Seven solid sessions
Some beers to enjoy when you feel like drinking some beers.
Not too many years ago, I ended a streak of 13 years driving around France for most of the month of July following the Tour de France. The bicycle race also often ventured into Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain and occasionally Andorra, Switzerland and the Netherlands, but mostly the trips followed routes across miles of French flatlands and rolling hills covered in sunflowers or vineyards.
Steep, winding roads presented panoramic views of jagged snow-capped peaks. Long hours and days of driving were challenging and rewarding. They were celebrated almost every night with fantastic European beers.
Every corner pub in every city, obscure farming village and mountaintop resort had familiar brew signage, most notably Stella Artois and Leffe. Duvel, Kronenbourg 1664, Pelforth, Grolsch, Hoegaarden and Heineken were also common.
Stella Artois (a brewery in Leuven, Belgium) and Leffe (an Abbey in Belgium) are considered session beers. The term dates, as legend details, to World War I, when beer was rationed to British soldiers in two sessions per day. But there’s no exact definition of session beer, although there’s a prevailing understanding that the term refers to lower alcohol by volume, or ABV, beers in which drinking just one isn’t usually part of the experience.
Maxim, the men’s lifestyle magazine, defines the term perfectly: “Session beers are what you can drink all night long, and still be able to walk home without doing something stupid. Essentially, a session beer is the opposite of the hop/sour/funk monsters that so many beer geeks love.”
Leffe and Stella Artois, both now owned by European subsidiaries of Anheuser–Busch, are similar yet different. The former, at 6.6 percent alcohol, is a pale ale; the latter, 4.8 percent alcohol, is a lager. By Belgian standards, where higher-alcohol-level beers are the norm, Leffe, in its several varieties, is often described as tasting slightly fruity with hints of banana. Stella Artois is usually defined as light and crisp.
The session beer term wasn’t quite the “thing” it is now when I was traveling regularly to the Tour de France and other European sporting events. But Stella Artois was perfect for celebrating during the day. It was a quick thirst quencher on rest stops on muggy July afternoons after hours of driving and with hours in the car left. Leffe was best for day’s end and with accommodations nearby. It was also always tempting, but midday consumption on a few occasions prompted a nap when alertness was paramount to wisely negotiating the roads.
High-alcohol beers, sour beers and uber-hoppy beers have their place and passionate enthusiasts. But session beers are refreshing anytime, anywhere—an afternoon barbecue with friends, a break on a long day’s drive in a foreign country or at the local pub just because. Here are seven favorites:
The historic San Francisco brewery makes many varieties, but it’s among the remaining few companies producing California common beer, or Steam Beer, its trademarked name. It’s made by fermenting lager yeasts at warmer ale yeast fermentation temperatures. It’s crisp and malty with a big, bubbly head. 4.9 ABV.
Firestone Walker Easy Jack
Everything made at the Paso Robles-headquartered brewery is terrific. The malts and hops are from a half-dozen countries, and the result is a sensory-pleasing combination of spices, citrus and floral. What’s not to like? 4.5 percent ABV.
Watching a good bartender properly pour the Irish dry stout into a room-temperature glass is watching a skilled artist. The dark color, creamy head, the malted and unmalted barley, the mixing of the beer with nitrogen and carbon dioxide when poured, the high amount of iron. Add all up and Guinness’ nickname, “Mother’s Milk,” is perfect. Best beer ever made? Hard to argue. 4.2 percent ABV.
Pabst Blue Ribbon
After maybe a 30-year hiatus from drinking PBR, I had a pint a few weeks ago at The Shack in East Sacramento. It was the perfect choice to accompany a blue cheese burger and fries. Fresh, consistent, inexpensive. The American lager originally from Wisconsin is polarizing with overt fans and detractors. Count me in with the former group. 4.7 percent ABV.
Session EZ IPA
If you make a session beer, why not say so? Full Sail Brewing Co. thinks it’s a good idea with its Session EZ IPA. Equinox, Citra and Cascade hops. No beer-face bitterness. A fruity aroma. Unfiltered. Refreshing. It’s easy like its title reads. Its slogan works: “Life’s Hard Enough. Your Beer Should Be EZ.” 4.8 ABV.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Approaching its 40th birthday, the country’s top-selling craft beer from Chico is available nationwide and in many countries. Pale Ale, Porter, Stout, Torpedo ’Extra’ IPA, Kellerweis Hefeweizen, Nooner Pilsner, and Hop Hunter are year-round choices. Bring the original Pale Ale to a party, and it will likely be quickly consumed. Its taste: hearty malt and aggressive hops and a hint of grapefruit. It cheats the standard 5.0 percent alcohol limit for session beers. So what? 5.6 ABV.
Its heritage is confusing. It’s sometimes marketed as if it’s a French beer. But it’s from a northern section of Belgium where Dutch is spoken. It doesn’t matter. If you drink a beer for refreshment and one isn’t enough, Stella rules. And it reminds me of long, wondrous summer days in Europe. 4.8 ABV.