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Brewing Session Beers

This week Dave from our UK office takes a look at the resurgence of session ales such as the mild and bitter and the growing popularity of the session IPA and gives tips on how to design a recipe for a smaller grain bill, lower ABV beer.

“Increasingly high ABV has been the calling card of craft beer since it’s early days. For many breweries it was a good way to get their name out there by being able to claim that they were brewing the highest ABV beer. This resulted in several brews that could barely be classed as beer such as Tactical Nuclear Penguin by Brewdog (32%) or Snake Venom from Brewmeister (reportedly 67.5%).

Whilst these beers made for interesting experiments in what was achievable they felt more like a novelty than the kind of beer you would go back to for a second and in that respect it felt like they were missing the point of beer a little (drinkability is always a top consideration when designing my recipes, I might drink a beer and find it interesting but I always try to consider, would I want another?).

Similarly for many homebrewers, one of the first experiments they want to try is creating a super high ABV beer which is a great way of testing the limits of your kit and will teach you a lot about efficiencies and hop utilisation but may get a little bit tiresome after 23 L.

Now, craft beer seems to have balanced out – the race for higher ABV seems to have come to an end and brewers are more and more focused on producing a core range of well balanced, drinkable beers. Many breweries are also looking to produce a range of lower ABV ‘session ales’ – so-called because they are low alcohol but flavourful and interesting enough to ‘session’ on. In particular, the session IPA has become hugely popular through many other styles are growing in popularity (or more accurately, becoming popular again) such as the mild, bitter, Berliner Weisse or session lager.

As always there’s a few things to consider when you are planning on making a lower ABV beer, it’s not necessarily a case of just reducing your malt bill – don’t forget, the aim of these smaller beers is to create something balanced and drinkable!

The easiest way to get a low ABV beer is to start with a low original gravity (OG). A low OG means there is less to ferment and so ABV will ultimately be lower however, simply starting with a low ABV can leave you with a thin, watery beer as there aren’t enough unfermentables to provide body in the beer.

This means not only do you need to start with a lower OG but in many cases, you need a higher final gravity (FG) which means that there are unfermentables present in the beer which will give it some body and mouthfeel that can so easily be lacking from a session ale. The way to do this is with specialty malts or unfermentable sugars (ie lactose).

When you develop a session ale recipe, start with a pale base malt as your backbone and then start to add specialty grains that will compliment the style. Vienna and Munich are often good choices and you can substitute a little of your base malt for either to add a grainy, malt backbone to your ale. After that, small amounts of crystal or darker specialty grains can add some unfermentables that will provide your beer with a fuller body and mouthfeel as will oats and wheat. In this way, a good session ale recipe can be just as complex and interesting as a high ABV beer.

Once your grain bill is decided you should consider mashing at a temperature higher than usual to target alpha-amylase enzymes. This can help to produce a less attenuated beer and therefore a fuller body.

The next consideration is hops. Hop utilisation is typically considered to be higher in low gravity worts but in a lower ABV beer, you need the bitterness to be well balanced. Look at the recommended BU:GU ratio for the style that you want to brew and work out from there what you need – say you are brewing a dark mild with a start gravity of 1.037 and the style typically calls for a BU:GU of 0.51 you can work out that 32g of Fuggles (at 4.5% alpha acid) will get you there. If you are brewing a session IPA or a session version of any hoppy beer don’t be afraid to drop your initial bittering hop level right down and load your hops to the end of the boil and the whirlpool to get loads of aroma and flavour in the beer (I typically assume a utilisation of ~3% when throwing hops in at the end of the boil). This is a great way to get that hoppy character in a session ale because dry hopping can be difficult to get right (it reintroduces diastatic enzymes which can strip the body that’s already difficult to get in a lower ABV beer).

Finally, your choice of yeast. Typically you want to look for something with a lower attenuation and lower alcohol tolerance though many brewers suggest that yeast choice has little effect on the session beer so as long as you get your recipe design right don’t be afraid to just pick the strain suitable to the style.”

2.5% wheat beer

VOL: 23 L
OG: 1.026
FG: 1.006
ABV: 2.5%
IBU: 27
SRM: 6.9

0.8kg Maris Otter 30.8%
1kg Wheat 38.5%
0.2kg Vienna 7.7%
0.5kg CaraMunich 19.2%
0.1kg Rolled Oats 3.8%

4g Magnum @ 60 minutes
20g Equinox @ 0 minutes
60g Summit @ 0 minutes
25g Equinox @ Dry hop
50g Summit @ Dry hop

Mash water 10.52 L
Sparge water 19.56 L

Mangrove Jack’s M44 US West Coast Yeast

Have you attempted a super low ABV beer? How did it turn out?

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