If, like me, you enjoy a nice ale from time to time, then the question of the perfect session beer has come up more than once in conversation. If, like me, you’re a wine and spirits drinker, then you probably have no idea what I’m on about. Allow me, dear Readership, to enlighten you.
The session beer is one that will allow you to drink through an evening or afternoon (or perhaps both, he muses dreamily) without becoming too blasted to find your feet with both hands. The purpose of social drinking is not to devolve into a drooling mess on the pavement. If you think that’s the case then come back and see me when you’re not fifteen or a depressed accountant.
The session beer can be a lager; in fact, in the summer, I will happily tip back a Budweiser Budvar, Staropramen or Amstel or two or seven. I, like most right-thinking Englishmen, try to go easy on Stella Artois. Despite the sophisticated advertising, there’s something about the stuff that transmutes into rageahol in the stomachs of our stout yeomanry and… Well, there’s a reason it’s commonly called Wifebeater. Perhaps it’s French revenge for Waterloo or something.
For me, though, finding the perfect session beer is a tricky prospect. I loves me the ales, and finding the right one that will sustain and nurture the conversation over an evening (or an afternoon and an evening, he woozily dreams) is surprisingly tricky. The example of Stella is surprisingly useful. At 5.2% ABV, it’s that bit stronger than the average. I couldn’t spend a session on anything stronger than 5%, and over a period of time would probably drop down to 4.5. This brings us into the realm of the lighter, golden ales and milds. These are beers that this country does exceedingly well, and most popular bitters fall into this category. Think Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen, London Pride. These are all fine brews and have been boon companions for quite some time.
It’s an increasingly popular market, made more so by government duty breaks on beers at or around 2.8%–the Aussie “light beer”. Savvy brewers are keying into the need by brewing new products or, slightly worryingly, reformulating old brand names. Sam Smith’s popular “man in box” lager Alpine underwent this change recently, dropping from 4.5 to the new light maximum. A shame. Like meeting an old mate for a drink and finding out he’s gone teetotal.
Back to beers and ales. It’s still difficult to find a decent mild outside beer festivals, which is a shame. I think Rudgate’s Ruby Mild would be perfect for a late autumn or winter evening in a pub with a roaring log fire and a few too many portly gents with beards. It’s a soothing, nurturing pint. I can’t drink stouts over a full session, though. Too weighty. Like drinking soup. Cold, bitter soup.
I’m wary of the trend towards heavily hopped beer as well. A decent IPA is a splendid thing, but the bitterness of the hops builds up over time and becomes actively unpleasant. They can also be deceptively strong, so it’s always worth checking your pump clips. Thornbridge’s Jaipur is deliciously gluggable, but at 6.9% it’ll keel you over in short order.
I think the big problem for me is that I am incessantly curious and greedy when it comes to beer. I love the idea of research and play, and would happily drink halves all night if I was in a pub with a serious collection of real ales, just so i could try out more of them. However. There are certain beers that I will come back to again and again. Here, for your delight and deletion, are my top five session beers that you can find in a broad sampling of British pubs. These are as good in a warm pub on a chilly November evening as they are on a bask in a beer garden in high summer.
TRIBUTE (St Austell’s): Unlike their corporate shill neighbours Sharp’s, Cornwall’s St Austell Brewery are keeping it real. Tribute is a delightful drop, subtly lemony and elderflower-scented, but with that clean, lager-like finish that really makes you fancy just one more.
LANDLORD (Timothy Taylor): Hoppy and sharp, but without going overboard. A real throat-opener.
DISCOVERY (Fuller’s): A blonde beer with surprisingly complex flavours, gently bitter but eminently gluggable. This is the one I’d choose to have with food. As an accompaniment to a decent burger or a curry it doesn’t get much better.
OXFORD GOLD (Brakspear): I’m enormously fond of this beer. Citrus and hop flavour are melded together in a way that just bursts on the tongue. This stuff never fails to cheer me up. Sunshine in a glass.
MR CHUBB’S LUNCHTIME BITTER: (West Berkshire): OK, I’m stretching the remit a bit here, as you’re unlikely to find this unless you’re drinking around Reading and environs. But if you do come across Mr. Chubb’s, try it. It’s the very definition of the cheeky lunchtime pint. Not too heavy, but flavoursome and mouthfilling. The darkest beer of the lot, and if you’re a fan of Pride, Bombardier or Hen this one is right up your street.
There’s plenty more session beers out there for your drinking pleasure. Bubbling under on the list are Young’s London Gold and Morland’s new kid on the block, Old Golden Hen. Both will do you proud on a night or afternoon out. Any suggestions, Readership?
(For more on why we call a trip to the pub a session, and for some pointers on what Americans call a sesh beer, check out this post over at the Beer Advocate that set me off in the first place).