The term “session beer” gets used quite a bit these days, but what exactly does it mean? Its wide use has taken away any truly fixed definition. Basically, a session beer is a beer low enough in alcohol to be consumed in quantity over a long drinking session.
The English consistently use the term to refer to beers almost exclusively below 4% ABV. This covers a great many British milds and even bitters. American craft beers tend to be higher gravity, but a relatively recent move toward session beers has been a great boon to those who like to drink a few pints with friends at the pub, rather than going out to get drunk. Even so, plenty of American beers that are closer to 5% are generally regarded as session beers.
Martyn Cornell, noted English beer historian, gets to the heart of the matter:
A good, quaffable session beer should have enough interest for drinkers to want another, but not so much going on that they are distracted from the primary purpose of a session, which is the enjoyment of good company in convivial surroundings. Like the chamber music that Mozart and Hayden wrote for their patrons’ soirees and divertimenti, a good session beer is a backgrounder to human interaction, capable of being appreciated as a work of art if you pause from the conversation and consider it, but good-mannered enough not to intrude unless asked.
This is a very apt description of how civil drinkers enjoy their pints at our establishment.
Here’s how Beer Advocate defines session beer:
Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters (ingredients) and, typically, a clean finish—a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.
So the higher limit on alcohol fits the American palate a little better, but notice the emphasis on balance. Again, this is what we always strive for, the judicious use of hops and the celebration of the richness of high-quality malt, a richness that should never come off as cloying.
Since the day we opened, the Civil Life has excelled at brewing flavorful session beers. Old-timers recall, the day we opened our pub, we had four beers on tap: American Brown Ale (4.8%), British Bitter (4.2%), British Best (4%), and German Wheat (just around the upper limit of 5%).
We have also brewed a mild ale and a Belgian table beer that registered under 4%. And when it came time to brew some higher gravity beers, our Big Beer Series kept it civil at a modest 6.5%. But no matter the alcohol content, we have always brewed flavorful, enjoyable beers.
The big domestics have made “drinkable” synonymous with bland. Let’s take back these terms and celebrate them for their centrality to beer and pub culture. Spending an evening at the pub with friends is a supremely civil activity. Like our fellow drinkers in England and Germany, we know beer is not just a drink, it’s a celebration of our shared humanity.
What does session beer mean to us? As we like to say, Drink Civil … Be Civil. Thanks for sharing our philosophy, and thanks for supporting our constant task of keeping pints filled with balanced, flavorful, drinkable beers. Cheers!
An IPA at the Civil Life? The third, in fact. We have brewed an English IPA and last year’s collaboration beer, Merchant Ship IPA. We have always resisted the easy path of brewing the “popular” beer just for the sake of sales. But we are a traditional brewery, strongly informed by English beer styles, and IPA is one of England’s great contributions to world beer.
American craft breweries have popularized a particular take on this venerable style, generally marked by a huge load of American hops with big citrus flavors. These beers aren’t a lot like the original English IPAs.
There is a longstanding myth that IPA, with its higher alcohol content and big hop presence, was designed to withstand the long hot sea journey to India, where it would be consumed by thirsty British expatriates. The fact is, English brewers had been shipping pale ales, porters, and stouts to India for many years with no difficulties whatsoever.
The real story, according to Martyn Cornell, is that the Bow Brewery owned by George Hodgson happened to be a stone’s throw form where the East India Company docked its ships. Hodgson’s beers were the easiest to load on the ships. They brewed a fine, well-hopped stock bitter. These stock ales required one to two years to mature in cask before they achieved optimal drinking condition.
English merchant ships made many stops on their long, rough sea journey to India, and what that process inadvertently did was to considerably speed up maturation. When these barrels of beer arrived in India, they were crystal clear, crisp, and delicious. Thus was India Pale Ale born.
Our brewer Seymour, always a stickler for historical authenticity, personally loaded our UK IPA on a ship and sailed to India and back (this statement has not been fact-checked #fakenews). What Seymour did do was scour the historical records and peruse scores of authentic recipes.
It turns out that many British brewers in the late nineteenth century were adding sugar to the mash when making IPAs. Sucrose is highly fermentable and adds some caramel complexity to beer. It can also help achieve dry, light colored beers.
Our UK IPA starts with a very lightly kilned base malt and some English specialty malts, as well as dark brown cane sugar. We add some torrified wheat for body and head retention. The finished product is dry-hopped with three English hop varieties: Progress, Challenger, and East Kent Goldings.
The final product is light colored and crisp with a hint of caramel sweetness. Look for floral, woodsy, and slightly fruity (think stone fruit, rather than citrus) hop character. At just over 6% alcohol and a modest 48 IBUs, the beer is well-balanced and elegant.
Come down and quaff a UK IPA while supplies last. We think you’ll find it doesn’t taste quite like any IPA you’ve ever had.
The Civil Blog has returned. It is predominantly authored by Civil Life Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley, who can be found tending to our bar patrons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is also responsible for tending to our draft lines, which is recognized as one of our most important tasks. Special guest writers will appear from time to time. We hope reading this blog will give you much insight about the Civil Life and most importantly help you understand a bit more about all of us that work here and the beers we put our hearts into.