The flowers have started to bloom, love is in the air, and the big boozy beers you enjoyed so much in the cold of winter have started to seem slightly less appealing. 10% ABV barleywines and imperial stouts are getting shoved to the back of your fridge, and your tastebuds yearn for the impending spring and summer seasonals that have just begun to line the shelves at your local bottle shop. Enter the session beer.
The yin to the yang of their big bold brethren, session beers are built around the idea of drinkability. That's about the only part of the style's definition the beer community can agree on. The quantitative guidelines for what qualifies as a true session beer are hotly contested. The pedantic poindexters can fight their fight while we stick to the following interpretation: session beers are lower-intensity ales, lagers, or in-betweens weighing in at 5% ABV or less.
Barstool history suggests that the term "session beer" hails from a time when British drinkers were restricted to just two sets of opening hours at the pub: one at lunchtime, and one in the evening. Lower alcohol beers became the preference to keep drinkers' wits about them during what was inevitably a mad dash to suck down as much beer as possible during those limited timeframes.
Nowadays, amidst the current American craft beer boom, drinkers have come to appreciate flavorful session beers even without wartime restrictions. Similarly embraced by brewers, lower-alcohol craft beer is having a renaissance, and hoppier examples are leading the charge.
We've picked three recently released examples that we think you'll love:
Mikkeller Dream Pils
Only recently available in the US, Mikkeller's Dream Pils is a pilsner for hopheads and lager lovers alike. The lager equivalent of a West coast IPA, this beer has minimal dry malt character with a booming hop presence. The brewer recommends drinking this one straight from the bottle on a hot summer day, and at just 4.6% ABV, you can have one with your gardening and lawn mowing and still be comfortable swigging another as you throw some burgers on the grill. A far cry from traditional German or Czech examples, the big, resinous, citrusy aroma of American hops on this pilsner is worth seeking out.
21st Amendment Bitter American
21st Amendment's Bitter American is not a new beer, having previously existed as a Summer seasonal, but the San Francisco-based brewery recently released this tasty, 4.4% ABV extra pale ale as a year-round offering in six-packs of twelve-ounce cans. Unlike the Dream Pils, malt drives the scent of this beer. Bready aromas from the classic British Golden Promise malt are accentuated by earthy, citrusy hops. Medium-bodied with a pervasive bitterness, this is a unique and delicious ale.
New Belgium Shift Pale Lager
At 29 IBU, New Belgium's brand new Shift Pale Lager is the least hoppy of the bunch. Named for the "shift beer" the brewery's employees are entitled to at the end of their workday, Shift is meant to embody the satisfaction of a job well done. Flavorful and smooth, don't let the "pale lager" nomenclature mislead you: these ain't your grandpa's suds. An aroma of sweet, grainy malt and fruity, resinous hops lead into to a mouthful of flavorful lager. Balanced, refreshing, and flavored with the New Zealand's en vogue Nelson Sauvin hop, Shift will appeal to the seasoned beer geek and Coors Light convert alike. Available in sixteen-ounce cans, they are perfect for late-spring hikes or beach picnics. And yes, the cans do fit perfectly in your bike's water bottle holder.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone and Co-Director of Beer at the Monk's Kettle and forthcoming Abbot's Cellar restaurants in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.