In the minds of the uninitiated public, modern craft beer tends to be synonymous with lofty ABVs. I’m sure this is probably to do with all the press generated by beers like BrewDog’s Tokyo*, an 18.2% stout or even their End of History coming in at 55% (at one time the world’s strongest beer). While it’s true that the craft beer world features some really boozy delights, and indeed some of the best ones are 7% and up, there’s a lot to be said about low-ABV “session” ales that are becoming more and more popular. It seems like pretty much every craft brewery is now releasing at least one beer in the 3-5% range to fit this purpose.
As someone who enjoys a session I welcome these beers with open arms. Recently I went to an all day BBQ and took six bottles of BrewDog’s Dead Pony Club (3.8%) and drank them over the course of about 7 hours and at the end of the evening I was still sharp as a tack. I thought this was great, especially when I compared it to a night in one of BrewDog’s bars I had recently where my session went something like Magic Rock Cannonball (7.4%), Stone Ruination (8.2%), Evil Twin Yang (10%), Clown Shoes Galactica (8%) and BrewDog Jack Hammer (7.2%). While I enjoyed all those beers, and the night out, I could barely stand up straight and I felt like I’d been hit by a train the next day. Now I’m over 30, hangovers are fucking brutal. Session ales to the rescue.
It’s not as easy as making a beer with a low ABV, though. Typically a low ABV means use of less malt which means less sugar for the yeast to convert into alcohol. A trade off in this respect is a loss of flavour and loss of body. It’s all well and good having a session on beers that won’t get you black-out drunk but if they taste like crap then you’re gonna have a bad time. So you think, okay, hops! Add loads of hops and you’ll make up for the lack of flavour, and a lot of breweries are doing this and doing it well. BrewDog’s Dead Pony Club strikes a great balance in this regard giving you buckets of punchy citrus hop character without blotting out everything else. They’ve cleverly used darker malts than you’d find on a regular pale ale to get more bang for your buck in the malt flavour department as well. Hopping the shit out of the beer is a tricky thing though and it can be done wrong. Flying Dog’s Easy IPA (4.7%) is an example of this. That beer has almost no malt character and blows your face off with super-dry hop flavour that leaves your mouth feeling like a bucket of sand after two bottles. While I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard on good authority that Stone’s Go-To IPA (4.7%) suffers this same fate.
Something that all session ales suffer with, though is a lack of body. Higher alcohol gives the beer a presence and a mouthfeel that you just don’t find in session ales. They tend to be thin and the flavours don’t linger on the palette like you’d hope. There is probably something to be said about adding things to the beer to try to eliminate this. The addition of fruit or even oats to give a creaminess would probably help but for purists like me that kind of thing probably won’t go over all too well. It’s pretty much something that goes with the territory.
So all in all, I love the idea of session ales but I haven’t tried all that many that blow me away. As the trend develops and breweries try new things I’m excited to see how that changes. I’ll leave you with my top three best session ales so you can at least have the best of what is available.
3. Stone Levitation (4.4%) – Deliciously fruity amber ale that has a nice acidity which is reminiscent of Cherry Coke.
2. Founders All Day IPA (4.7%) – No nonsense American IPA flavour profile with a refreshing bitterness and brisk carbonation.
1. BrewDog Dead Pony Club (3.8%) – Grapefruit hop bomb with an uncompromising west coast bitterness.
So yeah, go out and have a session on these beers and have your hop craving satisfied without the next day (or in my case two days) being ruined by a crippling hangover.