Lower-Alcohol Session Beers Are All the Rage

These lower-alcohol ales make for easy-to-enjoy sipping—with plenty of eye-opening flavor.

Fun Sunset Session Ale at Last Wave in Point Pleasant Beach
Last Wave in Point Pleasant Beach brews the Fun Sunset Session Ale at 4.6 ABV. Photo courtesy of Last Wave Brewing

For years, styles in craft beer have seemed to trend toward the extremes. Fans sought out aggressively bitter double IPAs, super-tart sours, high-ABV stouts and barley wines. 

But the tides began to turn in 2020, when consumers realized these boozy beers weren’t exactly suited to extended sessions of relaxed sipping. They started to re-embrace more drinkable brews with lower alcohol by volume (ABV), categorized as session beers.

While not exactly a style in itself, a session beer can generally be defined as a refreshing drink that is relatively low in alcohol, usually 5 percent ABV or under. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a drinker to consume several over a reasonable amount of time—or session—without getting too inebriated.

While studies have shown that alcohol consumption increased during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve also seen a surge in demand for low-alcohol wines, beer and spirits. Consumers adjusting their drinking behaviors and preferences have forced the alcoholic-beverage industry—breweries included—to adjust accordingly.

“I think the lockdown brought people’s attention back to certain beers. Consistency and drinkability were on people’s minds,” says Augie Carton, co-owner of Carton Brewing Company in Atlantic Highlands (one of our favorite Jersey Shore breweries). In 2011, the new brewery launched with a 4.2 percent-ABV, hoppy session ale called Boat, which lives on today. The beer proved to drinkers in Jersey and beyond that low alcohol need not mean low flavor.

Like salt in food, alcohol helps bring out the malt, grain and other flavors in beer. Lower the percentage of alcohol, and you’ve got to compensate. When tweaking the recipe for the introduction of Boat, Carton made adjustments in all five categories of flavor: sour, salty, bitter, sweet and umami. When Boat set sail, it showed that flavorwise, it was shipshape.

At Last Wave Brewing in Point Pleasant Beach, owners Nick Jiorle and Bert Roling have noticed customers feeling blown out by high-ABV beers. Since opening five years ago, they’ve made session beers central to their portfolio. 

“We want [our session beers] to be crisp and easy drinking, something you can drink on a golf course or while sitting at a beach bar,” says Jiorle. The brewery releases different session beers throughout the year, including Fun Sunset Session, one of their most popular summer offerings, as well as Fun Ones, a tropical and vibrantly hoppy IPA that clocks in at 4.6 percent ABV. Alongside potent porters, stouts and IPAs that top out at 7.5 percent ABV, Last Wave at our deadline listed five beers available at 5.2 percent ABV or less.

Beyond the Garden State, look for beers such as Sierra Nevada’s Summer Break IPA (4.6 percent ABV), Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA (4.7 percent ABV), Bell’s Light Hearted Ale (3.7 percent ABV), and Jack’s Abby Post Shift Pilsner (4.7 percent ABV).

Thirst-quenching session beers are arguably ideal for kicking off summer. Have one, or have a few, and still feel frisky the next day. “I love drinking with friends by a firepit for hours,” says Carton, “just as much as I love getting up for a 50-mile bike ride the next morning.”

After a session with a session, your day beckons, whatever the mileage.

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