In defence of session ales

Vancouver Island Brewing recently relaunched their entire product line with sessionable beers clocking in at under 5% ABV. Meghan Kirkpatrick photo

Vancouver Island Brewing recently relaunched their entire product line with sessionable beers clocking in at under 5% ABV. Meghan Kirkpatrick photo

This might come as a shocker, but I, your humble beer writer, enjoy drinking beer. Unfortunately, that can be a problem. When a large part of your job involves drinking beer – like, a lot of beer – it’s all-too-easy for a modest “beer tasting” to slip into a “debaucherous piss-up,” if you’re not careful.

At a recent beer competition I was judging, I sampled 78 different beers over the course of the day. Despite fistfuls of saltines and gallons of tapwater, the next day was a complete write-off. Occupational hazard. I’m not complaining, I swear.

But I’m a dad now, so I have responsibilities. I have things to do and I can’t afford to be hungover. Changing a shit-filled diaper on a tiny screaming human at 3am is not a lot of fun at the best of times, but, with a hangover, it’s literally the worst thing imaginable.

So Belgian tripels, imperial IPAs and anything with a double-digit ABV are pretty much out. I like beer, I want to drink more of it, so often I find myself looking for beer with lower alcohol content.

Apparently, I’m not the only one, because the craft beer industry is increasingly offering more low-ABV beers. Session ales, as they are called, offer all the flavour and character of their higher ABV brethren, but with alcoholic content in the 3.5-4.5% range, allowing them to be sampled in large quantities without the risk of ruining your entire weekend.

Four Winds recently released its Notus Series, which includes a saison, a lager and an IPA that each clock in at 4.5% ABV. Vancouver Island Brewing recently relaunched its entire brand with beers that come in at under 5% ABV. Talisman – Strange Fellows Brewing’s top selling pale ale – originally started out at 3.8% ABV (but has since crept up to 4%).

When I asked Brent Mills, brewmaster and co-founder of Four Winds, about session ales, he told me something I don’t generally hear from a lot of brewers.

“I wish beer didn’t have any alcohol in it,” he said. “That way I could keep drinking it.”

The problem, he continued, is that de-alcoholized beer tastes, for the most part, terrible.

Of course, we here in North America are a little late to the game on this. The English figured this out ages ago, realizing that if they could keep their beer under 4% ABV and tone down the carbonation so as not to upset the stomach, then geezers could park their arses at the pub all night long without getting obliterated and still make it to work the next day. (There’s a direct correlation to the rise of hooliganism and the popularity of lager in the UK. Just sayin’.)

In Australia, mid-strength beers – with an ABV in the 2.5-3.5% range – are a popular alternative to their fizzy full-strength lagers. Sometimes you just want to have a few beers and not get drunk. Imagine that.

Until recently, the concept of session ales has been largely foreign in our corner of the world. For decades, beer came in three ABV ranges. Mass market macro lagers were between 4.5-5.5%, while strong beers were 5.5-7%, and if you wanted something lighter, all you had was watery “light” beers that were always 4%, but never below. The only thing light about them was their colour. And their flavour. And I guess their caloric content.

Beer was seen as a means to an end. It wasn’t meant to be enjoyed on its merits; it was made to get you drunk, and be somewhat palatable in the process (or not).

Moderate, responsible consumption of alcohol is somewhat of a new concept in our culture (have you been to Granville Street on a Saturday night?). Thankfully, the emergence of craft beer has changed the way people approach beer and how they drink it. Beer is no longer consumed for the sole purpose of getting hammered. Far from it; some craft beer fans I’ve talked to consider drunkenness to be an annoying side effect of their hobby they would rather do without.

Sheryl Crow might like a good beer buzz early in the morning, but some of us have shit to do.