The session beer as a healthy alternative?

The session beer.

The term, essentially meaning a low-alcohol beer, has been in fairly common use for many years, but seems to have become something of a fad as of late. Perhaps the recent rise is in response to ever-increasing ABV levels of challenging and complex, hoppy, and barrel-aged beers, but it seems to me like the term is on the upswing for its obvious appeal to both beer drinkers and beer makers alike: Drinkers are obviously game for the implied “drinking session” and brewers are happy to have an alternative to the derogatory-sounding term “Light Beer”.

But it’s also become something of a controversial moniker.

The idea that a beer is crafted for “drinking sessions” can fairly easily be seen to encourage irresponsible drinking. After all, what is a “a drinking session,” really but cleverly-worded binge-drinking?

Accordingly, as the term continues to be used in the beer world, opinions on “the session beer” are already fairly varied, but now there is perhaps another angle to consider: What about the session beer as a healthy alternative?

That’s essentially the concept that’s been proposed by new research claiming drinking might be made a little more healthy by “reducing the alcohol content of beverages such as beer and wine by a small amount to reduce the effects of ethanol, the most-harmful ingredient in alcoholic beverages.”

Quoting a health policy paper published on August 10th, a recent CBC article from the same day suggests that even a minor reduction in the ABV of drinks–from 5.5% to 4.5%–can have beneficial health impacts.

(If you want to read the policy paper that the Ceeb was referencing, you’ll need to register with the journal Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology. Or, if you don’t want to sign up for scientific articles about the liver and the digestive system, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the article since I registered.)

The study actually makes a strong case for making all beer more “sessionable”:

“We are proposing, that the alcohol content of alcoholic beverages [be] reduced,” said the paper’s lead author, Jurgen Rehm, director of the institute for mental health policy research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“That means we should, for example, reduce the [alcohol] content of beer from an average of 5.5 per cent to an average of 4.5 per cent.”

Interestingly, the study may have also inadvertently debunked the concept of the session-beer-as-binge-drinking-vehicle myth. Specifically, it seems we are actually unlikely to drink more beer just because it is lower in alcohol.

Hilariously, to test their theories, those leading the study took to the mecca of excessive drinking, fraternities, and found that introducing low-alcohol or session beers neither slowed down nor increased Sully and the Kappa Sig bros beer ponging:

“A randomised trial in which the ethanol content in university fraternity parties was manipulated found that low-alcohol beer was not recognised and did not lead to increased drinking volumes”

Obviously, the students who had been assigned reduced alcohol drinks were less drunk than their full-strength counterparts but they didn’t drink more of it to compensate and, importantly, the study notes they “still reported they had fun at the party.” Kappa Sig parties rule!

The CBC article also notes another, perhaps cursory health effect of low-alcohol beer: Public safety. A second study in Australia, for example, recently revealed that a tax placed on all alcohol with more than 3% ABV led to a decrease in average alcohol levels in beer and this coincided with a drop in alcohol-related deaths, traffic collisions, and accidents.

And so session beer, a perhaps gimmicky, somewhat lazy term, might actually be shorthand for a healthier beer alternative.

The only trouble here for me is how this knowledge might be applied and exactly how the industry as a whole might promote low-alcohol beer.

Two suggestions offered by the study’s writers were to increase the presence of low alcohol beer in retail environments and to tax high alcohol drinks more. Neither of these would be beneficial to craft brewers, obviously. Caps on alcohol levels, as we’ve seen in the US, are very often a limit to creativity. The less restrictions brewers have on the liquid they make, the more likely they are to try weird stuff and the broader our availability of styles is. And that’s obviously a good thing. If, for example, the LCBO started favouring stocking lower-alcohol beer on its shelves, it’s logical that a) shitty macro beers would gain even more shelf space or b) Ontario brewers would focus more effort on those styles and we’d have even more boring homogenity in the Ontario market (Can you say Lite Ontario Pale Ale?). And that would not be good.

So too would a tax favouring certain styles inevitably begin to dictate the market, which would lead to similarly lame results. If it became expensive to make high ABV beers, the usually-not-rolling-in-dough brewers who like to make barrel-aged stouts, for example, would be less likely to do so. And that would obviously suck.

So while I’m not in favour of enacting legislation to promote its presence in the market, I’m happy to have the “session beer” on shelves and, the next time I pick up a case of 4.5% beer, I’ll take comfort in knowing I’m doing something healthy.

One final, interesting but barely-mentioned note at the bottom of the CBC article:

One of the paper’s authors received financial support from Anheuser-Busch for travel and attendance of meetings, done outside of the paper.

Hmm. What interest could AB InBev have in funding positive research for lower alcohol beer and an argument for lower taxation of it?

2 thoughts on “The session beer as a healthy alternative?

  1. I thought there was a higher levy imposed on all beer over, I think, the 7% ABV threshold. I remember about 10 years ago, the price of Crest, Max Ice, Faxe 10, and the like rocketing up seemingly overnight. Can’t find anything to confirm online, though.

  2. I’ve always cringed at the term “session beer”, though I do appreciate them being on the shelves. (Don’t always need to drink 750mL of a DIPA or imperial stout. What if I want another? Completely bombed.) Like you’re too cool to say lower-alcohol or even “light” (or “lite”… hate that too)? Then again, I’m old enough to hate the term “craft” too, even though I’ve been drinking “craft” beer almost exclusively for 25 years. It implies that the large breweries have no craftsmanship skills, when they can make the same fucking beer day in day out, year to year, and have it taste the same. You might not like the flavour, you might not like the international brewing conglomerate thing, but if that isn’t skill or “craft”, I don’t know what is.
    My 2 cents.
    P.S. Too bad most lower alcohol “craft” beers tend to be session IPAs or on occasion, a blonde. How about a mild? They’re usually low alcohol to begin with. No need to tweak it down.

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