Not so long ago, as far back as the mid-1990's for most of us, the only beers most of us were likely to find with any ease were pale European style lagers brewed by giant breweries. Each sported an alcohol by volume content of 5% or less. Everyone knows these beers. Heineken , Carlsberg, Budweiser, Tiger, Singha, Amstel, Beck's.
Remarkably, the most popular of the bunch -- and every beer mentioned above -- are exactly 5.0% ABV. In fact, if you had no clue of the strength of a mainstream lager-type beer, guessing 5% will prove you right a lot more often than wrong.
What's so magic about 5%? Is this a number food scientists discovered long ago to be the ideal strength of a beer?
That depends on one's definition of ideal strength, which, like beauty or weight, seems to fluctuate with the times. Five percent, however, was once viewed as the optimal amount of alcohol in a beer and is still thought of as some kind of unstated fortification between regular beer and strong, between session beers and all others.
The term session beer gets a lot of press these days. Every brewery likes to trumpet how it's brewed a fantastic session beer. For a term bandied about so often, few people actually know what it means.
No one can even agree on how the term originated exactly though it's indisputable that the term was originally British in origin. One commonly accepted story goes that during the First World War, the British government only permitted two drinking periods at the pubs, one from 11 AM to 3 PM and another from 7 PM to 11 PM. The type of beer that people could repeatedly drink during this four hour window, this four hour drinking session if you will, without getting completely inebriated was coined a session beer.
Defining exactly what makes a session beer is sort of like defining why something is funny. You need to dance around the edges and describe aspects in order to get to the whole. A commonly accepted session beer definition today is a beer no higher than 5% ABV which has a balance between malt and hops, a clean finish, and can be sipped within a reasonable time period so as not to get inappropriately intoxicated. Notice how ambiguous that definition is. A balance between malt and hops, a clean finish, a reasonable time period, inappropriately intoxicated. Those terms are so vague that a politician, with a few flicks of a pen, could have a 12% Belgian tripel classified as a session beer.
The 5% ABV was never dictated by British legislation as an upper alcohol limit for session drinking. Wartime rationing was what limited the brewing of stronger beers. 5% was likely incorporated into the session beer definition in the decades after the Second World War. Breweries consolidated and produced uniform inoffensive brews, mostly watery type lagers which through trial and error, marketing, feedback, seemed to cluster around 5%. These mainstream lagers were beers the majority could sip all day long during a Fourth of July picnic without having to think what number they were on. As for balance between malt and hops in these mass produced brews, connoisseurs of today would insist there's none. Such beers hardly use hops and cut down on the malt by using adjuncts like corn or rice. The balance term here refers to those two ingredients not alarming the taste buds. The malt and hops are there, but neutral enough so as not to antagonize the greatest number of drinkers.
One could actually argue that nearly all mainstream beers are session beers. Since most people drink for sociable reasons and not intoxication, beer giants brew the beers that most people will steadily drink. Craft brewers, on the other hand, brew beers in the other direction. Extra hops? Extra malt? No problem. Craft brewers compete to see who can brew the most exotic and, increasingly, the strongest. Few of these beers are ones mainstream drinkers would call balanced, clean, or able to drink all day long without passing out. The Brewer Association recognizes this and in their Great American Beer Fest borrowed the mainstream's accepted 5% ABV as the limit to compete in the session beer category.
In actuality, 5% is still probably too much alcohol to really be considered a session brew. Beer writer Lew Bryson maintains 4.5% should be the upper limit. And in 2013, mainstream behemoth Carlsberg cut Tuborg's ABV from 4.6% to 4% to make the drink more 'accessible', an unstated admission that 4.6% was too high for most regular drinkers. In terms of your body's ability to process alcohol, there is a huge difference between 4% and 5%. Assuming you drink just one bottle of beer per hour, a 5% beer can leave twice the excess alcohol in your bloodstream as a 4%.
More craft brewers are waking up to the fact that session beers (as defined by a lower than 5% ABV) but with more diverse flavors and styles are where the big money is at. Notch Brewing from Massachusetts won't brew a beer greater than 4.5%. Other breweries make sure to include at least one session beer in their lineup. Baird has its Single Take Session Ale (4.7%). Founders Brewing's All Day Session IPA (4.7%) makes up 50% of the company's volume. The list goes on. Nearly all brew their session beers in the 4.5%-4.9% ABV range.
A real session beer, one that you could truly drink all day without gross intoxication, would have an ABV somewhere between 2.5-3%, an alcohol level most craft brewers don't want to visit. And most craft brews are just too complex in favor to legitimately fall within the spirit of the session beer definition. Think of a session beer as a popular and highly entertaining 13-episode TV series most viewers could binge watch over an entire weekend. Simple mind candy. A decently made craft beer, regardless of its alcohol content, is more like the 1980 TV series Cosmos by the late famous astronomer Carl Sagan. How many of those 13 episodes do you think most viewers could endure in one sitting?
A true blue session beer is mouth candy, neither good enough nor bad enough that most drinkers would stop sipping to comment and strong enough to make the sippers glad they drank without any regrets or recriminations. Now you might have some inkling as to why Bud Light (4.2%) is America's bestselling beer.