The Difficulty of Definitions

Some want to define “session beer” as 4.5% alcohol or less. Others say that’s too high and it should be 4% alcohol or less. Yet others suggest that 5.5% is okay.

Me, I say that everything is relative.

I’ve written before that a “session beer” is, or at least should be, a beer you can drink over the course of a “session,’ that being a specific amount of time enjoyed with friends or family or strangers at a bar or pub or cafe. I’ve written about drinking strong beers and never getting drunk in Belgium, because I’ve been sipping at leisure, often with food, and also about “sessions” with low alcohol best bitters in the United Kingdom. Both, I think, are relevant.

But this post at Boak & Bailey reminded me of another occasion when “session” had a very different meaning, which led me to subsequently recall a separate and also very different instance with a most dissimilar result. These are the stories.

I flew into New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. Yes, THAT September 11. Mine was one of the last planes to land at LaGuardia. I watched from the Long Island Expressway as the second tower fell. I eventually made my way to my hotel near Times Square, deposited my things and went out to drink. Heavily.

Although beer and whiskey were like water to me that night, my sobriety persisted no matter what I drank. It was the shock, you see, and like pretty much everyone I met that night, no matter how much we tried, drinking would not let us forget. A 12% Imperial stout would have been a “session beer” that night.

Forward to March, 2009, in Seattle. I was in town with my wife, Maggie, to judge at Brouwer’s Cafe’s 7th annual Hard Liver Barley Wine Festival. My wife who, a couple of month earlier, had nearly been killed (and was left injured) in an accident, and who subsequently had undergone unrelated surgery. I had filled many roles during the early weeks of that year – caregiver, provider, counsel – and I was stressed out to the max.

We sipped a bunch of barley wines, not an intemperate amount, and declared winners, adjourning after to socialize over a couple of beers. And I got drunk. Not just because of the alcohol, which really wasn’t that much, but because I was wound up tight as the proverbial drum.

Those are extreme instances, I admit, but ones nonetheless that I see as representative of the extremes of daily life. Sometimes we will be free and easy and the 6.1% alcohol IPA will flow down our throats to little effect, and at other times two pints of 4% bitter will have us feeling uncomfortably buzzed thanks to the stress of the week.

Session Beer: It’s not so easily defined.

19 Replies to “The Difficulty of Definitions”

  1. My definition of session beer is the same as summer barbecue beer. A beer ou can enjoy for several (4 to 5) hours during a summer afternoon barbecue with friends and family. Light and refreshing with pleanty of taste and aroma. One you can drink for 4 to 5 hours without restraining yourself and without getting drunk.

  2. Relativity and the liver have their limits. Obviously those limits vary from person to person, but nobody is excused from them. Lew’s 4.5% is not a “definition” but rather a guideline — IMO it’s a useful one to separate lower-abv beers from mainstream craft beers. Slowly sipping Duvels or imperial stouts can make for a fine day or evening doesn’t constitute a session. In my view the joy and the point here is to open up the gullet and drink, in quantity, with a certain amount of thirsty abandon and yet still hold cogent conversation.

    1. To paraphrase MFK Fisher, a drinking session should be approached with the right mixture of abandon and restraint. To which I would add that said mix is a fluid equation, depending on the strength of the beers being enjoyed.

  3. Joe, this is Lew’s description for session beer from his site:

    >► 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
    ► flavorful enough to be interesting
    ► balanced enough for multiple pints
    ► conducive to conversation
    ► reasonably priced

    If that seems vague…it is. Here’s another definition: low-alcohol, but not low-taste. It’s subjective. Live with it, and enjoy it. <

    Vague indeed. The first–and only concrete–term is the ABV. Everything else is, as Lew says, subjective. I would argue strongly, over whatever strength beer is available at the time, that the single objective component of such a description is something a lot stronger than a mere guideline.

    Also, when Lew then offers "another definition" that presumes that the first effort was a "definition," no?

    "Quantity" and "thirsty abandon" move us into parameters which are even more "vague" that "flavorful" or "interesting" and, truth to tell, seem a bit over the top for the purposes of deciding what a "session beer" is, not to mention moving the whole concept deeper into purely subjective evaluations.

    I think Stephen's "I'll decide" approach acknowledges the subjective nature of the whole issue in a most logical fashion and precludes all the controversy which it inspires.

    1. Hi Jack, Lew has repeatedly said that his proposed 4.5% guideline is more like a speed limit… You need a number so that you don’t have too many assholes trying to go 100 mph in a 60. But if you go 70 are you going to get pulled over? Unlikely.

      One might session a 5%-strength beer, but the world is awash with 5% lager in 12 oz portions. The point here is to ask for something different. The difference between 4% and 5% is not 1%… It’s 25%, and our bodies know it well. That’s a useful 25%. It can be applied to drinking 25% more, drinking 25% faster, drinking from a glass that is 25% bigger, keeping 25% more of your wits, or feeling 25% better the next day.

      The numbers are flexible but they are not insignificant.

  4. If you drink an 8% ABV beer and then (as many do) a full glass of water, and then another one, and a full glass of water, isn’t that really the same as drinking four glasses of 4% beer with no water in between (you don’t need it)? Or more or less the same…?

