 5% ABV and often somewhat under. The lighter bitters, AK and that sort, probably provided similar.

    Mild and Old Ale, as Ron has shown us, was stronger, often half as much again – so no sessions there. Short ones maybe (which are not sessions).

    The rest seems as strong or even more so, notably Scotch and Burton, so tending away again from sessionablity.

    So I’d guess the sessionable beers in England in the later 1800’s at any rate were AK-type bitter, and porter ,but not mild ale.

    Gary

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  13. The table beers I was referring to would be similar to this one by Haacht:

    http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/carrefour-biere-de-table-tafelbier/114647/

    This is only 1.15% ABV, consistent with English table beer of history (which seems to have died away in the later 1800’s). These would essentially be taken with meals, even, in the old days, by kids according to Michael Jackson in the World Guide to Beer. These could not be used as a session beer IMO. However, I’ve seen some modern table beers with alcohol of 3.5% and these would resemble in that regard some milds in England. It’s hard to say what would have been used for sessions, perhaps anything over 3% might quality, perhaps anything at 2% but that’s a lot of liquid for even a couple of standard-strength drinks. Maybe too they were taken with “jenever” in the Belgian bars and those in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

    Gary

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  14. Pingback: Due session beers, a modo mio | inbirrerya

  15. Pingback: Session Beer – an amalgamation of years and years of thoughts | dingsbeerblog.com

  16. Line, Dave. “Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy”, 1978. On page 96.
    King & Barnes Horsham
    PA Bitter
    “Good light bodied bitter with an excellent hop flavour. Sensible gravity for a drinking session because it is a beer you want to stay with.”
    Sounds like he knows what is meant by a session beer. OG is given at 1035.

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  17. Pingback: 10 of the Best Session Beers | Horsham Beer Scene

  18. Pingback: Jedzenie o rodowodzie, którego się nie spodziewasz - TakieTe.pl

  19. Pingback: Dave The Owner's Blog » Blog Archive » Session Beer Is In…Session

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