Session beers: More flavour, but less buzz for the Super Bowl

Food Craft Beer Super Bowl
This Dec. 8, 2014 photo shows lower alcohol craft beers Founders All Day IPA and Peak Organic Winter Session Ale in Concord, N.H. AP Photo/Matthew Mead

When it comes to beer, Super Bowl Sunday is a marathon, not a sprint.

So if you’re hoping to sip craft brews throughout the game, you might consider more “sessionable” beers to keep yourself from passing out before halftime. These naturally lower-alcohol brews also get extra points for their ability to pair well with traditional football party fare, the chips, dips, wings and pizza we tend to crave during the big game.

Why does it matter? Many craft beers pack more alcohol than mass-produced offerings, sometimes edging up as high as 15 per cent alcohol by volume. But that can lead to a one-and-done effect not well-suited to longer events like the Super Bowl. So craft breweries increasingly are offering beers – such as session brews – that pack less alcohol, but don’t skimp on flavour.

READ MORE: Craft beer playbook – Your guide to hometown Super Bowl brews

Session beers have been getting more attention lately, but they’ve been around for a while. Some contend they originated in England, where they were popular with workers who wanted something to sip during breaks that wouldn’t leave them too intoxicated to be on the job.

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Session beers come in many forms, but typically are defined as any style made lower in strength than classic guidelines and that doesn’t exceed about 5 per cent alcohol by volume (craft beers average about 6 per cent). Several traditional beer styles, such as a Kolsch, pilsner, lager and pale ale, as well as more unique beer styles with more sour character like Berliner weisse or gose, are typically “sessionable” because they are lower in alcohol.

“Session really answers the call to people who want all that flavour and character and yet a little less of the alcohol,” says Matt Brynildson, brewmaster for Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, California, which makes Easy Jack, a popular session IPA. “It’s an indication that craft is starting to appeal more to Joe Six-pack and the folks that were drinking mainstream lagers.”

And this is significant beyond the Super Bowl. Craft brewers had almost 8 per cent market share (and 14 per cent dollar share) of the $100 billion U.S. beer market in 2013, according to the Brewers Association, which represents most of the nation’s 3,200 breweries. Most of the non-craft market falls on the lighter end of the beer spectrum, an area craft brewers see as primed for growth.

“Brewers are bringing the other end of the rainbow to the craft beer scene,” says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association. “These beers are light, refreshing and still satisfying.”

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While the Brewers Association is still working to measure just how big session beers are as a category, its growing popularity is clear. Session beers first appeared as a category during the Great American Beer Festival in 2007 with 14 entries, though it originally was called “other low strength ale or lager.” In 2014, the category had 94 entries.

Session beers can be more technically difficult to make because lighter beers have less complexity to cover up any unwanted flavours from the brewing process, but Brynildson says session IPAs in particular are the perfect canvas to highlight the pine and citrus flavour and aroma of the hops using a light, lean, subtly sweet backbone.

Some notable and recently launched session beers worth considering this Super Bowl include Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA, Stone Brewing Co.’s Go To IPA, Oskar Blues Brewery’s Pinner Throwback IPA, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Nooner Pilsner, and Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s DayTime, whose description reads in part, “it still lets you stay in the game to do what needs to be done.”

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