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Going Overboard on Session Beer?

beer101logoEarlier this summer in a couple of my columns I mused about the expanded use of the term “session” and whether it really was appropriate. You can read the Beer 101 column here or, if you prefer the Planet S/Prairie Dog version here.

Session ale, of course, has a long and valid history. Some reports (although the history is somewhat murky) suggest that the term arose in Britain in WWI when pubs were restricted to two 4-hour windows of operation, called “sessions”, and patrons opted for beer that could be easily consumed during those windows without creating unreasonable intoxication. As a result, the beer tended to be lower in alcohol (which may have also been a consequence of wartime rationing).

Today the term applies to a range of beer styles, generally at 4% alcohol or lower with a fairly moderate flavour profile – although there is no firm rule around this. So far so good. Everyone kind of gets this concept. Lower alcohol beer with more subtle tastes would be well suited for a “session” where one might have a couple pints and doesn’t want to either get too drunk or overwhelm the palate. A range of styles might be seen as appropriate for the moniker.

In recent years, however, the generic use of the term session beer has morphed into a modifier for existing styles. Session IPA (or India Session Ale), Session Stout, Session Pilsner, etc. It is here where the grumpy old man in me surfaces. The intention is to communicate that the beer possesses the key characteristics of the style in question, but just toned down and smaller.

The crux of my grousing is that often these session-ized versions of existing styles bend the style guideline so much as to cross over into a whole new style, or become unrecognizable as the original style.

The most popular version is, of course India Session Ale – a name I have beaked off about before. My problem is not with the beer, which can be quite enjoyable, but with the name. Is it really an IPA anymore if it is lower in alcohol and lighter in its flavour profile? I argue it isn’t. I could claim that it more reasonably belongs as a Pale Ale or a British Golden Ale or even on the hoppier end of Blonde Ale.

sessionaleMy point is made more poignant by the fact that last fall at the Northern Lands Wine and Culinary Festival Phillip’s Brewing walked away with the Best of Show in the beer competition with their Bottle Rocket ISA (full disclosure: I was one of the judges). The issue? They entered it as an American Pale Ale. And as a pale ale it scored very well, in particular for its fruity hop character. So, if it is supposed to be a sessionized IPA, why not enter it as an IPA? Because the smart people at Phillip’s knew it would be dinged for being out of style and felt that pale ale was a more appropriate category.

So why call it a Session IPA at all then? In short, marketing. I understand the importance of marketing in the beer industry. But I get irked when marketing trumps accuracy. And while calling something a Session IPA isn’t strictly misleading, it starts to wander close to the line.

I have similar issues with other types of sessionized styles. A session brown is a dark mild. A session pilsner is merely a leichtbier and a session stout is likely closer to a porter. If we were aiming for stylistic accuracy, the term session would never be applied to these styles. But marketing wins out because those styles are more familiar to consumers and thus easier to communicate what the brewer is going for.

I understand it, and reluctantly acknowledge why it occurs. But I think it is starting to go a bit overboard. And doesn’t that seem ironic? Going overboard on a beer that is supposed to be moderate by design.

My moderate proposal is that we go back to using the term session to apply to a generic category of drinkable beer than to specific styles. I suspect, however, that will be met by silence by the industry.

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