A treatise on brewing session beers

Table of Contents


My most favorite type of beer to brew and to drink are beers low in alcohol which still have lots of flavor. This class of beers I refer to as "session" beers, even though this is not a defined style in the Beer Judge Certification (BJCP) guidelines. To me, a session beer is able to be consumed in quantity without being completely intoxicating. Session beers can range from very pale, to quite dark; from being full of flavors of the yeast, barley and hops, to being relatively clean and lacking in flavor.

The range of session beers is very large. Unfortunately, the only two official 'styles' that encompass them are english mild, and English bitter. However, there's a lot more that can be done with them. Session beers most certainly do not have to taste like Bud Light.

The benefits of session beers

The main benefits to brewing session beers, and the reason I prefer them as opposed to stronger beers, are:

  • Being considered 'session' beers, they are actually better for conversation with others than really strong beers,
  • They require 1/2 to 2/3 of the quantities of materials to brew per gallon than stronger beers, meaning that you do not go through bags of grain quite as quickly,
  • Requring a lower material bill, they are cheaper to brew per gallon,
  • They offer a greater challenge to brew well than stronger beers, making them more interesting to brew well,
  • Done well, they have great flavor and are very pleasant beverages to imbibe,
  • There is a very large variety; there are literally hundreds of different kinds that you can brew,
  • They are far less likely to cause a hangover,
  • They are faster to brew, requiring very little aging, completing fermentation in 1/2 to 2/3's of the time of normal-strength beers, allowing you to taste and enjoy them sooner.
  • They are more healthy, and impose much less stress on the liver and kidney functions in the body, being of a lesser alcohol strength,
  • They can be consumed in greater quantity without suffering from hangovers the next day or becoming too intoxicating,
  • They are able to be consumed more often, as a 3-4% beer can be quite good with lunch, while a stronger one will affect afternoon productivity too much,
  • For conversation, you can fill larger glasses, like Imperial Pint or half-liter glasses, which improve conversation by not requiring as many trips to refill your beer.

The common problems with brewing session beers

The main difficulties in brewing session beers stem from the fact that because they are much lighter in character, they are more sensitive to off-flavors. Off-flavors can come from a wide variety of sources, from bad procedure, to bad ingredients. The following are the main causes of non-ideal session beers.

Too much of a particular ingredient

It is important to not have too much of a particular ingredient. The top example is that it is very easy to add too much hops, which makes the beer very unbalanced. It is important to keep the BU/GU (Hop International Bitterness Unit to Gravity Unit) ratio reasonable, ie usually between 0.5 and 0.8 at the top. If your GU is only 30 (ie OG = 1.030), then your hop IBUs must be under 24 IBUs, which isn't very much. Using high alpha-acid hops should be done with extreme caution; you may end up only using 1/8 oz for boiling.

Not a very clean fermentation

Fermentation must be very clean; if it starts slower, or is at a non-ideal temperature, or using yeast that is not good, off-flavors develop easily. To insure that optimal fermentation is completed, use these tips:

  • start with top-quality liquid yeast grown for 3 days-1 week in a starter
  • start with a good quantity of yeast that is at high krausen. It is difficult to judge how much yeast you really have, looking at a slurry, but I usually add at least 1 full cup of thick slurry per 5 gallon batch.
  • I usually prefer the cleaner tasting yeasts, like European Lager, or California Ale yeast, but the more flavorful British Ale or Essex yeasts can add interest,
  • The Safale US-05 yeast is the best dry yeast tested so far, and works well provided you don't let it sit on it after fermentation has completed,
  • Be sure that your temperature is stable, and it is optimal for the yeast. You rarely want temperatures above 65oF for a clean flavor for ales, and for lagers I usually try to ferment in the low to mid-50's.
  • Be sure that the temperature of the wort is cool enough when you add the yeast, so as not to shock it,
  • Be sure that the wort is aerated enough, though given good quantities of yeast make this less imporant,
  • Be sure that the temperature is very steady; yeast don't like wide temperature swings.

