“…..spending four days on the tarmac at Luton airport on a five-day package tour with nothing to eat but dried Watney’s sandwiches and you can’t even get a drink of Watney’s Red Barrel because you’re still in England and the bloody bar closes every time you’re thirsty and there’s nowhere to sleep and the kids are crying and vomiting and breaking the plastic ash-trays…..”
– Monty Python, Travel Agent Sketch
Ah, the not-so-glory days of archaic British liquor laws driving both the locals and tourists crazy. The now defunct legislation restricted pub opening times to two daily “sessions”, from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, and from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm. Evidently, this would allow patrons to drink several of the low-alcohol English ales and still manage to get back to work – or maybe get home without stumbling into the local constabulary. Whatever the reason, these beers became known as session beers, and even though they have been around for hundreds of years, only recently have they become the “new” darling of the craft brewing industry.
Technically, any low-alcohol beer can be called “sessionable”. There is no one style or set definition for this beer group. However, there is a general consensus that these beers stay below 5% ABV, with some even lower than 4% ABV, yet still have enough of a malt/hop balance to provide a nice flavour industryexperience without the higher alcohol of regular IPAs and their ilk. In a classic case of “what is old is new again,” craft breweries began brewing session beers in the last year or so. Many are low-alcohol IPAs, called India Session Ales (ISAs) or session IPAs, and some are resurrections of the classic English styles.
Now, what these beers aren’t called, are “light” beers. These creations of the 1970s and 1980s took the standard American lager and lowered its alcohol and calories (and some say, its flavour) to make some of the beer world’s biggest sellers.
Because the “Big Breweries” basically own this style, craft breweries have long eschewed it, often going in the opposite direction. While it’s all well and good to crank the beer volume to 11, man cannot live by high alcohol alone, so the pendulum has now swung back the other way.
The subtlety of a well-made, low-alcohol beer that doesn’t taste watered down, yet has the hop spiciness or the malt backbone of its established European cousins, proved to be a challenge the craft brewer couldn’t resist.
There are many ways to create great-tasting low-alcohol beers. Obviously, using special yeasts that produce lower alcohol brews is one. Another method is by dry hopping. This process involves adding hops very late to the boil, or even after the wort has cooled. That way, you get much of the hop flavour and aroma, with little of the bitterness. It is often said anybody can brew a “Big Alcoholic Hop Monster.” It takes skill and technique to make a refined, understated, yet flavourful brew.
Every month, more session beers of all styles are hitting our market. If you like a beer with some flavour, but without all the alcohol, try some. Listed below are a few, many of them brand new creations, and all are below 5% ABV.
From All Over
Fuller’s London Pride, England
(4.7% ABV) – While ubiquitous in their homeland, very few of the original low-alcohol English Pale Ales make it to Alberta. Amber coloured and full of caramel flavours, with just enough UK hops for a tart finish. CSPC +504688, $5, 500 mL bottle
Granville Island Two Tides ISA, B.C.
(4.6%) – An amber coloured ale full of Citra hops, with more malt sweetness than you’d expect. 35 IBUs. CSPC +772466, $16, 6 pack
New Belgium Slow Ride Session IPA Colorado, USA
(4.5%) – Dry hopping eight different hops provides the fruity flavour, with a very light body and colour. 40 IBUs. CSPC +771684, $39, 12 pack cans
North Coast Puck Petite Saison California, USA
(4.0%) – With Pils and wheat malt plus saison yeast, the dry hopping give this golden ale a flowery, yet spicy nose and flavour. CSPC +771046, $16, 4 pack
Fernie Slingshot Session IPA, B.C.
(4.5%) – The Mosaic and Galaxy hops contribute to the citrusy/piney taste and the requisite bitterness at 45 IBUs. CSPC +771186, $14, 6 pack cans
Flying Monkeys Genius Of Suburbia ISA, Ontario
(3.8%) – A wheat ale with Centennial and Amarillo hops giving it a citrus-y flavour and 52 IBUs. CSPC +773371, $17, 6 pack
Central City Red Racer ISA, B.C.
(4.0%) – With only Mosaic hops and three malts, this 40 IBU amber beer has more caramel sweetness and a subdued hoppiness than most ISAs. CSPC +764047, $24, 12 pack
(4.6%) – A crisp tasting, unfiltered ale full of citrus aroma and flavour from six hops, added at different times throughout the brewing process. Refreshing, light, and 46 IBUs. CSPC +769790, $16, 6 pack
Big Rock Warthog
(4.5%) – Big Rock’s standard English-style mild ale has been rebranded to accentuate its heritage. Has a malty backbone, full of caramel and toffee notes. CSPC +761745, $16, 6 pack
Ribstone Creek Rangeland Pale Ale
(4.2%) – From tiny Edgerton, Alberta, comes this hybrid blend of an English ESB and an American Pale Ale. A light amber beer with Cascade hops providing the piney nose and flavour at 30 IBUs. CSPC +759002, $15, 6 pack cans