An Introduction to Session Beers

With the weather warming up and spring quickly approaching I am becoming less interested in the  high alcohol beers great for sitting beside a fire on a cold winter night.  Don’t get me wrong I love Imperial Stouts and Belgian beers but you can’t drink those all the time.  What I’m beating around the bush about are the low alcohol beers known as session beers.  “Session beer” is a beer defined as a crisp, well balanced and highly drinkable beer of at most 5% alcohol by volume. The term comes from being able to drink many over the course of a few hours and not be  inappropriately intoxicated. The British style pub ales and lagers are classic examples of session beers with the average alcohol content around 4.5%. But what I really am intrigued with is sessionable but flavourful beers that although lower in alcohol have an uncompromised flavour. This style of brewing seems to be uncommon with most American and Canadian craft breweries with an IPA or Stout averaging around 6% alcohol by volume. For me a hoppy IPA brewed to 3.5%  would be a summer delight. In general, delicious session beers are few and far between so I offer a short list of a few lower alcohol offerings.

Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale – At 5% ABV this is the quintessential hoppy session beer from Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewing Company. Uncompromising flavour and aroma with a forward hop and light caramel malts in a great balance.

Howe Sound Rail Ale Nut Brown –  Once again at the upper limit of 5%, this brown ale has fantastic roasted malts and hints of licorice root and vanilla. Perhaps not as balanced as most session beers but a more robust and intense flavour profile.

Wild Rose Velvet Fog Wheat Ale – This local favorite brewed to 4.5% is full flavoured Wheat Ale light crisp wheat malts and a hint of spices. Velvet Fog is a nice and easy to drink but flavourful beer.

AleSmith Anvil ESB

Anvil ESB is the flagship ale produced by San Diego’s AleSmith Brewing Company and was the first beer ever produced by the brewery. AleSmith is one of California’s most awarded craft breweries known for their unfiltered hoppy brews as well as heavy hitters like Speedway Stout and Old Numbskull Barleywine. The Anvil ESB is a bit of a San Diego twist on the standard British Premium Bitter style of session ale. Premium Bitters or Extra Special Bitters are higher alcohol (4.5 to 6%) versions of the more sessionable bitter style. At 5.5% ABV, Anvil ESB is certainly within the range of alcohol to be called a ESB stylistically.

Cracking the cap and beginning to pour I find a solid heavy and creamy foam forming atop the brilliant ruby and copper toned body. Slowing the pour down, it comes to rest with a thick mess of a chunky two finger creamy beige head and some heavy lacing around the glass. The nose is a bit abrupt and has a solid hop with pleasant floral and fruity notes. The nose is rather odd stylistically with an enhanced fruitiness pairing with toasted bready and caramel malts. Taking my first sip of the Anvil I notice a pronounced fruit flavour of both banana and apples which is certainly odd. Toasted bread and grainy malts with caramelized sweetness and a hint of toffee pairs well with the intricate floral hop notes and a rather unusual fruity character. The finish is really crisp and has a mild but not overbearing bitterness that lingers for a short time. On the whole this is an exceptionally well done ESB in that the hops aren’t too foreboding and there is still plenty of grainy and bready malts as well as tasty fruit and floral hop centric notes. In general, a very well done and well balanced ESB.

Grade: 86/100       Price: $4.69 (in California)

Hook Norton Haymaker

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To be honest I had never actually heard of Hook Norton Brewery, but after a quick google search it was something I definitely had to try. Hook Norton Brewery located in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire was founded in 1849 and still operates as a brewery from the era. In what is known as a Victorian tower brewery, a beer is brewed sequentially starting on the top floor and making its way down. Until 2006, the Hook Norton Brewery was powered by an on site steam engine making this a truly unique and real ale. The Haymaker itself is a 5% ABV Premium Bitter or ESB. The ESB style of beer is a term used to refer to Brtitish style bitter ales over 4.8% ABV.

The Haymaker has a gorgeous bright golden copper tinted body with a thick bright white head. There is a steady stream of of fine carbonation bubbles streaming upwards that help form a few lines of sticky lacing. The nose has a beautifully floral bouquet with a typical English accented biscuit malt and yeast. A fresh citrus fruit with grassy and floral hops accompany a mild caramel and toasted bread malt. The finish has a solid hop bitterness and a lingering grainy malt flavor. Beautiful light lemon and fresh floral notes make this a fantastic session  ESB. The body is quite  full and a bit of sparkly carbonation truly makes this a good example of the brush pub style strong bitter ale.

Grade:  78/100            Price: $4.99