Not a good balance of ingredients

It is paramount that the balance of ingredients be correct for a really good session beer. With the GU being so low, it is very sensitive to putting too much of some ingredients in it. With such small grain-bills, even 2 Oz of a specialty grain can make a very discernable difference. Take special care for the following ingredients:

  • high alpha acid hops; if used, you must use very very small quantities. It's very easy to make an over-hopped, bitter and unpleasant beer; for a 5-gallon batch, it is likely that you'll end up using 1/8 to 1/4 oz only of high alpha acid hops for boiling
  • special roast malt; if used, you must use very small quantities, like 2 Oz/5 gallon batch, or it will quickly become overwhelming,
  • aromatic malt used in very small quantities can really give the session extra appeal. It is very easy to use too much; 1-2 oz/5 gallons is usually a nice amount; using a pound will really make a non-balanced beer,
  • biscuit malt; this can also be easily overused, though it does add a very nice quality to the beer. Try 2-4 oz/5 gallons.
  • crystal malt; if you use a lot (ie 2 lbs/5 gallons) you'll REALLY taste it and it will be quite sweet or carmelly/raisin-like depending on the lovibond (darkness) of the crystal. 1/4 lb for 5 gallons works quite well.
  • german honey malt, or any other high-flavor malt; use the same guidelines as for biscuit malt above.
  • munich malt can add extra malty flavors to the brew in quantities of up to 1/2 lb for 5 gallons

Some malts that I really like in session beers include:

  • German Carafa II malt; this is a de-bittered black malt, with a very very smooth chocolate-like finish.
  • Light Munich malt; this can really give a nice malty taste to lighter beers,
  • Crystal 10L for really light beers that need more mouth-feel (ie to combat that watery mouth-feel),
  • Crystal 30-40L for some sweetness (but be sure not to use too much)
  • Roasted Barley – you can definitely make some really nice dry irish stouts that are very drinkable and low-alcohol.

I usually do not use any sugar, unless it's a flavored one like turbinado sugar (which is excellent). Adding sugar boosts alcohol without adding any flavor, and usually that's exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Bad water

Session beers are even more 'watery' than normal beers. For this reason, the water used must be of excellent quality, not being too hard, containing undesirable minerals (ie iron), or having clorine/off-tastes. It's easy to add too many minerals. For extract beers, remember that the malt extract already has minerals in it, so you can actually brew with distilled or Reverse Osmosis treated (RO) water completely. Darker beers can have extra minerals added, or you can do it with 50% RO water and 50% tap-water, if it has been charcoal-filtered or has very litte clorine/cloranamide. The author has had excellent results using 100% RO water for nearly all session beers; this is extremely clean-tasting water.

Too long of a Fermentation

It is very imporant, being a more sensitive beer to different off-flavors, to not allow the beer to sit too long on the yeast after fermentation has completed. Session beers ferment very quickly, sometimes in a matter of 2-3 days, and it is important to keep them off of the yeast, and to secondary or keg as without delay. This is the easiest way to really insure that the final quality of the beer is clean, and it's also one of the easiest ways to 'spoil' a batch. This becomes particularly important if you are brewing at a temperature above about 65oF. If you're brewing with lager yeast in the low 50oF's, you can let it go for a week.

No Cold Conditioning in secondary

It is possible to keg or bottle a batch of session immediatly after fermentation for quite a good beer; session beers definitely seem to be best if served more quickly, within a few months of brewing. However, depending on the yeast strain used and the beer being brewed, allowing it to secondary and cool-condition at 50o or preferably cooler for a week will clean up the flavors even more, and make a better beverage unless those flavors are desired. This also allows you to easily (lightly) dry-hop the batch for good hop aroma.

Too much malted barley

It is very easy, if you are used to brewing normal 6% ABV beers, to think that there is just not enoughy ingredients going into a recipe for it to turn out well. Session beers start with an original gravity (OG) of 1.020 to 1.035, or 5.3 to 9 Brix. This means that in a 5-gallon batch, you end up using only 5 lbs of malted barley, which is far less than the 9-10 lbs used typically. It is really easy to add too much, which makes the beer much too strong, no longer a session beer.

Extract brewing vs all-grain brewing session beers

All-grain brewing is a very fun, yet involving, activity. It allows you to have complete control over the mashing process, and so can allow you great amounts of creativity in mashing. Decoction mashes, for instance, can be used to good effect in session beers for extra flavor. You can also save money brewing this way, as malt extract is more expensive per point-gallon (points of extract * gallons) than doing the mashing yourself. The one downside is that, at least for the Author's system, it takes a lot of time; typically 8+ hours at a time.

Years ago, the quality of dried malt extract is not what it is today; it has definitely increased in quality. Also, the price of dried malt extract has decreased in recent years, especially when purchased in bulk 50-lb bags. Today's light dry extract (LDME), is of very high quality, and can even be purchased organic-certified (the organic LDME is excellent). Many award-winning beers are brewed with LDME today, proving that it is a very viable way to save time.