    Point taken, Steve, about the psychological effect of alcohol when consumed under different circumstances. Its effect on the body (physically in terms of dehydration and so forth) is the same but how one apprehends its effects seems to vary with the occasion and indeed sometimes with the drink. I have a friend who firmly believes absinthe has a different effect than other drinks. Maybe he’s right, I’ve never taken enough in to know, I just use it in Sazeracs and sometimes in Imperial Stout.


  5. It’s implied in my note above, but worth adding I think that if you sip the 8% beer and then take a sip of water (same amount) right after, and do the same for each sip of beer, the analogy to drinking 4% beer seems even closer. Many people I know do this (I do not actually, but get to the water later at some point :)).


  6. I’m continually amazed at the need to assign everything a number. I guess it simplifies everything for simple folks, or at least makes it simple for folks who’s minds are so stressed out over their ‘real’ lives that they don’t feel they have the time to delve too deep into the world of beer to get the necessary info for a truly informed decision. I’ve noticed where these ‘numbers’ just seem to get in the way of just enjoying a really nice beer. What is a ‘microbrewery’ now ‘craft brewery’ 10k,40k,80k, barrels, now 2 million etc, etc. I would like to posit that ‘Craft’ is a mindset just like ‘Session’ it’s all relative, it’s all contextual. If you are hung up on the number whether it’s 4% or 4.5% or even 6% I just want to scream ‘style nazi’. Styles have a purpose, for competitions or as a short-hand for consumers to let them know a general idea of what they’re getting into. As for ‘session’ I’ve been listening to brewers from the east coast bleating about how the pendulum is going to swing back to session beers, I would tend to agree on that however folks aren’t going to go back to ‘middle of the road’ session beers, they will still want the full flavors (for their respective styles) but at a relatively lower alcohol level. Heck Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is a wonderful session Imperial IPA at 8%.
    Session is relative. In the UK folks would look at our ‘normal’ alcohol levels of 5-6% abv beers as WAY out of range for a session beers, where as here it’s normal (no desire to question man/woman-liness just about planning the evening) here in the US, it’s the regular content, our ‘session’. during the ‘Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival’ in Vail every year I’m just craving a nice, reasonable, 7% IPA as a palate cleanser, wind-it-down beer at 8200ft above sea level. But a nice Avery Joe’s Pils in the hot tub is beyond compare…what I guess I’m tryin to get at is, put you’re pens/smartphones down for a bit and spend some time just enjoying the magic in the beer in front of you. Stop analyzing the beer, renew the appreciation of the melding of art and science that is beer. Take a few moments to stop and smell the #beer

  7. The alcohol thing is indeed very relative. Last year at Annafest in Franconia all beers were Märzen strength, all were served in 1l measures and I had no problem with putting down 5 or 6 of those and then getting to my room unassisted.

    On the other hand, I believe that if I drank the same amount of a similar beer here in Prague on, say, a Tuesday afternoon, I might end up having problems getting out of the pub unassisted…

  8. Stephen, if you believe there is any connection between the two apocryphal events you described and session drinking, then, I am sorry to say, you seem to have a misunderstanding of what session drinking is in the country which invented the concept.

    1. Exactly which part of “Those are extreme instances, I’ll admit” didn’t you understand, Mike.

      1. Stephen, if I over-reacted, my apologies to you. But, having said that, I still fail to understand what “extreme instances” have to do with session drinking. With drinking in general, yes, but how, in a discussion of session beers, are they relevant?

        1. Mike, please reread the last paragraph. My illustration was a magnification of the stresses that affect each of us in our daily lives, sometimes causing us to feel the alcohol more acutely and sometimes making us something closer to impervious to its effects. BAC can be measured, which is why drinking drivers are targeted more often than, say, phoning drivers or sleepy drivers. The psychological effects that have bearing on how that BAC impacts upon our personality are less easily defined.

  9. Stephen, if you look at what you wrote just above, as well as in the last paragraph, you can clearly see my point: what does any of this have to do with session beer/drinking?

    Since you concluded by writing: “Session Beer: It’s not so easily defined.”
    it seems to me that you are trying to say there is a connection.

    What I think you are misunderstanding is that sessions (when you drink session beer) is a pretty specific activity: going down the pub and chatting with your mates. You don’t do this after your wife has had a near death experience or there has been a terrorist attack.

    Nor do you try to employ “tricks” to drink stronger beer – such as ordering a Duvel and taking small sips the entire evening or mixing your beers with glasses of water. Why? Because the beer you can get is already full of flavour and quite satisfying.

    Although session beers and drinking are fairly common in the UK, a similar activity is also practiced in southern Germany. There the beers are often a little stronger and the serving sizes larger, but, unlike the UK, drinking is often accompanied by eating. Although it may be similar, Germans don’t call it session drinking or session beers.

    If you had been writing about drinking in general, then, yes, it would have made more sense.

    1. My point, which I thought was fairly apparent, Mike, is that alcohol affects different people in different ways under different circumstances. To employ your definition of a session, for instance, my “mate” who happens to be a 110 lb neophyte drinker under extreme job stress will react differently to pints of 4% alcohol bitter than will my other “mate” who is a happy-go-lucky and 220 lb pub regular. Thus, suggesting that the same specific alcohol content is applicable under all conditions and for all people is silly.

      Guideline, yes. Strict definition, no.

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