Football season is a great opportunity to make a few changes in your regular craft beer lineup. For most of the year I keep a few sixers of big-personality crafts like Blind Pig IPA or Vanilla Bean Aged Dark Lord in rotation.
But aggressive flavor is only good for a bottle two. For an NFL playoff party or afternoon of couch coaching, you need something reliable enough to will take you from the pre-game show to the post game conference: a session beer. Defined by their low ABV and drinkability, not by any particular style, session beers are perfect for the long-haul drinking that helps make football season my favorite time of year.
A Little Bit of History
The history of session beer goes back to the early 20th century. When World War I first broke out, England had to quickly manufacture an unprecedented number of armaments. About a month into the conflict, they realized they’d need a sober work force to do it. So Parliament passed the Defense of the Realm Act which restricted pub opening hours to two sessions: from noon to 2:40pm and 6:30pm to 9:30pm.
English workers still managed to fit upwards of 8 20oz. pints per session. So — presumably to cut down on the alarming number of binge-drinking related accidents — pub owners did their part for national security and began stocking each session with low ABV beers with balanced, subtle flavors. And session beers were born. Workers could pound them back and stay just sober enough to work.
How to Choose a Session Beer
The most important aspect of a good session beer is drinkability: the mild, well-balanced flavors that are the hallmark of the macro breweries. Negra Modelo, Newcastle Brown Ale, Heineken, Red Stripe and Pilsner Urquell — Sapporo, Asahi or TsingTao if you’re feeling exotic – may be mass produced but they have the subtle flavor that you can drink all afternoon.
Looking for a session craft beer requires a little more leg work. Since craft brewers first broke into the marketplace in the early eighties, they’ve focused on big, complex, memorable flavors that set them apart from their macro-brewing counterparts. Consequently, there are fewer craft session beers in the market.
To find a good session craft beer, look for Bitter English, pale and nut brown ales, pilsners, wheat beers and lagers. Skip over brews with provocative names like Hopgasm or Mephaddict the flavors will be just as aggressive. Instead, look for words like “heirloom” or “traditional”. This means the brewers stuck to the original flavors that made that style great.
My Top Three Favorite Craft Session Beers:
- Full Sail Session Lager, 5.1 percent ABV: Sometimes they’ll identify it as a session beer right on the can. With this beer Full Sail resurrected a pre-prohibition era, classic American session beer. It’s a crisp, gold lager with toasted malt notes balanced by a bitter finish that gives it high drinkability.
- Avery Joe’s Premium American Pilsner, 4.7 percent ABV: Avery Brewing Co. has made its mark with big flavor profiles and crazy names like White Rascal and Out of Bounds Stout. But this year, they showed their brewing prowess to the world by releasing a crisp, grassy pilsner made for an afternoon on the couch.
- Captain Lawrence’s Sun Block Witte, 4.5 percent ABV: Wheat beer is not my favorite style, but Sun Block Witte grows on you. It’s light and crisp with lots of yeast and summer fruit flavor. And it goes down like liquid gold with a bite of hops at the end. You’ll be grateful for the low ABV when you’ve polished of a sixer.
The Final Word
A really great session beer is practically engineered to keep you going back for more. And when the football party’s at your house because you’ve got the good beer, you learn to limit your ABVs the hard way. The Brewer’s Association defines a session beer as having an ABV between 4 and 5.1 percent. Staying within those limits means my cousin Big Bobby keeps his shirt on when he does his touchdown dance. Six percent and I have to watch him eat spilled Doritos out of his chest hair for the rest of the afternoon.
Whichever session beer you choose, it will help turn an afternoon of football into a party. Try out a couple of good candidates and then stock up on a winner. Remember to limit your ABVs and everyone will be sober enough to drive home and you can take that post-game nap you’ve been eyeing all afternoon.