If you don't have 8+ hours to dedicate to brewing, one option is to do it using dry malt extract, which keeps very well; liquid malt extract doesn't seem to keep as well. If you buy 50-lb bags of malt extract, and bag it into 5-lb units into 1-gallon ziplock bags, and then put into an airtight bucket, it will keep quite a long time (ie at least a year). You can then grind 2 lbs of specialty grains (or some specialty grains mixed with normal malted barley) per 5 gallon batch, and do mashes in a grain-bag. It is possible to actually do a 10-gallon batch, using a large grain bag with 4 lbs of malted barley + specialty grains, if you want to save even more time. This allows you to actually complete 10 gallons of beer in a little over 4 hours if you have a large outdoor-type burner; 1/2 hour for heating it up; 3/4 hour for doing the mini-mash in the grain bag; 1 hour for boiling, and 30 minutes for chilling/draining into carboys, and the remainder cleaning up. If you have the LDME pre-measured, and have made pre-ground 'kits' of ground grain, this can be exceedingly easy to complete reliably and with very minimal effort. You can even do some special mash schedules, like step-mashes that start at a lower temperature, or mini decoction mashes if desired.

I have found that with session beers, adding a few tablespoons of yeast nutrient during the boil can many times make the fermentation cleaner and faster. If using extracts, you probably don't have as much FAN (free amino nitrogen) than in all-grain beers, and this does seem to make the yeast happier.

Brewing quantity

One side-effect of starting to brew lots of session beers, is that the quantity of beer consumed per week in a household may go up. To keep up with demand, you may need to brew more often, or in a greater quantity. Brewing once per week seems to be a very good rate for yeast re-use, and if you have a 10-gallon system, brewing that amount per week is normally sufficient. This allows you to reuse yeast from the previous batch once or twice, which reduces the cost of the liquid yeast per batch quite a bit.

Yeast strain selection

Most traditional session beers are ales, like British Mild Ale. However, really nice beers can also be brewed with lager yeast. As a class, Lager yeasts have less variability between them than the class of ale yeasts; the class of 'lager yeasts' tastes far more similar to each other, than the class of 'ale yeasts'. Lager yeasts are different than ale yeasts in an imporant way; they can ferment sugars that ale yeasts cannot.

Lager yeasts are also 'cleaner', giving less yeast character to the finished beer. For light sessions, fermenting with lager yeasts can provide some really nice, drinkable beers, with very little yeast flavor. The main problem with brewing with lager yeast is that it requires temperature control around fermentation, so that it can stay in the mid-50's for the primary fermentation, and ideally close to freezing for the secondary 'lagering stage' fermentation (though doing a secondary in the 50's will still yield improvements in the flavor). Ales yeasts will 'drop' and stop fermentation if the temperature dips too low or too quickly, ie say 57oF. If your fermentation area will get cold, ale yeast will probably drop, but lager yeast is more likely to continue to ferment.

Session ales will definitely showcase the flavors of the yeast used. If you use a yeast with a lot of character, like British Ale III or Ringwood ale yeast, it will be readily apparent in the final product. One of the great thing about brewing sessions, is that if you split a single batch 10-gallong into two 5-gallon batches, each with two different yeasts, you can really taste the differences; each batch can be a lot different.

Ale yeasts have much more of a flavor contribution to the final beer as compared with lager yeasts. If you want a really nice ale character, Essex Ale yeast is one of the best for major flavor. If you want to use an ale yeast, fermentable at a higher temperature, but with less character, White Labs WLP001 or Wyeast 1056 are will give a relatively neutral contribution of flavor, but will not be as clean as a lager yeast. The Safale US-05 (pink packet) will also give a minimal contribution to flavor, if the wort is not left on the yeast after fermentation completes; US-05 completes fermentation relatively quickly, ie within 3-5 days.

Virtually all lager yeasts work well with session beers. European Lager yeast is the author's favorite, tasting good, flocullating well, fermenting clean, and also being very reusable.


Here are some standard recipes that have yielded especially good results.

"Stormy Smoked Mild"

10 gallons:

  • 2 lbs smoked malt (Weyerman),
  • 2 oz Aromatic malt
  • 6 oz carafa II malt,
  • 2 oz Biscuit malt,
  • 1 lb 6 oz 60L Crystal malt
    Mash in bag for 1 hour at 150oF (5 gallons RO water)
    Add 6 gallons RO water.
    Bring to boil.
    Add: 5 lbs dry malt extract
    Add 1/2 oz First Gold hops 6.8% AA
    Add: 2 Tbsp yeast nutrient
    Boil for 55 minutes.
    At 55 minutes from end, add 1/4 oz First Gold hops.
    Boil 5 minutes.
    Chill, ferment per regular schedule.
    Use Budvar Lager yeast.

