We San Franciscans like our craft beers big and bold: High in alcohol, aged in oak, wild and sour, and enough piney west coast hops to strip the enamel from the teeth of lesser beings. But during the long days of summer, it can be challenging to down three or four IPAs in an afternoon and then pop up from the picnic spread to play Frisbee. What we need in the summer are “session beers.”
The story is that session beers were mandated for the British munitions workers during WWI. There were two periods of beer service allowed per day, during lunch and after work. Session beers had an alcohol level low enough to enable a worker to pound a couple pints at lunch and still finish the day safely. While today’s beer geeks argue about whether a true session beer is 4 or 5 percent, the point is to choose brews that are flavorful and refreshing but have a low enough alcohol level so you won’t need an afternoon nap after enjoying a few. Especially during the drive home.
Many craft brewers have been reluctant to produce session beers till now because while they cost nearly as much to deliver as the bigger beers, we consumers don’t want to pay the same amount for something with less alcohol and perhaps less flavor.
But more brewers are expanding their offerings to include a session beer. Some are making lower-alcohol versions of their flagship brews and others are reviving nearly extinct styles of low ABV beer. What follows is a six-pack of session beers but feel free to add your own preferences in the comments:
- 21st Amendment Bitter American – Exceptionally clean and crisp, this Extra Pale Ale balances Simpson’s Golden Promise, a biscuity British heirloom malt, with the floral notes of Simcoe and Centennial hops. The beer comes in at 42 IBUs and 4.4 % ABV.
- Drake’s Brewing Alpha Session - Drakes refers to this as their “NorCal Bitter,” in part from the loads of west coast hops they use for both bittering and aromatics. The hops pump the bitterness to IPA level (50 IBUs) but the alcohol level is a mere 3.8% so you hopheads can enjoy several of these during a warm afternoon. Note this is still a seasonal offering though, so buy it while you can.
- Jester King Le Petit Prince – Austin Texas’ Jester King uses Noble hops, a mix of malts and a farmhouse yeast to craft this hazy Northern European table beer. Belgian farmers and other rural folk would enjoy their tafelbieren at any time of the day or night. At 2.9% ABV, you can use it as an anytime lemony summertime refresher as well.
- New Belgium Shift Pale Ale – At 5% ABV, this lightly hopped lager arguably pushes the envelope of what’s considered a session beer, but that just gives you something to discuss while you and a friend split a four-pack.
- The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse – Napoleon once referred to the Berliner Weisse style beer as the Champagne of the north and in the 19th century there were almost seven hundred breweries in Berlin making it. The Bruery’s take on this nearly forgotten wheat style uses lactobacillus and a touch of Brettanomyces to sour the beer. At only 3.1% alcohol you can marvel at the flavor all day.
- Trumer Pils – Pilsners are at their best when fresh, so we are fortunate to have Trumer brewing just across the bay. The Berkeley brewer is the sister to the original 400 year-old Trumer Brauerei in Salzburg, Austria. Both breweries received silver medals in the ‘Best Pilsner’ category at this year’s Annual Australian International Beer Awards, which is especially noteworthy since no gold medals were awarded. We quite literally have one of the finest and freshest Pilsners in the world at our fingertips.