Say "hello" to 2010 mild lager

10 gallons

  • 4 oz Special 'B' malt
  • 4 oz Aromatic malt
  • 8 oz Biscuit malt
  • 1 lb 8 oz 60L Crystal malt
  • 1.5 lbs Marris Otter malt
    Mash in bag for 1 hr at 150oF (5 gallons RO water)
    Add 6 gallons RO water.
    Bring to boil. Add:
  • 7 lbs DME (dry malt extract)
  • 1 oz columbus boiling hops
  • 2 Tbsp yeast nutrient
    Boil 55 minutes,
  • 1 oz UK First Gold
  • 1 tsp irish moss
    Ferment with European Lager yeast.

"Unemployed Simple Mild"

10 gallons:

  • 1 lb gambronous pilsner malt
  • 1 lb 30-37 Crystal malt
  • 1 lb German Munich malt
    Mash in bag at 150 oF in 5 gallons RO water.
    Add 6 gallons RO water, then
  • 5 lbs DME
  • 1 lb Demerara sugar
    Bring to boil. Add
  • 1/4 oz UK First Gold hops
  • 2 Tbsp yeast nutrient
    Boil for 1 hr.
    Ferment with Safale US-05 dry ale yeast.

"Mild III"

This is a kit beer. By pre-measuring and grinding, and storing in 1-gallon ziplock bags, the brewday becomes very, very easy and quick especially if you are using pre-measured dry malt extract.

4 kits are produced, enough for (4 x 10 =) 40 gallons.

  • 1 lb chocolate malt
  • 3 lbs 60l crystal
  • 1/4 lb biscuit
  • 1/4 lb aromatic
  • 3/4/ lob 30-37 crystal
  • 4.5 lbs gambronous pilsner malt
    Use just 2.5 lbs of above per batch
    Use 1/4 oz Admiral whole hops for boiling 10-gallon batch
    Use 1/4 oz Admiral whole hops at end of boil.
    Ferment with Cry Havoc yeast.

Light Dry Stout

This is a very simple recipe.

  • 1/2 lbs roasted barley
  • 3 1/2 lbs english crisp or marris otter
    Mash at 140oF in grain bag with RO water
    Add 4.5 lbs DME,
    When boiling, add a small amt of whatever hops you have like 3 HBUs
    Boil 1 hour,
    Use a yeast that does not finish malty; use one that finishes quite dry.


Session beers, both lager and ales, hold an endless variety for brewing creativity. In addition, they are wholesome, not especially intoxicating beverages for good health and good conversation. They are a challenge to brew well, being more sensitive to any off-flavors. Brewing a good mild beer is especially gratifying.

Further Reading

Mild Ales, David Satula

This is a good introduction to Milds, and has a lot of interesting history.

David Satula Brewer's publications, a Division of the Association of Brewers, PO box 1679, Boulder, CO 80306-1679 (c) 1999 David Satula ISBN 0-937381-68-3

Designing Great Beers

This is one of my favorite brewing texts in my library.

The ultimate guide to brewing classic beer styles Ray Daniels Brewer's Publications, a division of the Association of Brewers, PO Box 1679, Boulder, CO 80306-1679 (c) 1996, 2000 Ray Daniels ISBN 0-937381-50-0 Pages 215-228 (Mild and Brown ales)

Zymurgy "A Toast to Session Beers"

This has a few articles about brewing session beers, with additional recipes.

Volume 32, No. 5; September/October 2009

About the author

Jay Stanley has been an active homebrewer since joining the Upstate New York Homebrewer's Association in 1985. Since then, he has held officer positions in the Upstate New York Homebrewers Association, as well as in the San Francisco San Andreas Malts homebrew club. Since 2002, he has been a member of the Redwood Coast Brewers Association (RCBA) out of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties in California, USA.

Jay has brewed hundreds of batches of beer, starting with a small stovetop system for doing malt-extract beers, continuing through to doing almost exclusively all-grain batches in a 10-gallon system. Currently, he brews almost weekly; most batches are malt-extract based, but he does do an all-grain batch around every 6 weeks or so. Jay also has created many meads, ciders and other fermented beverages. He loves to experiment, and has brewed virtually every style except some of the more exotic belgium guezes and naturally fermented styles, including using non-traditional ingredients like bananas, peaches, rosemary, sage, chrysamthimum flowers, cherry juice, pomegranite juice, cranberry juice, chocolate, mugwort, and virtually every malted grain and hop on the market.

Jay prefers not to enter beer contests, due to having been heavily involved organizing them for the San Andreas malts historically, and also because he does not require much feedback. Instead, he prefers to share his beverages in an informal setting with his friends, most often at monthly homebrew meetings of the RCBA.

Author: Jay Stanley <beansboy@yahoo.com>

Date: Saturday, April 17 2010

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